The ring is to be worn on the pinkie, its sharp barbs meant possibly to irritate the wearer slightly – a constant reminder of its presence and its symbolic meaning. The piece is neither presumptuous nor ornate – the original material being iron (which rusted), and most current versions being made of stainless steel for practicality. The twelve half-circle facets cut into the top and bottom are staggered, emulating a hand-tooled look. Every aspect of the ring’s design is meant to make it utilitarian – devoid of any aesthetic value that might move it into the realm of fashion, kitsch, or fad. The ring is a reminder, not a piece of jewelry.
The Iron Ring is worn by graduates (and about-to-be graduates) from certain Canadian engineering schools. The organization administering the issuance of Iron Rings, the Corporation of the Seven Wardens, was founded in 1922 by seven past presidents of the Engineering Institute of Canada. Professor Herbert Haultain, speaking at a meeting in Montreal, suggested that an institution should be established to bind members of the engineering profession together and that a statement of ethics (now called an “obligation”) should be developed. He proposed that graduating engineering students could be indoctrinated into this organization and should ascribe to the statement of ethics – reminding them of the social responsibilities born by those in the engineering profession.
The group contacted Rudyard Kipling to develop an induction ceremony – now known as “The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer.” The first obligation ceremony was held in 1925 in Toronto, Canada. For the eight decades since, Canadian engineering students have participated in these rituals and worn Iron Rings as reminders that we, as engineers, have a professional obligation to society to perform our work with the utmost care and professionalism.
Tradition calls for the ring to be surrendered back to the issuing body (a “camp”) upon retirement or death. While this is not often practiced, the suggestion is another reminder that the ring is a symbol of an obligation and not an award or certification of ability. In fact, there is no requirement that one be a certified engineer in order to wear the Iron Ring – only that one undergo the Calling ceremony.
Other countries and other societies (such as the US-based “Order of the Engineer” – established in 1972) have followed the lead of the Canadians and created similar processes for indoctrinating engineers into the practice and striving to endow them with a sense of the social responsibilities of their profession.
It is interesting that the statement of ethics was termed an “obligation” rather than an oath (which has a religious element – making a promise before a deity) or an affirmation (making of a solemn promise without a religious element). It is widely accepted that those in the medical profession take oaths – the Hippocratic Oath has probably been with us since the 4th century BC. Many other public service professions require or expect their practitioners to take oaths as well.
The process of taking an oath, making an affirmation, or taking an obligation seems worthy for those whose professional practice can have a severe impact on the well-being of either individuals or society. When we visit a medical practitioner, for example, most of us assume (and perhaps take some comfort from the knowledge) that the professional whose services we are seeking has made a vow that we at least understand as “First, do no harm” (which isn’t, by the way, taken from the Hippocratic Oath).
If we consider the fact that a single engineer could either solve an important problem or make a professional error with social consequences far greater than those of any physician committing miracles or malpractice, it seems only reasonable that our profession should have some framework for expression of a commitment to the well-being of society. The Canadian Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer and its imitators in other countries certainly are a step in that direction.
There are, of course, controversial issues and detractors from the Iron Ring and the obligation ceremony. Just as many provisions of the original Hippocratic Oath have not weathered the transition to modern society (most modern doctors apparently do not fancy swearing by Apollo, Asclepius, Hygieiea and Panacea, promising to look upon the children of their medical teachers as their own, or swearing never to teach medical principles to other people), so apparently have the early 20th-century thoughts of Rudyard Kipling suffered some under the erosion of time and society. While the exact text of the obligation ceremony is not made public, it is said to contain specific Judeo-Christian principles that do not easily adapt to other belief systems. Traditions surrounding the ritual have also been criticized for being outdated and misogynistic. Also, the secretive nature of the ceremony and obligation itself do not lend themselves well to a commitment to society. The Hippocratic Oath, for example, is public and has been known for over two thousand years. The lack of public disclosure of the obligation creates more an air of secret society than public promise.
It is important to realize that the taking of an oath or the act of subscribing to an obligation are not the same as being certified to possess a certain level of skill or qualification. Indeed the bestowing of an academic degree or the certification by a licensing body are demonstrations by others endorsing the skill of the professional. The taking of an oath or obligation, on the other hand, is a statement by the professional about his or her intent to practice with a certain set of ethical and professional standards.
In our common area of electronic engineering, the deviation from this kind of practice has increased dramatically in the past two decades. With the high-tech explosion, the demand for electronics engineers (or people with electronic engineering training) became so intense that most graduates from engineering school went directly into corporate employment without bothering to go through certification as professional engineers. Furthermore, in modern embedded systems, the marriage of electrical engineering and computer science creates a direct meeting of the classical “engineering” discipline with Computer Science, a curriculum that, in many colleges, is considered a “bachelor of arts”. We have, therefore, a large population of people practicing engineering and in engineering-like roles that have not undergone a common standard curriculum, certification, or obligation. It is largely up to us as individuals to set and enforce our own professional and ethical standards.
Regardless of our individual views on the rituals, traditions, and organizations behind institutions like the Iron Ring, it pays to pause and consider our responsibilities as engineers. We are far more than the kids who excelled at math and science in school. In large measure, we are society’s problem solvers – perhaps more than even physicians, politicians, and attorneys combined, for we create the very environment and infrastructure by which society lives, seeks protection from the elements, communicates, and moves about. Doing that work with to the highest possible ethical standard is a noble pursuit indeed.