A Brief History Of Modern Mechanical Engineering
In its earliest forms and most straightforward machines, mechanical engineering can be dated back to the 5th millennium BC in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) with the invention of the wheel and axle. Since then, mechanical engineering has sprouted into a field that contains within its confines the production and design of automobiles, aerospace technology, biotechnology, computers, electronics, microelectromechanical systems, energy conversion, robotics and automation, and manufacturing equipment.
From its humble beginnings, mechanical engineering has branched out into a field that seeps into nearly all aspects of modern life. But how did mechanical engineering make the jump from the wheel to modern technology? And what were the factors driving the demand for this skill?
James Watt “The Father Of Mechanical Engineering” & The First Industrial Revolution
Possibly one of the most influential figures in the history of mechanical engineering, James Watt, is often referred to as either “The father of mechanical engineering” or “the father of the industrial revolution.” While Mechanical engineering had been around for millennia before Watt was even born, what people refer to as “modern” mechanical engineering began with Watt…and a teakettle. As the story goes, Watt was watching a kettle as it came to boil and took an interest in how the pressure from the steam caused the lid of the kettle to move, illustrating the power of steam. While this story is told in many forms, Watt did not invent the steam engine. Watt did, however, improve upon Thomas Newcomen’s designs when he designed his version of the steam engine in 1776. Watt realized that contemporary steam engines wasted a lot of energy because they repeatedly cooled and reheated the cylinder. The steam engine that Watt designed had a separate condenser that avoided this unnecessary waste and radically improved the steam engine’s power, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency. Watt eventually adapted his engine to produce rotary motion, which significantly broadened its use beyond pumping water.
Watt’s steam engine gave way to models of transportation that included steam locomotives and self-propelled boats. This innovation quickly led to the growing network of train tracks and canals. Not long after, the invention of the automobile also fueled the growing demand for mechanical engineers, especially as the auto industry started and continued developing the new technology.
Henry Ford & The Second Industrial Revolution
Unlike the first industrial revolution, which began in Great Britain and revolved around steam-power, the second industrial revolution started in the United States. It would produce innovations in electric power, steel, automobiles, and aircraft. The second industrial revolution would also lead to technological innovations being owned by large corporations. While Karl Benz is credited with building the first practical automobile, it wasn’t until Henry Ford came along that the automobile would become popular and affordable. Ford launched his Model T in 1908, producing just 11 automobiles in the first month. 2 years later, in 1910, Ford produced 10,000. In 1914, the year The Great War broke out, Ford produced 250,000 Model T’s, and in 1916 he sold nearly 500,000 for half the price they had been in 1914. Then, in 1927, Ford produced a whopping 15 million cars alongside tractors and other machinery.
These large numbers highlight Ford’s model of Mass Production. Because the auto industry was scaling up, that meant the infrastructure of roads, gas stations, and mechanic shops also needed to be scaled up. With their newfound mobility, people who lived in cities began venturing out into nature, which led to the government protecting areas like national parks from development. This also led to research into how to manage forest land and influenced the relatively new field of ecology. Due to Ford’s success, other automobile company’s began to replicate his style of production, and by the middle of the century, only three companies remained– Ford, GM, and Chrystler. It was around this time, in 1907, that Wyoming became the first state to license engineers professionally.
The First & Second World Wars
Though mechanical engineering can trace its roots to transportation and power-producing machines, after the advent of the industrial revolution, it becomes more difficult to separate mechanical engineering from the military-industrial complex, especially after the first and second world wars. Both wars added greatly to the demand for mechanical engineers. However, during WW2 specifically, mechanical engineers contributed to designing and improving fighter jets, airplanes, tanks, armored vehicles, and more. The first computers, which were developed during this period, were also designed by mechanical engineers working with electronics. During this period, mechanical engineers were also responsible for designing and developing the jet engine and the space rocket.
The Rise Of Telecommunication & The Third Industrial Revolution
With the end of the second world war, the third industrial revolution began to appear on the horizon. While the first two industrial revolutions are both centered around power, the third would be a revolution centered on information. Because the world was experiencing a relatively peaceful time, education and science began to develop quickly worldwide. The advances in telecommunications during this period would lead to the creation of the internet and the advent of globalization, creating a world market. Information could now be shared almost instantly, further driving the scientific discoveries and the engineering feats of the post-world war two era.
The field of mechanical engineering would branch off and give birth to aerospace technology, biotechnology, and more. Today, mechanical engineering remains a field as ubiquitous as it is needed. While there has been a shift towards software and electronics brought about by the third industrial revolution, mechanical engineering and the engineers that dedicate their lives to it are responsible for many of the technological marvels used in the world today.