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The Importance of a Personal Pledge

Dec 1, 2012

During the 142nd Annual Civil Engineering Conference, held October 18-20 in Montreal, a group of 22 ASCE members recited the oath Obligation of the Engineer and thus were inducted into the Order of the Engineer ( The 22 joined the more than 4,500 Society members who have been inducted through ceremonies held under the auspices of ASCE. The Society has been authorized to conduct the ceremony since 2003, but the history of the Order of the Engineer can be traced back nearly a century to a catastrophe that unfolded not too far from the site of this year's conference.


On August 29, 1907, a partly constructed cantilever bridge near the city of Québec collapsed into the St. Lawrence River, killing 75 of the 86 workers who were present. While the direct cause of the collapse was the defective design of the lower chords in the anchor arm near the main span, an investigation brought to light a series of poor decisions and ethical lapses by the engineers responsible for the bridge's design and construction. 

Chief among those deemed to be at fault in the catastrophe was an American engineer and ASCE member by the name of Theodore Cooper. While Cooper nominally served as a consulting engineer on the project, in practice the less experienced chief engineer at the Quebec Bridge Company deferred to him in nearly all decisions, for Cooper was a senior engineer with an extensive résumé of bridge design and technical publications. But Cooper was nearing retirement and in ill health, and he found travel from his New York home difficult. He declined to visit the site as the superstructure was being constructed, relying instead on correspondence from the inspecting engineer he appointed. 

Furthermore, pressure to economize prompted Cooper to make what would prove to be disastrous modifications to the design engineer's plans. He modified the design from a 1,600 ft to an 1,800 ft span and increased the allowable unit stresses for the compression members. When the shipping weights of materials proved unexpectedly high, it was discovered that the design engineer had mistakenly used the weights for the 1,600 ft span in calculating dead load. A significant amount of fabrication and construction work had already been done, and Cooper determined that the bridge could handle what he calculated to be a 7 to 10 percent increase in stresses. This put the unit stresses well past the other engineers' range of experience, but they continued to rely on Cooper's expertise. 

As construction proceeded, numerous incidents warned of trouble. In early August deflections were observed in two lower chords in the south cantilever arm. While the inspection engineer insisted the bend had occurred after the chords were subjected to stress, Cooper disagreed, suggesting that the chords might have been struck by a suspended beam during erection. While the engineers debated the cause, similar deflections were observed in other lower chords.

On August 27 the inspecting engineer reported to Cooper that the initial deflection observed in one of the chords had increased from 3/4 in. to 21/4 in. in less than two weeks. An alarmed construction foreman halted work on the project, and Cooper's inspecting engineer traveled to New York to meet with Cooper. Unbeknownst to the two engineers, while they were meeting to resolve what had become a matter of serious concern, the workers were back on the job. The bridge collapsed before the site could receive Cooper's telegram ordering that no further load be placed on the bridge. 

The report by the commission set up to investigate the tragedy excoriated the responsible parties not only for their "grave errors" in calculating loads and allowable stresses but also for their "loose and inefficient supervision of all parts of the work." As the commission noted, on the day of the collapse "the greatest bridge in the world was being built without there being a single man within reach who by experience, knowledge, and ability was competent to deal with the crisis." 


The bridge collapse occurred 7 years before ASCE's first Code of Ethics and nearly 60 years before the inclusion of language in the code obligating engineers to "hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public" (today's canon 1). Yet the event would prove to have far-reaching implications for the role of ethics in the practice of professional engineering.  

When 13 more workers lost their lives constructing a replacement for the collapsed bridge, a number of Canadian engineers felt that the time had come for an unflinching look at an engineer's professional and ethical obligations. Efforts to reform the profession moved forward through two initiatives, one looking to government licensure of engineers, the other to the formulation of a pledge along the lines of the Hippocratic oath. 

In 1922 seven former presidents of the Engineering Institute of Canada formed the Corporation of the Seven Wardens, and in 1925 a group of Canadian engineers became the first to participate in a ceremony called the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer ( Reciting an oath written by Rudyard Kipling, the engineers swore "upon my Honour and Cold Iron" never to "suffer or pass, or be privy to the passing of, Bad Workmanship or Faulty Material in aught that concerns my works before mankind as an Engineer." 

As a tangible symbol of their commitment, each engineer who participated was given an iron ring. Stories have held that the iron in the first rings was taken from the wreckage of the 1907 collapse. Whether or not this is true, the iron of the ring denotes the "cold iron" of the pledge. The ring was to be worn on the little finger of the engineer's working hand. In this way it would rub against plans and reports as the engineer worked and thus serve as a constant reminder of the oath. 

The success of the ceremony in Canada attracted the attention of American engineers, but when discussions failed to lead to an American branch a group of Ohio engineers shifted their focus to formulating a separate oath that would draw upon the Canadian model. In 1962 two American engineers, one of them George Brooks Earnest, Pres.62.ASCE, took part in a Canadian ceremony intended as a bridge between the Canadian organization and the group taking shape in the United States. In 1970 the Order of the Engineer ( was established. 

Today, the Order of the Engineer adds about 10,000 members each year, each inductee accepting a stainless steel ring that symbolizes a commitment "to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance and respect; and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of the profession, conscious always...[of] the obligation to serve humanity." While the language of this oath-the Obligation of the Engineer-mirrors provisions contained in ASCE's Code of Ethics and similar codes, it is unique in that it reflects a purely voluntary commitment to professional ethics rather than one imposed by a regulatory body or a professional group. 

 ASCE and several of its sections and branches hold induction ceremonies each year for those wishing to join the Order of the Engineer. Anyone who has graduated from an ABET-accredited engineering program, is a student in an ABET-accredited program within two semesters of graduation, or holds an engineering license in the United States may request induction. For additional information, visit       -TARA HOKE

Further Reading:

  • Pearson, Cynthia, and Norbert Delatte, "Collapse of the Quebec Bridge, 1907." Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities,  20, number 1 (2006): 84-91.
  • Royal Commission.  Quebec Bridge Inquiry Report.  Ottawa: S.E. Dawson, 1908.
  • Royal Commission.  Quebec Bridge Inquiry.  Volume 2,  Minutes of Proceedings and Printed Exhibits.  Ottawa: S.E. Dawson, 1908.
  • Wedel, K.A.  The Obligation: A History of the Order of the Engineer.  Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2012.

Tara Hoke is ASCE's assistant general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.

© ASCE, Civil Engineering, December, 2012

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE's hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case, that some details may have been altered for purposes of illustration or confidentiality, and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society.