Engineers have important jobs; people’s lives literally depend on their diligence.
This fact has been made tragically clear on countless occasions, including the two Quebec Bridge collapses in 1907 and 1916, in which a combination of design flaws and poor planning killed a combined 88 people.
Galvanized by this senseless loss of life, the Engineering Institute of Canada in 1925 introduced a ceremony called the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer. Something of an open secret, the event includes graduates of engineering programs reciting a statement of intent called the “Obligation," after which they receive rings to be worn on the smallest finger of their dominant hand.
The ring was traditionally made of iron, but is now typically stainless steel — iron rings can react with the skin and become discolored and misshapen. Rather than an eye-catching adornment, this accessory is meant to serve as a cue: Whenever an engineer is writing or drafting, the ring will rub against the paper (or, now, will clack against the keyboard). This friction is meant to serve as a constant reminder of the ethics and obligations that accompany professional design and engineering.
Perhaps to maximize the metal-on-paper friction, the rings are not manufactured with smooth, curved lines, but rather with a series of facets on both the top and bottom, usually twelve per side. This gives the rings a distinctively industrial look.
In some programs, newly minted engineers receive so-called “experienced rings," which have come from professionals who have either retired or died. This is apparently relatively rare nowadays, however — with the exception of family members or mentors passing on their rings to upstarts.
Following Canada’s lead, the U.S. implemented its own ring program in 1970 through a professional association called the Order of the Engineer.
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