The secrets of engineering’s strange and mysterious initiation ritual

How a Toronto engineering professor and a famous British author came together to create one of Canada’s oddest academic rites
By Chris Bateman - Published on April 24, 2018
archival photo of Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling, the author of “Kim,” “Captains Courageous,” and the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer. (Elliott & Fry/diaforetiko.gr)

Comments

X

In March 2012, more than a hundred civil-engineering students at McMaster University crowded into a gymnasium at the school's Ivor Wynne Centre. At the head of the room was an anvil, and attached to the anvil were several long chains that ran the length of the room.

The students were instructed to hold on to a piece of chain and prepare to make an ancient and solemn pledge. The strange, secret Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer was about to begin.

"It felt like I was being brought into a cult or something," said an engineer familiar with the ceremony who agreed to speak to TVO on condition of anonymity. "I've never experienced anything like that."

The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer was composed in 1922 by the English writer Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book and Kim, at the request of a group of prominent Canadian engineers.

Herbert Edward Terrick Haultain, an engineering professor at the University of Toronto, first proposed the idea of an initiation ritual while attending a meeting of the Engineering Institute of Canada, in Montreal, in 1922. In August 1907, a cantilevered bridge under construction near Quebec City collapsed, killing 75 workers, and much of the blame for the disaster had been placed on American civil engineer Theodore Cooper. Haultain wanted to create a ceremony that would serve as a kind of Hippocratic Oath for graduating engineers — one that would remind them of their solemn duties to the public and to their profession.

Haultain initially tried to draft his own version but eventually reached out to Kipling, who had previously written about engineers.

It wasn't the first time the English author had been called on by Canadians. In 1911, at the height of his popularity and influence, Kipling had been asked by his friend William Maxwell Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, to write an essay arguing against a reciprocity agreement with the United States signed by Liberal prime minister Wilfrid Laurier.

Kipling's response had been published on the front page of the Montreal Daily Star, then the country's most-read newspaper, and it was later reprinted nationwide. His words were credited with helping to swing the 1911 federal election in favour of Robert Borden and the Conservative Party.

Kipling showed a great deal of interest in Haultain's proposal; he prepared both a ritual and a pledge, which Haultain and seven former presidents of the Engineering Institute of Canada then refined.

“Many young engineers, and even older ones, out struggling in the world, would find it both tonic and refreshing to be obligated,” wrote Kipling. (It was his preference that the text be referred to as an “obligation” rather than an oath or pledge.)

The seven past EIC presidents adopted the title the Corporation of the Seven Wardens, and the first engineers took Kipling’s oath at U of T in May 1925. From that point on, the Corporation would serve as a national governing body overseeing the delivery of the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer — which today involves the reciting of a statement of ethics authored by Kipling and the presentation of an iron ring as a lasting reminder of the day.

For the McMaster engineer, the first mention of the ritual came in an email that provided a few details about the ceremony — the time, location, dress code (business casual) — and at the bottom, instructed the reader to delete it after reading.

"I thought it was just getting your ring, so I didn't understand the whole secrecy about it," they said.

On the day of the ceremony in March 2012, between 100 and 200 civil-engineering students filed into a hall at the Ivor Wynne Centre. The ceremony began around 3 p.m. with a low-key talk and a PowerPoint presentation outlining the roles and responsibilities of a practising engineer.

There were no friends or family present. Per tradition, only those who had a ring or would be receiving a ring were allowed to attend. The ceremony is considered private rather than secret, but discussing the details is discouraged.

The talk lasted about 90 minutes. At the end, the students filed out of the room into a nearby gymnasium, and that's where things became unusual.

Each student was asked to hold on to a section of one of the chains attached to the anvil and prepare to recite the Kipling obligation. At the front of the room, leading this portion of the proceedings, stood someone who was most likely one of the wardens of the Hamilton camp, but the engineer can’t recall.

"We weren't in cloaks or anything," they laughed.

"Honestly, I felt like, 'Am I being drawn into a cult here?’ But once you start listening to what you are actually saying, it's just a glorified ritual of celebrating your four years of hard studying, and I guess celebrating the profession."

The wording of the obligation, which is available online, lays out in florid language the solemn roles and responsibilities of the engineer.

"I, in the presence of these my betters and my equals in my calling, bind myself upon my honour and cold iron, that, to the best of my knowledge and power, I will not henceforward 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, or in my dealings with my own soul before my Maker," it begins.

Several times during the recitation of the pledge, the anvil at the front of the room was struck with a hammer. The whole thing lasted about half an hour. At the end, the engineers were invited to receive their rings and then allowed to return to the real world.

"We wear [the ring] on the pinky of our working hand," said the engineer. "It's on the pinky so that when you are signing your reports or doing your drafting work, the paper is actually touching the ring."

Despite its cult-like elements, the ritual is completely optional and isn’t a requirement for graduation. Receiving a ring doesn't represent a professional qualification, either — the usual certifications apply.

The engineer hasn’t told their friends or family what took place. And, they said, it's not something engineers talk about among themselves.

"Nobody talks about it. I have friends that are from Waterloo, and we've never brought it up in conversation at all," said the engineer.

"I guess at the time, you just feel that it's your secret: it's just accepted. It's just not something that's talked about — it's like the Fight Club," they laughed.

According to the website ironring.ca, “camps” now administer the ritual in 26 cities across Canada. Kipling preferred the word “camp” to “branch” because it evoked a sense of camaraderie.

The Toronto camp, which covers the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, York University, and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, is Camp 1. Camp 26 is in Kelowna, British Columbia.

The engineer said the pledge hasn’t shaped the way they view their profession.

"The whole ritual, to be honest, that's not what makes me want to be responsible in my work," they said. "It's the other things that we learned throughout out studies.”

"Now it's just something quirky that I did."

Chris Bateman is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, CityLab, and Spacing.

Author