RETURN OF THE ICONS
By Jeffrey Winters
Should mechanical engineers have an icon to call their own? Satyandra K. Gupta raised that question on this page back in May. Some engineers, Gupta wrote, can convey to the general public the essence of what they do with a simple image—a bridge, an airplane, a computer.
“It appears that other engineering disciplines do a much better job in defining their disciplines for non-engineers with certain distinguishing icons,” Gupta wrote. “What should serve as an icon for mechanical engineering?”
We put that question to the readers of Mechanical Engineering Magazine Online and for the past several months they have been answering with their ideas. While there was no overwhelming favorite so far, a few solid proposals kept recurring. Since the majority of those questioned agreed that mechanical engineers should have an icon of some sort, we wanted to narrow the field down to five semi-finalists.
There were, of course, many more than five submitted suggestions. They ranged from the Rubik’s Cube to the aircraft carrier to a picture of Earth. But the five listed below seem to capture the gist of what our readers were driving at in coming up with a mechanical engineering icon.
Perhaps the most basic of the candidate icons is the wheel, which was suggested in a number of comments. “The development of the wheel by ancient people later on opened the door to human development,” wrote one person in the comments on our Web site. “Just as the wheel is the gateway to the present, so is the mechanical engineer.” Another reader pointed out that without the wheel, the work of the civil, aerospace, and electrical engineers would be impossible.
Another suggested icon was the hexagonal nut and bolt. Fasteners like this are ubiquitous in modern society, the argument in favor of this icon went, and the hexagon already conveys mechanical or industrial meaning to a wide swath of the population.
A number of different engines or turbines received votes, though it wasn’t always clear what exact icon was being suggested. Whether the steam turbine or the internal combustion engine, however, the key was showing how engineers were able to harness the power of heat to do mechanical work. “Engines and turbines exhibit how a few of our broad fields harness and conserve energy,” one commenter wrote.
Perhaps the most popular suggestion was to use the gear as the icon of mechanical engineering. What seemed to appeal the most to those who suggested the gear was its basic simplicity. “Gears represent physical contact,” wrote one person. “The gear represents motion, machines, and mechanics,” wrote another.
“The reason I suggest the gear,” added another reader, “is because most mechanical equipment is in motion and the gear is the only mechanical component that is used everywhere, whether in automobiles, airplanes, or in much smaller devices.”
A popular nominee is the icon that Gupta suggested in his original article: the robot. One of the considerations for those who nominated the robot was its ability to help promote the field.
“A robot is a device that has unlimited possibilities for implementation,” wrote one reader. “It does not just symbolize a possible solution for an existing problem, but for future unknown problems, too. It can be tailored to appeal to people of all ages, making it chic.”
So, for the next Question of the Month, we pose this: Do any of the above objects rise to the level of being an icon for mechanical engineering? If the goal is, as Gupta wanted, “to justify why mechanical engineering fundamentals ... are critical pieces of knowledge that are needed to confront some of the biggest challenges of the 21st century,” does the wheel or the gear or any of the other proposed icons actually accomplish that?
We’ll report back on your decision in a couple months.