A few weeks ago I was part of an inspired dinner conversation where one of the guests told us that many Canadian engineers – like himself – wear an iron ring as a proud marker of their profession and reminder of their work’s ethics.
I had never heard of that. As I was digging more into this story, I realized that this is an incredibly powerful community ritual, with a rich history and the flavor of a long gone era.
- It originated in 1922 as an idea by a civil engineering Professor H. E. T. Haultain at University of Toronto. “He felt that an organization was needed to bind all members of the engineering profession in Canada more closely together. He also felt that an obligation or statement of ethics to which a young graduate in engineering could subscribe should be developed.”
- Haultain crafted a ritual with the help of English poet Rudyard Kipling (famous for writing the “Jungle Book”).
- At the core of the “Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer” is an iron ring which is given to graduating engineers in a ceremony by taking an ethical oath . The “ring symbolizes the pride which engineers have in their profession, while simultaneously reminding them of their humility. The ring serves as a reminder to the engineer and others of the engineer’s obligation to live by a high standard of professional conduct.” The ritual is also designed to have experienced engineers welcome the new graduates into the profession and support them on their journeys.
- The oath authored by Kipling emphasizes the responsibilities of an engineer, affirming their responsibility to “not henceforward suffer or pass, or be privy to the passing of, Bad Workmanship or Faulty Material.”
- The organization that administers these oaths – or “callings” – is known as the Corporation of the Seven Wardens, named in honor of the first seven presidents of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineers.
- The Iron Ring is worn on the little finger of the working hand. There, the facets act as a sharp reminder of one’s obligation while the engineer works, because it could drag on the writing surface while the engineer is drawing or writing. This is particularly true of recently obligated engineers, whose rings bear sharp, unworn, facets.
- Tradition asks that the rings are returned by retired engineers or by the families of deceased engineers.
- The myth persists that the initial batch of Iron Rings was made from the beams of the first Quebec Bridge, a bridge that collapsed during construction in 1907 due to poor planning and design by the overseeing engineers. However, the initial batch of Iron Rings was actually produced by World War I veterans at Christie Street Military Hospital in Toronto.
- The organization originally considered expanding the ritual to the United States. However, they later ruled against expansion, fearing a loss of control over the ritual. The oath was copyrighted in 1935, and the Corporation of the Seven Wardens formally incorporated in 1938.
- The ceremonies are private affairs with no publicity. Invitations to attend are extended to local engineering alumni and professional engineers by those who are scheduled to participate. However, engineers that have not undergone the ritual are not permitted to participate in it. “It is customary for those who have gone through it to not discuss the details of the Calling with others, even engineers from other countries”.