August 1884: The prospects of young engineers

Plenty of young men were willing to become engineers in the late 19th century, but their scientific training and overall aptitude was considered woefully insufficient

scientific training
Potential source of confusion for the Victorian 'man of science'?

Today’s graduate engineers are often accused of being blighted by book learning when they should’ve spent more time on the tools.

Despite years of study, these young professionals are sometimes accused by readers of this publication of not even acquiring the most basic theoretical knowledge.

The situation wasn’t so different in 1884 when The Engineer ran a piece bemoaning the quality of training for mechanical engineers, directing its opening salvo at college taught ‘scientific training’, which was considered ‘of no bread-and-cheese-earning value whatever’.


“A young man attends science classes; or he goes to a science college, and spends two or three years learning all that can be taught him,” wrote The Engineer. “At the end of that time we shall suppose that he gets, by good luck or favour, a berth as manager, we shall say, of a department, or even of works, of moderate dimensions. Before a week has passed away he finds that all his scientific training is entirely useless to him. It is valuable no doubt; so was the bag of doubloons, found by Robinson Crusoe on his island.”

No amount of training - scientific, theoretical, or practical - will supply brains, and tact, and the art of doing the right thing at the right time

Is it possible, asked our predecessors, that a high scientific training is of no value to the mechanical engineer? Not necessarily, but it was argued – as it is today – that the pursuit of theory hindered the creation of ‘shop ready’ engineers.

“His scientific attainments will not procure him a salary,” said The Engineer. “Out of his college he finds himself in another world. He sees things done and results arrived at apparently by intuition. He finds theoretical knowledge of all kinds at a discount. He learns that precedent is the great rule of life, modified and adapted to circumstances by the brain power of one or more individuals.

“He sees, if he is observant, things done, which for the life of him he could not do either with his head or hands; and be finds that if he is to be a mechanical engineer, earning a salary either as a head draughtsman and designer; or as a works manager, he must begin to learn all over again.”

On apprentices The Engineer expressed surprise at ‘the absolute, dense, ignorance of men’ undergoing training, noting: “No amount of training - scientific, theoretical, or practical - will supply brains, and tact, and the art of doing the right thing at the right time. Very many young men become engineers, not because they are fitted for the business but because they think they are.”

Today’s engineering profession is well aware of a looming skills gap and has done its best to reverse the trend by delving into the psyche of all youngsters via ongoing Big Bang Fairs and this year’s Tomorrow’s Engineers campaign, to name but two.

Our editorial predecessors would’ve scoffed at such schemes, thinking instead that engineers – specifically mechanical engineers - are born and not made. If the person has the aptitude then they will succeed.

“Our advice to most young men who wish to become engineers is like that given by Punch to those about to marry: Don't! The exceptions are those whose fathers are engineers, willing and able to supply that special training which can hardly be obtained for love or money by those whose first connection with the profession, in any shape or way, takes place when their indentures are signed.”