May 7, 2014 | 2
One of my good friends is an engineer trained in Canada. I had noticed over the years that she always wears a plain silver ring on her pinky, but I never asked if it had any special meaning to her. Recently I learned that it’s her Iron Ring, something worn by all Canadian engineers on the pinky finger of their working hand to remind them of their responsibility to the public. When they write or draw, the ring hits the surface of the paper and the facets provide a “sharp reminder” of engineering ethics and the engineer’s obligation to make things that are useful and safe. Legend has it that the metal used to make the rings comes from the beams of the Quebec Bridge, which collapsed in the early 20th century as a result of shoddy engineering. The ring and the ring-giving ceremony were designed in the 1920s to prevent such disasters in the future.
The ceremony conferring the Iron Ring to graduates of university engineering programs is “not secretive, but modestly discreet,” and my friend didn’t give me many details since participants are asked not to discuss the ceremony with others. Called the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, the ceremony was created by Rudyard Kipling and is overseen by the Corporation of the Seven Wardens. This article from the Canadian University Press gives some more information about the ceremony and its symbolism:
A chain is wound around all the pews where the new grads sit waiting for the ritual to begin. Mentors, who will later bestow the iron rings, sit on outer pews, and the seven wardens presiding over the ritual sit at a long table at the front of the sanctuary. A new altar is at the head of the church featuring a hammer and anvil. They are used to tap out a message in Morse code to start the ritual. “It’s three letters: S – S – T. It stands for steel, stone and time or soul, spirit and time,” Paknys [engineering professor at Concordia University] explained. A rivet from the Quebec Bridge — the two-time provincial disaster widely-rumoured to have triggered the iron ring tradition — is chained to the hammer.
I love everything about this story: the weird mystical ceremony, the sense of community that the ring creates, Canadian engineers’ sense of obligation to the public good, and the way that such a simple symbol helps make ethics a daily part of an engineer’s life and work. But there’s also something very quaint and old-fashioned about the whole thing, not the least of which being that engineers are rarely doing their work with paper and pen these days. What might an updated symbol for today’s (Canadian and non-Canadian) engineers look like? How much does/could such a symbol change the technologies that engineers build?