The Burden of the Iron Ring

A typical Iron Ring.

As some people know, Canadian engineers usually choose to wear an Iron Ring, as illustrated in the picture, on the small finger of their “working” hand.  Actually, it’s now usually stainless steel, and so about 72% iron, 18% chromium, 8% nickel and some other elements.  It is originally a Canadian invention, so engineers in the U.S. and elsewhere are often unaware of it.  What is its significance?  Let’s start with what it is Not supposed to be about:

  • It is not a reward from the university for finishing an engineering program.
  • It is not a status symbol.
  • It is not a sign of belonging to some prestigious or secret society.
  • It is not an indicator of any competence or qualification.

So what is it all about?  First, consider its history…

By 1920, the “Quebec Bridge” had collapsed twice during construction (in 1907 and 1916) due to engineering errors and omissions, killing and injuring dozens of workers.  According to some history, Prof. Haultain of the University of Toronto, and others, decided that some way of inspiring new engineers to live by a high standard of professional conduct was desirable.  So the “Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer” was developed with the assistance of the British poet and author Rudyard Kipling.  As part of the ceremony, new graduates take an “obligation”, which among other things states that they won’t participate in poor engineering work.  The ring received at the ceremony is a constant reminder of that obligation throughout the days and years of an engineer’s career.

Like physicians, engineers have a “duty of care” to avoid harming others.  The difference is that incompetent and careless physicians typically only harm one person at a time.  Engineers (and other technical people) can harm dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of people through various errors and omissions in design and oversight.  The Iron Ring therefore should be a reminder of the burden engineers have chosen to carry for the safety and well-being of co-workers and the general public.

Unfortunately, past and recent history is full of engineering (and related) failures resulting in numerous deaths and injuries.  It’s easy to come up with a few examples just from the past few decades, including a chemical release at Bhopal, structural failures at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City and the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, explosions at the Texas City refinery and the Deepwater Horizon drill rig, materials failure in the Challenger space shuttle, and software errors in the Therac-25 radiation therapy machine.  I could probably go on all evening with more examples, but you get the point.  Note that these disastrous failures can occur in any of the engineering disciplines.

So, engineering graduates can and should wear their rings with pride in their profession, but also with a healthy dose of humility, with the ring reminding them that every decision or omission they make can have severe life-changing consequences.  That’s why I refer to the Iron Ring as a burden, and it’s one that engineers have willingly chosen to take on.

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