Seventy Five Years of Publishing and the Birth of Design Engineering

Nov. 18, 2004
I know of no book that chronicles the origins of design engineering.

Seventy five years of publishing and the birth of design engineering

The history of its development and evolution is almost entirely oral. I learned the story, at least one version of it, only because I happened to know somebody who years ago once knew somebody who a long time ago worked for somebody who was there when design engineering was first recognized as a distinct profession.

Manufacturing industries began to take shape in a big way in the second half of the nineteenth century. Major industries at that time often were created from the genius of table-top inventors and tinkerers. Names like Edison, McCormick, and Bell come to mind, to be joined later by the likes of Ford, Firestone, Marconi, and the Wright Brothers. This age saw the introduction of railroads, steamships, agricultural machinery, electrical power generation, massproduced automobiles, and airplanes.

Early inventors usually had laboratory assistants who turned sketches or mere verbal instructions into practical hardware. As a company grew and parts had to be defined by engineering drawings so they could be made in factories, draftsmen replaced lab assistants as the people who defined the configuration of products and component parts. As draftsmen did more and more of the detailing , they were also increasingly asked to use their own initiative in determining the form of the product, and that is how the function of design engineering emerged.

Did anybody ring a bell when design engineering emerged as a profession? Well, in a sense, they did. As late as the 1920s, draftsmen and designers were closely associated with machinists. In fact, the magazines read by designers and draftsmen were the ones published for machinists. Machinist publications of the era contain a lot of information on design and drafting.

Then two separate publishing companies more or less simultaneously rang a bell, so to speak, and each introduced a magazine aimed directly and solely at design engineers. They were the first to recognize design engineering as a distinct job junction apart from machining and manufacturing. One of these publications was MACHINE DESIGN, which has been published continuously since 1929. The other publication is no longer in existence.

Universities at the time recognized engineering as an academic course of study. But engineering courses tended to be slanted toward such endeavors as mining, surveying, bridge and highway construction, metallurgy, welding, machining, foundry practice, and chemistry. These were the glamorous growth industries of their day. Aside from the first principles of mathematics, physics, and applied mechanics, design knowledge specific to manufacturing industries was something that has to be picked up on the job.

In the mechanical-engineering curriculum, however, there was usually a course that covered most of the important aspects of design engineering. It included a bit of stress analysis, kinematics, bearing technology, mechanisms, gear design, and fastener applications. The course was called machine design, and it was from this academic subject that our magazine got its name. Machine Design enlarged the scope of the course, however, by also covering electric motors and controls, which are often at the heart of a manufactured product.

Interestingly, the link from engineering first principles to workaday engineering in industry is still something that, for the most part, is learned on the job. Product design remains too industryspecific to be taught at the university level in a meaningful way.

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