Those unfamiliar or uncomfortable with technology often misunderstand nature of the engineering profession. Any definition of engineering must be broad, since the field encompasses a large area of endeavor. Perhaps the most concise description is that provided by the United States' primary accreditation body for engineering programs, ABET, Inc.:
(Engineering is) the profession in which a knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences gained by study, experience and practice is applied with judgment to develop ways to utilize, economically and with concern for the environment and society, the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind.
The profession of engineering is grouped into specialized disciplines that have developed in response to societal needs. The earliest recognizable engineers were probably employed on military projects building roads and primitive engines and devices of war. When similar civilian projects were undertaken, the persons working in this area were identified as civil engineers. As time progressed, other engineering branches were formed in response to the technological advances of the day. A recognizable mechanical engineering discipline existed by the fifteenth century AD, an electrical engineering discipline by the eighteenth century, and a chemical engineering discipline by the nineteenth century. More specialized disciplines, including aeronautical, industrial, biomedical, computer, and petroleum engineering, developed throughout the twentieth century. Each of these disciplines is supported by professional societies and academic units in universities around the world. While engineering disciplines overlap somewhat, each has its own specific purposes and goals.
Mechanical engineering is considered by many to be the most broadly based of all engineering disciplines. Areas of specialization include:
- Applied mechanics
- Fluid mechanics
- Heat transfer
- Mechanical design
- Control systems
- Engines and power plants
- Pollution control
- Computer aided design
Along with diverse areas of specialization come a wide range of career paths. A mechanical engineer may work in the area of classical machine design conceiving and optimizing devices to perform any number of functions. He or she may also work as a computer analyst or experimentalist performing tasks that support the design process. Other functions may involve product development late in the design process, manufacturing support, customer field support, or even technical sales. Smaller companies may require engineers to function as generalists capable of performing a wide variety of tasks. In such cases the breadth, depth and rigor of their academic training stands mechanical engineers in good stead.
A significant portion of a mechanical engineering curriculum involves the study of mathematics, basic mechanics, thermal science, fluid mechanics fundamentals. This theory and the associated analysis skills are then put to practical use during a series of design-oriented classes that emphasize open-ended problems. In some programs, both theoretical and practical skills are developed and refined in cooperative internships. Computer use in mechanical engineering is pervasive, and there is a significant amount of laboratory experience. While an interest in "tinkering," or "working with tools" can be an asset to a mechanical engineering student, skills in mathematics, science and computer use are better predictors of ultimate success.
From a historical perspective, mechanical engineering is a noble profession, having provided a key component of the nineteenth century industrial revolution and its associated improvements in living standards and life expectancy. Society will look to new generations of mechanical engineers to help solve twenty-first century problems involving environmental protection, security, transportation, and energy supply. Despite much recent hyperbole about the oncoming "service economy," the wealth of nations rests on a bedrock ability to conceive, develop, produce and distribute tangible goods, a requirement that in itself could serve as a fine working definition of mechanical engineering.