The concept of engineering has existed since ancient times as humans devised fundamental inventions such as the pulley, lever, and wheel. Each of these inventions is consistent with the modern definition of engineering, exploiting basic mechanical principles to develop useful tools and objects.
The term engineering itself has a much more recent etymology, deriving from the word engineer, which itself dates back to 1325, when an engine'er (literally, one who operates an engine) originally referred to "a constructor of military engines." In this context, now obsolete, an "engine" referred to a military machine, i. e., a mechanical contraption used in war (for example, a catapult). The word "engine" itself is of even older origin, ultimately deriving from the Latin ingenium (c. 1250), meaning "innate quality, especially mental power, hence a clever invention."
Later, as the design of civilian structures such as bridges and buildings matured as a technical discipline, the term civil engineering entered the lexicon as a way to distinguish between those specializing in the construction of such non-military projects and those involved in the older discipline of military engineering (the original meaning of the word "engineering," now largely obsolete, with notable exceptions that have survived to the present day such as military engineering corps, e. g., the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers).
The Acropolis and the Parthenon in Greece, the Roman Roman aqueducts, Via Appia and the Colosseum, the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, the Pharos of Alexandria, the pyramids in Egypt, Teotihuacán and the cities and pyramids of the Mayan, Inca and Aztec Empires, cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, the Great Wall of China, among many others, stand as a testament to the ingenuity and skill of the ancient civil and military engineers.
The earliest civil engineer known by name is Imhotep. As one of the officials of the Pharaoh, Djosèr, he probably designed and supervised the construction of the Pyramid of Djoser (a Step Pyramid) at Saqqara in Egypt around 2630-2611 BC. He may also have been responsible for the first known use of columns in architecture.
Ancient Greece developed machines, both in the civilian and military domains. The Antikythera mechanism, the earliest known model of a mechanical computer in history, and the mechanical inventions of Archimedes are examples of early mechanical engineering. Some of Archimedes' inventions, as well as the Antikythera mechanism, required sophisticated knowledge of differential gearing or epicyclic gearing, two key principles in machine theory that helped design the gear trains of the Industrial revolution and are still widely used today in diverse fields such as robotics and automotive engineering.
An Artuki by the name of Al-Jazari built five machines to pump water for the kings of the Turkish Artuqid dynasty and their palaces. Besides over 50 ingenious mechanical devices, Al-Jazari also developed and made innovations to segmental gears, mechanical controls, escapement mechanisms, clocks, robotics, and protocols for designing and manufacturing methods.
The first steam engine was built in 1698 by mechanical engineer Thomas Savery. The development of this device gave rise to the industrial revolution in the coming decades, allowing for the beginnings of mass production.
With the rise of engineering as a profession in the 18th century, the term became more narrowly applied to fields in which mathematics and science were applied to these ends. Similarly, in addition to military and civil engineering, the fields then known as the mechanic arts became incorporated into engineering.
The following images are samples from a deck of cards illustrating engineering instruments in England in 1702. They illustrate a range of engineering specializations, that would eventually become known as civil engineering, mechanical engineering, geodesy and geomatics, and so on.
Each card includes a caption explaining the purpose of the instrument:
The inventions of Thomas Savery and the Scottish engineer James Watt gave rise to modern Mechanical Engineering. The development of specialized machines and their maintenance tools during the industrial revolution led to the rapid growth of Mechanical Engineering both in its birthplace Britain and abroad.
The discipline of Electrical Engineering was shaped by the experiments of Alessandro Volta in the 19th century, the experiments of Michael Faraday, Georg Ohm and others and the invention of the electric motor in 1872. Electrical engineering became a profession late in the 19th century. Practitioners had created a global electric telegraph network and the first electrical engineering institutions to support the new discipline were founded in the UK and USA. Although it is impossible to precisely pinpoint a first electrical engineer, Francis Ronalds stands ahead of the field, who created the first working electric telegraph system in 1816 and documented his vision of how the world could be transformed by electricity.
The work of James Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz in the late 19th century gave rise to the field of Electronics. The later inventions of the vacuum tube and the transistor further accelerated the development of Electronics to such an extent that electrical and electronics engineers currently outnumber their colleagues of any other Engineering specialty.
Chemical Engineering, like its counterpart Mechanical Engineering, developed in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution. Industrial scale manufacturing demanded new materials and new processes and by 1880 the need for large scale production of chemicals was such that a new industry was created, dedicated to the development and large scale manufacturing of chemicals in new industrial plants. The role of the chemical engineer was the design of these chemical plants and processes.
Aeronautical Engineering deals with aircraft design while Aerospace Engineering is a more modern term that expands the reach envelope of the discipline by including spacecraft design. Its origins can be traced back to the aviation pioneers around the turn of the 20th century although the work of Sir George Cayley has recently been dated as being from the last decade of the 18th century. Early knowledge of aeronautical engineering was largely empirical with some concepts and skills imported from other branches of engineering. Only a decade after the successful flights by the Wright brothers, the 1920s saw extensive development of aeronautical engineering through development of World War I military aircraft. Meanwhile, research to provide fundamental background science continued by combining theoretical physics with experiments.
The first PhD in engineering (technically, applied science and engineering) awarded in the United States went to Willard Gibbs at Yale University in 1863; it was also the second PhD awarded in science in the U.S.