National Engineering Month – The story behind “The Iron Ring”

Although Covid-19 dominates our news channels, many of us may have forgotten that March is also National Engineering Month. With all of the havoc this pandemic is playing in our daily lives, perhaps a small distraction is what we need right now... So have you heard of the origin story of the Iron Ring?

Celebrating a profession encircled in tradition

Engineering is regarded as a profession of high standards and moral obligations. One unique feature observed by Canadian-based engineers is the wearing of an “Iron Ring”. If you work with, or know, a Canadian-trained engineer, you may have spotted a simple circlet of iron on the pinky of their dominant hand.

Despite the Iron Ring’s diminutive size, the ring is a constant reminder of the ringbearer’s professional obligation and the personal cost when a job is not done well.

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The story behind “The Iron Ring”

The tradition of ‘The Iron Ring’ begin in the year 1922 after a group of Montréal-based engineers met to consider implementing a code of ethics, and a vehicle to provide guidance to new professionals. Some say this was in response to the tragic collapse of the Quebec Bridge that crossed the lower Saint Lawrence River between Sainte-Foy and Lévis, Quebec.

The bridge collapsed twice (1907 and 1916) and took 88 lives. It is believed to have fallen as a result of engineering flaws. The metal used to construct the traditional Iron Ring was said to come from the iron beams of this bride debris. Designed in the 1920s, the Iron Ring is believed to be a symbolic of the great responsibility that new engineers held in their hands – literally.

The ‘Ring’ Ceremony

The Canadian engineering Iron Ring is conferred to engineers in a ring-giving ceremony. This exclusive, by invitation-only event is named as “the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer”.

Only participating engineers and the local engineering alumni are usually invited to “the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer” and it is steeped in ritual and secrecy. The inaugural ceremony of the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer was held on 25 April 1925, at the University Club of Montreal. The ceremony itself and the conferring of the Iron Ring is still administered by The Corporation of the Seven Wardens Inc. (Société des Sept Gardiens inc. through camps) who are associated with the universities granting engineering degrees across Canada. Camps are the individual engineering communities throughout the country.

The Beginning

The origin of this ritual can be traced back to Professor H. E. T. Haultain of the University of Toronto who persuaded members of the Engineering Institute of Canada that there was a need for an official ceremony and establishing a standard of ethics for graduating engineers. His idea was made into a reality with the help of author Sir Rudyard Kipling who wrote the ritual and well as the Obligation.

To get ready for the ceremony, engineers need to excel academically, but also need to follow some pre-defined social rules. This includes accepting responsibility to welcome and support newer engineers, stay generally conscious of the responsibilities associated with their profession and adhere to the Obligation (code of ethics). It also insists on absolute secrecy of the actual ritual details.

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The Iron Ring is only conferred to those Canadian-trained engineers who have gone through the ceremony. But it alone doesn’t certify a person as a professional engineer. One needs to register with a relevant professional organization along with pertinent testing and practical experience.

National & International Recognition

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of ‘the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer domestic-rate stamp’ was issued on April 25, 2000 in Canada. The design of this stamp incorporates the Iron Ring which essentially symbolizes the pride that engineers have in their profession. It is also a reminder of an engineer’s obligation to live and maintain a high standard of professional conduct.

The Iron Ring  tradition has now expanded beyond Canadian borders to the United States. As part of the US ritual, each participant is conferred to the Order of the Engineer, founded in 1970. The American Ring is smooth and does not have facets like the Canadian version.