Why Engineering is Purple


Some purple students at a Waterloo Engineering event (from engsoc.uwaterloo.ca)

Waterloo’s official colours are black, gold and white, but you might have noticed that Engineering’s brochures, websites and other material have a lot of purple.  Sometimes I’ve been asked why that is, or why we are using Wilfrid Laurier or Western University‘s colours.    The main explanation is that sometimes our students are purple, as illustrated in the picture, so why not use that as our theme colour?  But there are purple engineering students at other universities like Queen’s, so there is more too it than just that. There is a bit of a long explanation that can be given in more detail as follows.

Some years ago it was decided that the individual Faculties at Waterloo should differentiate themselves by colour.  This makes it quick and easy to pick up the right brochure, or identify people at large events by the colour of their t-shirt.  So, the Faculty of Environment is green,  Science is blue, Mathematics is pinkish/red, etc.  At the urging of our engineering students, we picked purple and there are specific reasons for that.

There is a bit of a tradition among  engineering students in Canada to use purple either as a colour for clothing or to dye their hair or skin.  So you’ll see engineering students at Queen’s University wearing purple, and as well as Toronto, Ottawa, Ryerson, McMaster, and possibly lots of other places too (I’m not sure if it’s everywhere, but it’s certainly widespread here in Ontario).

Why the association between purple and engineering in general?  There are various reasons and theories around on the internet that you can search for and read.  I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if there is no real reason, other than the fact that the purple dye (gentian violet or crystal violet) is readily available and possibly safe, (July 11 2019 edit:  Health Canada has recently indicated that gentian violet is associated with a potential cancer risk, as also indicated by the World Health Organization’s determination that there is no safe level in food.  I would strongly recommend against dyeing skin.)  and dyeing your hair or skin with it is fun to do (for some people).  However, there is one historical reason or rationale that I particularly like for its ethical features and I will outline here.

In a re-organization of the British Royal Navy around 1863, it was decided that officers in the various sections would have a coloured background between their gold braid rank insignia to help differentiate them (distinction cloth).  Surgeons had red, shipwrights sliver grey, and engineers had purple, for example.  The merchant navy (commercial shipping companies) tended to adopt the same type of insignia, as can be seen in the pictured modern example (it’s kind of hard to see, but the colour between the gold bars is purple for the Engineer Officer ranks).

The White Star Line was one of the merchant navy companies that adopted the insignia.  This company was also the owner of the RMS Titanic.  Everyone knows what happened to the Titanic, but some of the details surrounding the actions of the engineering crew are not so well known.  But they form the basis for why engineering students honour their memory by using purple, so let’s review them.

A ship like the Titanic required a large engineering crew to operate it, with multiple coal-fired steam boilers, steam engines, steam driven dynamos for generating electricity, propulsion drives and gears, and various other systems.  The Engine department had about 325 crew members, including about 24 (mechanical) engineers and 6 electrical engineers.  The rest of this department would include some tradesmen, and a lot of firemen (or stokers, for tending the coal fires in the furnaces under the boilers) and coal trimmers (for moving coal around to maintain the balance of the ship).  The engineer officers would supervise these men in the “black gang”, so-called because of the soot and coal dust that would hang in the air and cover them.

For the engineering crew, the first hint that something was going wrong possibly came when the bridge crew signaled “Stop” and then “Full speed astern” to the engine room on the ship’s telegraph (although the exact signals and timing is uncertain).  However, around the same time the crew felt the shock of the ship striking the iceberg.  Likely at this point all off-duty engineers would have been called to the engine room by an alarm system installed for situations where there were urgent mechanical problems.

The engineer and crew in the most forward boiler room (No. 6) immediately saw that the ship was taking on water at a tremendous rate (an estimated 7 tons per second).  To the crew below decks, it became clear fairly quickly that the ship was likely doomed to sink.

From Wikipedia.  Showing the bulkheads (vertical red lines), the engineering compartments (blue labels), and collision damage (green lines).

In spite of the dismal outlook, there were a number of tasks that needed to be immediately done by this crew.

  1. Rake the fires out of the furnaces and depressurize the forward boilers.  Since the engines were no longer running or needed, continuing to generate a lot of steam was unnecessary and dangerous.
  2. Start up and operate the steam-driven pumps.  Although there was too much water coming in for the pumps to handle, they would at least slow down the sinking a bit.
  3. Ensure that the electrical system kept operating.  People inside the ship needed to be able to see their way out through the halls, and the Marconi wireless operators needed to send their CQD distress code and location messages to aid in rescue. (They apparently also tried the new SOS code, which is now more familiar to most people.)

Most of the coal trimmers and some firemen were sent up to take their positions as lifeboat crew, and some survived the sinking.  The engineers and other engine crew stayed below for some time to do what they could.  How long the engineers stayed below, and what they did, will never really be known as none of them survived.  Presumably they did eventually abandon the boiler and engine rooms, but there weren’t enough lifeboats to take them and many passengers anyway.

So the colour purple, reminds us of our duty to do our best to protect life and property, making the best use of whatever resources we can find at hand, to solve the most immediate problems.  It should also be a reminder to anticipate, design, plan, and train for the worst, so that if the worst does happen the effects will be minimized.


Information cited above was gathered from a variety of sources, including:

Wikipedia article about the sinking

The engineers lost aboard Titanic

Debunking some myths

Full witness transcripts from the British and American inquiries

Titanic’s propulsion


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