Kipling's Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer
Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer est. 1922 in Canada; Order of the Engineer est. 1970 in the United States.
Today we mark the 142nd anniversary of the birth of Rudyard Kipling, one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. Not since Byron had there been a major English speaking poet who had been so active in social and political affairs. Kipling's death may have been less romantic - it's difficult to imagine him, so hard headed and practical, dying a martyr to another country's independence - but it too marked the end of a remarkable public career. He was a ceaseless promoter of the Commonwealth (originally Imperial) War Graves Commission and a famous advocate of Imperial unity. His name and words carried remarkable weight, something unimaginable for any of today's poets, most of whom are unreadable by their academic compatriots, much less the general public. He even helped play a role in ending the career of Wilfred Laurier. An opponent of free trade, which he viewed as threatening to Imperial unity, he attacked Laurier's support for a free trade deal with the United States. On the eve of the 1911 Canadian General Election he cabled his support for Robert Borden writing: "It is her soul that Canada risks today."
Beyond politics he was a cultural force, so much so that he received a very strange request from a Canadian friend of his in 1922.
This unique Canadian institution arose out of a dinner meeting in Montreal on January 25, 1922. It was the Annual Meeting of the Engineering Institute of Canada, and Professor H E T Haultain of the University of Toronto, was the luncheon speaker. He entitled his address The Romance of Engineering, and in the course of his remarks, he urged the development of a ‘tribal spirit’ among engineers. This must have been pretty heady stuff for those at the luncheon, because it didn’t stop there. Asked over dinner that evening to expand on his thoughts, Haultain proposed that an oath or creed be developed to which young engineers could subscribe, something along the lines of the Hippocratic oath in the medical profession. By the end of the evening seven past presidents of the Institute had agreed to form a committee to act on this proposal.As Wiki notes on the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer:
On October 18, 1923, with the blessing of the committee, Professor Haultain wrote to his friend Rudyard Kipling. He provided Kipling with an outline of the discussion held at the Montreal dinner, and sought his help in the writing of an oath. Kipling replied on November 9, sending Haultain The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, along with notes now part of the Ritual. Kipling included the poem The Sons of Martha.
The idea of a ring, to be worn by engineers on the little finger of the working hand, was proposed, and Kipling had some thoughts on this too.
As Kipling pictured the ring, he said, “it should be rough, as the mind of the young man. It should not be smoothed at the edges, any more than the character of the young. It is hand-hammered all around—as the young have their hammerings coming to them.”
The Obligation, which is not an oath but a solemn expression of intention, is subscribed to at the ceremony. The Obligation essentially states the duties and responsibilities of the engineer. Following the Obligation, the Iron Ring is placed on the little finger of the working hand, and is worn by the engineer as a symbol and a reminder.Only Kipling would have thought it proper to do such a thing. Engineering at the time had only recently been professionalized, relatively few practitioners held post-secondary designations. For a poet of Kipling's stature to have deigned to comply with such a request was almost without precedent. The usual image of a poet is of figure disdainful of ordinary material concerns, a mind and spirit focused on the sublime. Something as practical as engineering would scarcely seem a fit subject for poetry, much less an elaborate ritual. Kipling, however, was the poet of the Industrial Age. Wordsworth exalted nature, Kipling did the same for machines and the men who made them. He concludes his poem The Secret of the Machines thusly:
The Obligation is private, though not necessarily secret. However, it is customary for those who have gone through it to not discuss the details of the Calling with others, even engineers from other countries. In many places, the ceremony is open only to candidates or those who have already undergone the ritual, but in some places close friends or family are allowed (if not encouraged) to watch.
As part of the preparation for the ritual, candidates are instructed not to discuss the details of the ritual with the media. A reminder of this is provided at the end of the ceremony in the form of a written instruction that states: "The Rule of Governance provides that there shall be no publicity in connection with the Ritual."
But remember, please, the Law by which we live,Simple plain language, elegantly flowing, expressing the genius and heroism that made the Industrial Revolution possible. The desire to celebrate engineering, so modern a pursuit, is combined with a felt need by Kipling, and Professor Haultain, for ritual and ceremony, something often seen as ancient and irrelevant. A ceremony to honour a profession dedicated to the utilitarian. Therein lies the poet's genius and his latent conservativism. The need for ritual and the value of community - here of a profession - adhering to a code of conduct undergrid by a conception of honour. The best of modernity welcomed and enjoined to the best values of the past. Kipling at his best.
We are not built to comprehend a lie,
We can neither love nor pity nor forgive.
If you make a slip in handling us you die!
We are greater than the Peoples or the Kings-
Be humble, as you crawl beneath our rods!--
Our touch can alter all created things,
We are everything on earth--except The Gods!
Though our smoke may hide the Heavens from your eyes,
It will vanish and the stars will shine again,
Because, for all our power and weight and size,
We are nothing more than children of your brain!
Posted by our "Kipling" at the Gods of the Copybook Headings