In This Issue
Summer Bridge on Noise Control Engineering
June 15, 2021 Volume 51 Issue 2
What is the role of engineering practice, education, and standards in mitigating human-generated noise? The articles in this issue survey these aspects of the US noise landscape, and offer updates and useful resources.

Invisible Bridges: Hail CESER

Friday, June 11, 2021

Author: David A. Butler

The November 1892 meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers was held in New York City in the cold and snowy days following Thanksgiving. There was prosaic fare like the report from a committee on flange standardization and a talk on the experimental determination of the heat generated by oil and gas lamps.[1] However, the meeting also featured sessions that would prove to be more consequential, including a detailed description of the construction and operation of a programmable “difference engine” derived from Charles Babbage’s work and “Topical Discussions and Interchange of Data.”

One of these “topical discussions” posed a simple—but what now seems like a perennial—question that, given the extended account of it, must have been much on the minds of the participants: “How can the present status of the engineering profession be improved?”

At the time the field of engineering was in its adolescence in the United States. Its first formal under­graduate programs (with the exception of a long-standing military engineering major at West Point) had only been recently established and there was controversy about whether non-college-educated persons should be able to call themselves “engineers.” Practitioners wanted to be recognized as professionals in the same way as those in other learned fields were, and were trying to figure out how to achieve that goal.

To that end, the leader of the discussion—Holbrook Fitz-John Porter, assistant chief mechanical engineer of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago—proposed that engineers borrow from more established professions and emulate their operating principles. Approaches were put forward and debated, and among these were a set of principles articulated by Robert ­Henry Thurston of Cornell University. He argued that, while education and practical experience were both important, “character…is the final touchstone by which the profession, like its individual members, will be judged” and that a “well-established and well-sustained professional ethic” was necessary to advance the status of the field’s practitioners.

Porter concluded the colloquy by suggesting that a joint committee representing the engineering professions be established and that its duties include the development of a uniform code of ethics. Scholars point to this as the first instance in which US engineers identified the desirability of having such a code.[2]

It would, however, take 3 decades before that proposal came to fruition. This was documented in the May 1922 issue of the Annals of the American Academy of ­Political and Social Science, entitled “The Ethics of the Professions and of Business.”[3] The volume included monographs on the ethical codes of medical practitioners, lawyers, accountants, journalists, ministers, teachers—and a section comprising seven papers devoted to “The Ethical Codes of the Engineers.” The culminating paper of that section, “A Proposed Code of Ethics for All Engineers,” was authored by Alexander Graham Christie, a Johns Hopkins University mechanical engineering professor and chair of the Joint Committee on Ethics of American Engineering Societies. Christie observed that

The public knows that doctors and lawyers are bound to abide by certain recognized rules of conduct. Not finding the same character of obligations imposed upon engineers, people have failed to recognize them as members of a profession.[4]

He recounted the history of attempts to establish such codes, pointing out that while various societies had put them forward, lack of consistency among them had resulted in circumstances where conduct “forbidden in one code might be tolerated in another”—the very issue that had led to Porter’s 30-years-distant recommendation to create a uniform set of standards.

The joint committee’s solution to this conundrum, Christie reported, was to try to define the overarching principles that would inform all engineers’ conduct, regardless of their discipline. The resulting ten precepts called for engineers to practice “in a spirit of fairness to employees and contractors [and with] fidelity to clients and employers” and to avoid engaging in conflicts of interest, misleading customers, associating with disreputable persons, or using dishonorable means to compete for work. The tenth and final precept, however, moved beyond these more business conduct–related concerns, stating (in the sexist language of that era):

He will interest himself in the public welfare, in behalf of which he will be ready to apply his special knowledge, skill, and training for the use and benefit of mankind.

This is a remarkable statement not just for its time but for any time. It has no direct relationship with the other precepts—with practitioners’ knowledge or skills, with the diligence and integrity they bring to their work, or with the duty they owe to their employer, client, or fellows. It instead has to do with the engineer’s place in the world. It submits that the ethical practice of engineering is more than just the successful accomplishment of one’s task: the ethical engineer must consider whether the end product meets the greater needs of society.

