Engineering is Development: Before Modern Engineering by Bayo Adeola

Towards a new role for consulting engineering in nation building


Engineering is Development: Before Modern Engineering by Bayo AdeolaWelcome to another edition of our journey into understanding the role of engineering in modern society. As established in the previous post, the next few weeks will feature series of extracts from the book, Engineering Is Development. It is an effort to trace the history and relevance of engineering with a view to mobilise its potentials for national development.

Modern civilisation owes much to the impact of engineering. Whether in the area of health care or transportation, agriculture or entertainment, communication or housing, it is engineering that has made all the difference. By cumulative experience, observations and intuition, the early man responded to his immediate challenges. All these developments took hundreds of years to take place. Practice over time breeds knowledge, familiarity and competence, the basic ingredients of craftsmanship.


The history of man on earth since about 10,000 years ago showed how he explored and exploited its resources in a very rudimentary way. He foraged the forests for fruits and small animals that he could pick without efforts. Later, he learnt to use sticks and stones to catch resources beyond his immediate reach. These eventually gave way to spears, bows and arrows to reach even further.

Necessity is the mother of inventions, they say. Man started to move about by trekking before learning to use logs, later canoes to cross rivers. Later, he learnt to tame animals which significantly allowed him to travel relatively long distances. His health needs were met by trying herbs or incantations, and by trial and error he got some right. The discovery of fire must have had much greater significance to him than what electricity is to us today.

Early engineers and craftsmen often exhibited great vision and ingenuity. The seven wonders of the ancient world are all the work of these engineers, artisans and craftsmen. The Great Pyramids of Giza (the only one of the seven ancient wonders remaining), the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, The statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Mausoleum of Maussollos at Halicarnassus, the Light House of Pharaoh at Alexandra and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus were all magnificent edifices.

The Scientific Revolution

In the pre-scientific period, philosophers observed nature and made deductions based on these observations, and many of them turned out to be extremely insightful. For those things that could not be physically observed, explanations were mostly mythical or spiritual. The world thought the earth was flat and that it was the centre of the universe until Copernicus assembled evidence to demonstrate that the earth revolved round the sun. Astronomy aided navigation and by the 15th Century, the Portuguese and Spanish were able to sail round the world.

The study of mathematics is ancient. Pythagoras (of the right-angled triangle theorem) lived in Greece around 500BC. The study of physical sciences only became the pre-occupation of thinkers and philosophers in the 17th and 18th century. Isaac Newton published Principia Mathematica in 1867 in which he presented the laws of gravity and laws of motion. Michael Faraday (1791-1867) worked in the field of electricity and magnetism. Robert Boyle (1627-1691) worked in the field of chemistry and is best known for Boyle’s Law which established the relationship between volume, pressure and temperature in gases. The understanding of gravity, electricity, magnetism, light, sound and heat as the basic forces of nature were the outcome of this period. From these, the basic sciences of engineering emerged. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) later published the Theory of Relativity in which he presented the famous equation of E = mc2 showing that mass could be converted to energy, and the Special Theory of Relativity which reconciled mechanics and electromagnetism.

Modern Engineering

The science revolution gave birth to engineering as we know it today. The word engineer originated in the eleventh century from the Latin word ingeniator, meaning one with ingenium, the ingenious one. The name, used for builders of ingenious fortifications or makers of ingenious devices, was closely related to the notion of ingenuity, which was captured in the old meaning of “engine” until the word was taken over by steam engines and likes. Leonardo da Vinci bore the official title of Ingegnere Generale. His notebooks reveal that some Renaissance engineers began to ask systematically what works and why.

Modern engineering is, however, not this gradual evolution of skills and competences through practice and experience, great as the accomplishments of these early philosophers were. Rather, it is the more deliberate use of knowledge of science and mathematics to produce goods and infrastructures for the convenience of man and society. Not only did it improve the quality of life significantly, civilisations that were hitherto unsustainable developed and have thrived until the realities of today.


Pre-colonial Nigeria was basically a collection of pre-modern engineering settlements and civilizations with their own landmark achievements in arts and crafts and urban settlements. Iron smelting and forging technologies are known to have existed among the Nok Culture of Nigeria as far back as the 6th Century BC. Iron was fundamental to the rise of several kingdoms in Nigeria especially Benin and Ife and this technology thrived between 1400 and 1600. Sites at Igbo-Ukwu have revealed hundreds of ritual vessels and regalia castings of bronze that are among the most inventive and technically accomplished bronzes ever made. They were able to work metals through hammering, bending, twisting and incising. Items found include pendants, crowns and breastplates, staff ornaments, swords, and fly-whisk handles.

But, 50 years since attaining independence, it would appear as if Nigeria inherited the apathy which exists today in the attitude of the Government to engineering and technology. Lack of production capability and its consequent low and dependent quality of life qualified the country as a “third world.” They are dependent on other nations for basic survival and look up to donor agencies, foreign scholarships, and international and similar organisations for survival. This is why we make bold to say that Engineering Development is National Development.

We shall be sharing more insights in the next edition of the series. Remember to share if you find it useful. My feedback mechanisms remain.

Bayo is the Founder and Managing Director of CPMS. He is a passionate advocate for developmental planning and the use of project management to help organisations actively build their value creation capabilities. Bayo has worked as a consulting engineer for more than 30 years, specialising in building structures, water and wastewater management, urban infrastructures, and more recently, highway designs. He speaks and writes internationally on Engineering as an intrinsic basis for development in Africa: he is an ardent believer in Engineering, Design and Technology as a necessity for a well set up future. In the past, he has served as Chair of FIDIC’s Capacity Development Committee and a former member of the FIDIC Executive Committee from 2003 to 2007. he can be reached at +234(0)8022910259;;


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