1894 Fredericton Encaenia

Address in Praise of Founders

Delivered by: Dixon, Stephen


"Prof. Dixon's Address on Behalf of the Faculty" The University Monthly XIII, 8 (1894): 108-112. (UA Case 71) 

On referring to the records of the University of N.B., we can see that the founders were not unmindful of providing technical teaching, for we find that when the act to establish the university was drawn up in 1857 the committee recommended amongst other special courses one in civil engineering and surveying. We thus see that those who had care of education in this province even then were in favour of providing instruction in scientific and technical subjects. If we turn our attention for a moment to Great Britain and Ireland we shall find that in those countries very little progress had at that time been made in providing scientific training for engineers. The first schools of engineering established in England were those of Durham and Kings college, London, in 1838, and three years later was established the first in Ireland, at Dublin university.

The need for special training for engineers had been recognized long before that time in the continental states of Europe, probably for the reason that in many of these states the great engineering works were organized and carried out directly by the governments; and so we find that the engineers in charge of the great drainage works in Holland and the mining industries of France had always gone through a course of training at a school of science. In England the first great engineering works were railways, and once the rage for investments in these enterprises had taken hold of the people they were only too ready to subscribe their money for any project, never recognizing that the whole success of such schemes depends on whether  they are properly engineered or not, nor the consequent necessity of having engineers who would be competent to see that the funds were expended to the best advantage, the final result being that on all the millions sterling invested in English railways the average dividend is only 4 per cent., although the rates for passengers and freight are not low. When England began to wake to the necessity of some scientific education for engineers we find that the Royal College of Engineering at Cooper's Hill was established, from the graduates of which the civil engineers who are employed by the British governments in India are exclusively chosen.

This selection of engineers to be employed on works constructed by public money from those who have received a thorough training at a scientific school is an example that might well be followed in our own country. Surely these are good reasons why governments, both federal and provincial, should be interested in technical education, and especially in that needed for the civil engineer. In no country in the world is public money so lavishly expended on engineering enterprise as in Canada, and it would be only reasonable for the people who pay this money to know that those who were employed to spend it were capable of doing so to the best interests of the country. Of course we were frequently met by objectors, who in opposing scientific education point out that some graduates of technical colleges have made lamentable mistakes as engineers, and that the great pioneers of engineering in England--Watt, Smeaton, Stephenson and others--rose to the eminence in their profession without having been trained in such scientific schools. Such objections as these would hold with equal force against the other professional schools of divinity, law and medicine; and we must also remember that in the days of Stephenson engineering was in its infancy, and so great has been the advances, and the works undertaken are on such a much larger scale now than formerly that the methods adopted then for over-coming difficulties could not be tolerated as good practice now, even if they would not be utterly useless. If we examine the great Britannia Tubular bridge we find evidence of the ignorance of England's great engineers of that day with regard to the use of the mathematical investigation of the trusses in the various parts of a girder; for we feel here that it was intended to give additional support to the girder by means of chains, if after the bridge was constructed it was not found safe, showing that engineers at that time in England understood how little they know, and sought to supplement their scanty knowledge with prudence. It would be useless to hope, moreover, that we should ever be able to find as many ready-made engineers as we need for the numerous enterprises now going on; men who would know by intuition whether a structure were sound and economical, or the reverse. Even though such men may have existed we may feel confident that they would have been benefitted by a scientific training, for Bacon's saying that natural abilities like natural plants need pruning by study is especially true concerning those who enter the engineering profession. As regards the fact that some graduates of engineering schools fail to make good engineers, we might remember the fact that many unsuccessful physicians have been students in medical schools, and yet on account of their failures we would not attempt to draw conclusions about the inefficiency of such schools in general. It is necessary also to take into consideration the fact that if engineering is in its growth, as regards its application to practice, engineering education is, as was pointed out, even younger, and we can hardly expect the best results have yet been obtained by the methods adopted, mainly merely tentatively. And as against the few failures we have the result testified by all engineers of any experience that students trained in scientific schools will make more easy and rapid progress in the details of field and office work than those who have not had similar advantages. It is of course true that any one with ordinary intelligence and with a thorough training in elementary mathematics may, by constant application, make good progress in the engineering profession if he has the advantage to get a position in the office of a good engineer, but he starts in the race terribly handicapped and he must not forget that in his first years he is little or no use to his employer. Unfortunately we have other foes to the true condition of the civil engineer besides those who object to technical and scientific training. These are more modern and insist on the necessity of technical education, but in their anxiety for it, they are, without knowing it, aiming a serious blow at all education. They have taken up their stand by reasoning apparently such as this: The universities have not provided the technical and scientific training necessary for the practical pursuits of life, therefore abolish the universities and establish technical schools and science colleges." Some of these people would doubtless leave a few of the older universities partly as land marks just to show how much we have progressed in civilization since the days in which they were founded, and partly for the sake of the older professions, divinity, law, medicine, while for practical persons the science schools and business colleges are to be all sufficient. Arguing with such people as with any who differ with us in principal is not likely to be profitable and we might do well to remember that in almost all cases these ardent upholders of technical and scientific as opposed to university education are without the benefit of either. As a rule those whom we meet who have only had opportunity for this so called practical training will be found to report their limited advantages.

