Engineers from Canada can be readily spotted by the presence of an iron or stainless steel ring on the pinky finger of the working hand. The iron ring is intended as a symbol of humility, and is presented in a ceremony called The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, written by Rudyard Kipling for Toronto engineers in 1922. The ceremony is not secret, although many believe it to be. The iron ring has since spread to the United States and other countries.

An urban legend associated with the iron ring is that the first rings were made from the wreckage of the failed Quebec Bridge construction project in 1907. In that case, 75 people were killed. A replacement project in 1913 also failed and 13 workers were killed. While it is unlikely that the original metal came from the bridge, it can be certain that the event figured prominently in the memory of engineers of the day.
They do it slightly differently here in the States in terms of naming the ceremony and society. While I won't give the ritual details, I will tell you the reason:

Engineers, moreso than just about any other profession, have the ability to create massive death. We take science and apply it -- and if we let ourselves get lazy or get persuaded to cut corners, well... mattbw tells you about one bridge, and there are others.

The idea is that engineers should remember that, in the end, they serve humanity, not corporations. Unfortunately, the ritual/Order of the Engineer is not universal, not mandatory (just like being a Professional Engineer) and in the current climate, not cool.

What does the Iron Ring mean to me?

 

Before university, I had no idea what an "iron ring" was. If someone had asked me what I thought it was, I'd have said it was just a ring made of iron. It wasn't until I entered my first year that I heard of it in the context of engineering. It was an intriguing idea; the thought of getting to be a part of this select group of people had some allure to it.

That said, it was something that was mostly just in the back of our minds; none of us really had the time to actively think about it.  However, we would be reminded of it during the time leading up to March (which is typically when the ceremony is held) thanks to a "Countdown to FeO" shown on a LCD screen in one of the engineering buildings - Fe being the symbol for Iron in the Periodic Table of Elements and O to represent the ring (and not Oxygen, although there's probably an oxidization play on words, or rather play on symbols, embedded in there somewhere).

I blinked, and found myself in my fourth year. The time had finally come. All the hours spent doing assignments, freaking out over midterms and exams worth over 80% of the final grade, code not working and then consequently working in ways that made no sense; everything culminated to this point. As the days crept closer and closer, the motivation to study and complete our assignments got lower and lower, and the anxiety and excitement of finally getting our rings got higher and higher. The need to have our $40,000 beer bottle opener in hand was never greater.

The ceremony, I must say, was one of the most underwhelming experiences of my life. All the buildup for four (or five if one did a co-op term) years was for this? It was downright boring! I even caught my mind starting to wander. However, I wouldn't say it was a complete waste of time. I did take away one very important and subtle point. The ring is a symbol of an engineer's moral obligation associated with the profession; it is not an oath, rather a reminder that what we do can have major consequences, and that we have an obligation, to ourselves and to others, to always have that point in mind.

Some of us wear the ring, some don't. Those who don't may do so for different reasons although for the most part it seems to fall into two categories: because their job isn't related to engineering, or because it's a pinky ring which they would rather not wear. I had one friend tell me I shouldn't wear it, and upon asking why, she responded with "It's ugly".

Why do those who wear the the ring continue to do so? I can't speak for others, but I can speak for myself. My standard response to those who ask about the ring is, "I went through way too much shit in university for me to not wear it". It is somewhat of a joke and not entirely to be taken seriously. In truth, there is of course the reason stated above - a reminder of my obligation to my profession. However, I thought about this and realized there's a bit more to it than that.

When I look at my ring, I look back at all the time spent in school, time spent with friends, time spent goofing off, arguing, studying, working, struggling together, rising together. I look back at all the good times, all the bad times, every bug caused by that one bloody missing semicolon, every question we got wrong, every test we aced, every presentation we did, every design document we wrote. When I look at my ring, I look back at five years of my life that made me who I am today.

 

So what does the Iron Ring mean to me? It is my link to the past. It is a reminder that I did not get to where I am on my own. And it is something that I hope will continue to keep me grounded as I move forward in my career. It may be an ugly pinky ring, but it is my ugly pinky ring.

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