Other contributors to this journal section had laid the groundwork for this proposal. Carl Hering contended that the dedication to public service sprang from the nature of an engineer’s work:

As the progress of the world, the comforts of man, and his ability to produce are so very largely due to the work of the engineer, his work is of the very greatest importance; he therefore naturally interests himself also in the public welfare.[5]

According to Calvin Rice, this interest also reflected the shared, terrible experience the country had been through:

The War brought home to us all the essential principle of the obligation of the engineer to society.[6]

The ethical practice of engineering is more than just the successful accomplishment of one’s task: the ethical engineer must consider whether the end product meets the greater needs of society.

The break with earlier codes and with those of other professions was also explicit, as contributors asserted that:

Up to within a few years all engineering codes in this country were modelled after the code of the British Institution of Civil Engineers. The remarkable fact about this code and those which grew out of it was the failure to mention the public interest as a test, if not the supreme test, of action.[7]

A code of ethics is naturally a different matter for one who deals with the application of nature’s laws of matter and energy for the benefit of mankind, than for one who deals merely with getting the largest number of dollars.[8]

In the end, it was journal contributor Morris Llewellyn Cooke who put it most plainly:

The ultimate goal here is the flatfooted declaration that good engineering must be in the public interest and, contrariwise, that any engineering which is anti-social must be bad engineering.[9]

It would take more years, and undoubtedly more arguments, before the journal authors’ observations and joint committee’s precepts would make it into codes of conduct for the many engineering societies, but they were in the end largely adopted. Elements of them can be seen today in declarations like the World Federation of Engineering Organizations’ Model Code of Ethics, which calls on professional engineers, in the course of their engineering practice, to (among other things)

  • “Practise so as to enhance the quality of life in society.”
  • “Create and implement engineering solutions for a sustainable future.”
  • “Be mindful of the economic, societal and environmental consequences of actions or projects.”
  • “Promote and protect the health, safety and well being of the community and the environment.”[10]

The National Academy of Engineering actively supports these and other tenets of the socially responsible practice of engineering. The recently established program on Cultural, Ethical, Social, and Environmental Responsibility in Engineering (CESER) aims to (i) expand understanding of how these realms affect and are affected by the practice of engineering and (ii) promote their inclusion through engagement with engineers, educators, industry leaders, professional ­societies, governmental entities, and the public.

Cultural, ethical, social, and environmental considerations are not often listed among the elements that define the engineering practice. Yet they are essential to the well-informed design and implementation of new infrastructure, technologies, and products, and part and parcel of a systems approach to solving complex problems.

The perspectives articulated more than 125 years ago remain just as relevant today. Far from being a recent interest, ethical and social concerns have long been considered integral to what it means to be an engineer.

Inspired by the name of this quarterly, this column reflects on the practices and uses of engineering and its influences as a cultural enterprise.


[1]  The following accounts of the meeting are based on the Transactions of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, vol XIV (1893).

[2]  Layton ET. 1986. The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 45–46.

[3]  King CL, ed. 1922. The Ethics of the Professions and of Business. Philadelphia: American Academy of Political and Social Science.

[4]  This and the following quotations are from Christie AG. 1922. A proposed code of ethics for all engineers. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 101(1):97–104.

[5]  Hering C. 1922. Ethics of the electrical engineer. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 101(1):86–89. p. 89

[6]  Rice CW. 1922. The ethics of the mechanical engineer. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 101(1):72–76. p. 73

[7]  Cooke ML. 1922. Ethics and the engineering profession. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 101(1):68–72. p. 69

[8]  Hering, p. 89

[9]  Cooke, p. 70



About the Author:David A. Butler is the J. Herbert Hollomon Scholar and ­director of the NAE program on Cultural, Ethical, Social, and Environmental Responsibility in Engineering (CESER).