Engineers especially need a university education, either before or during their professional course, since, when entered on their career they have less leisure and fewer opportunities than men of the same age in other professions for supplementing their purely scientific knowledge. On account of this there is a marked tendency now in great engineering colleges in the States to make their courses post graduate by requiring a high standard of entrance, this being necessary as, unfortunately, many of the greatest schools of science are placed in situations remote from universities or the scientific course is so extended to leave no time for an arts course to be taken at the same time. The effect of this will be to prolong the term of education for the engineering profession to seven years or six at least which at first sight seems a long time, but if we remember that one of the most important duties of the engineer in construction is directing and controlling men we shall not think that the age of 24 years is too old at which to begin his serious duties. It is by forgetting these duties of the engineer that people are able to make the serious mistake of declaring a university education to be unnecessary for him. A knowledge of human nature, such as only can be obtained by the most liberal education, is absolutely required for the successful carrying out of great undertakings. The graduate of a science school might design a great bridge, but to have it erected one must be able to deal with men.

The importance of a thorough acquaintance with the classical languages for the ready acquirement of a knowledge of  modern language has been shown often, and will not be dealt on now, the fact merely being brought again to your notice, since it is essential for the engineer to know some other European language besides his own, so as not to be dependent on poor translations of some of the most important works on scientific engineering. Setting aside the importance of the subjects, literature (ancient and modern), philosophy and economics for the thorough education of an engineer we may lay stress on the fact that by having engineering schools situated at universities and in connection with them the students will have the advantage of mixing with others studying, it may be courses of arts, medicine, law or divinity, and may be alive to the fact that there are other subjects of importance besides their own, and thus may not become narrow, which is a defect engineers are ever ready to notice in students of other schools and to pass over in themselves. If we have such a group of professions at schools around universities the engineering student especially will reap a benefit in various ways, such as the following: Many points in sanitary engineering would receive as a rule due attention only in a medical school; at the law school he would obtain the legal knowledge so essential in drawing up contracts, and in the university course he would receive the thorough grounding in economics so necessary in all practice of their profession. When, as in a university like this, the engineering students strive for a degree in arts or science at the same time that they are working at their special professional course, they are apt to be discouraged by the large amount of work required. But they should remember that they are endeavouring to compass seven or eight years work in four, and might take comfort from the fact that their work is in any case much less than in some of the great European engineering schools. In the great school in France the working hours are from 5:30 a.m. till 9 p.m., with two and a half hours for meals and recreation, and there are no holidays in the week, Sunday being distinguished from other days by two extra hours for recreation. Evidently lectures at 8 o'clock in the morning are a move in the right direction for us.

As to the results to be aimed at in engineering schools some things might be said, since, unfortunately, many people think that the graduates of these schools should at once begin work of a responsible nature and at a most satisfactory salary. A moment's consideration will show this is impossible. Even if we divide engineering into three great branches--civil, mechanical and electrical--still under the heading civil we have many subdivisions and each so highly specialized that it would be utterly impossible for any man to excel in more than one. Hence, since while in a school a student cannot possibly know what will be the special line in which an opening may occur for him, it will be necessary for the schools to be such as will prepare him on a solid foundation on all subjects necessary for all classes of work so that he may know something of each sub-division. The student should cultivate a habit of serious reading so that during his whole career he may always be engaged on some standard book on some subject other than that he is working at, and so extending his knowledge, besides of course being eager to see for himself examples of good engineering practice. He should also cultivate his self-reliance and a determination to succeed in whatever he attempts; and his aim in college should be that at the end of his professional course he may be able to read and understand any book whether written in English, French or German on any special subject in which he may have an interest. If the students are able to do this, having gone through the ordinary course of instruction, we hold that the object of the school has been obtained, which we believe to be not to make engineers, but to fit men to become engineers.

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