The Iron Ring

Origin: 1922 (concept), 1925 (first handed out at UofT)

Statues: ACTIVE 

The Iron Ring is a ring worn by many Canadian-trained engineers as a reminder of the high standards and ethics associated with the engineering profession. It is worn on the little finger of the wearer’s dominant hand. The original purpose is to create an audible noise when the engineer is drafting or signing documents. In the modern age of engineers working at a computer, the ring serves as a visual reminder.

The history of the iron ring goes back to the construction of the Quebec Bridge in 1907. During the construction of the bridge, an error in the calculation of the carrying weight of the bridge caused it to collapse on August 29th, 1907 killing 75 of the 86 workers present. Construction resumed after the critical error was corrected. On September 11th 1916, while the bridge’s central span was being hoisted into position, it collapsed into the river below killing 13 workers. These disasters could have been avoided if the engineer had thoroughly checked their calculations. In 1922, the seven-past presidents of the Engineering Institute of Canada met in Montreal where University of Toronto civil engineering Professor H.E.T. Haultain proposed an idea to bind engineers in Canada closer together. He suggested that an obligation of ethics is to be taken by graduating engineers. He wrote to English poet Rudyard Kipling who helped create an obligation and accompanying ceremony for the young graduates. From there “The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer” was born. During the ceremony, graduates would receive an iron ring, a symbol of pride in their profession and reminding them of the importance of humility, high standards, and professionalism. In 1925, the first ceremony was held at the University of Toronto. There is a popular rumour that the rings presented to the graduating class were made of the same iron that was used in the Quebec Bridge collapse.

“The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer” is still held to this day across Canada, with graduating engineers receiving their rings made of stainless steel. However, graduates from UofT, Ryerson, York, and OnTechU have the option to have their rings made of iron. 

Which one will you choose?

Full History of Iron Ring

We’ve already mentioned the iron ring ceremony briefly but do you know why engineers wear iron rings? There’s actually quite an extensive back story here so sit back, enjoy a nice pint of a flaming engineer, and read what our Alumni Rob Kingston had to say about the history of the Iron Ring. Canada is the second largest country in the world, spanning thousands of square kilometers of prairies, forests, tundra and mountain ranges.

When our country was still young, travelling and shipping long distances was done exclusively by train. In the late 1800s construction began on the transcontinental railroad, built in the west by Canadian Pacific and in the east by Canadian National. This massive undertaking was designed to link the nation from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, thus creating a trade and transport route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. One of the major challenges in this huge project was the crossing of the St. Lawrence River.

In 1900, American engineer Theodore Cooper designed the answer to this challenge with what would be known as the Quebec Bridge. The Quebec Bridge crosses the St. Lawrence River just west of Quebec City. Before it was built, the only way to cross the St. Lawrence River was by taking a ferry. The bridge still stands today, now accommodating three highway lanes, a railway line, and a pedestrian walkway. It was built to complete the transcontinental railroad across Canada, establishing an East-West trade route, and was an engineering feat at the time it was built. Furthermore, it was to be the longest bridge in the world. Despite this, it is well-known for an entirely different reason.

Construction on the bridge began in June 1901. In the summer of 1907 as construction was nearing completion, a young engineer Norman McLure and his local engineering team started noticing that key compression members in the cantilever section of the bridge were beginning to bend and deform. He reported this to Mr. Cooper, who wrote off the problem as minor. Officials at the construction company in charge of the project, Phoenix Company, also ignored the problem by saying that members had already been bent upon receipt from the shop.

Despite these explanations, in six days – from August 6th to 12th – McLure observed the further bending of three independent chords on both edges of one span. Upon receiving this second report from McLure, Cooper wired the Phoenix Company and told them to discontinue construction immediately. This message was ignored and construction was continued to save money and complete the project before winter. To save money on the project, Cooper had increased the distance between the bridge’s piers from 490 to 550 meters which left an excessively high dead load for the bridge’s final structure.

While under construction, the actual weight of the bridge alone exceeded its carrying capacity. This wouldn’t have been a problem had calculations made in the early stages of planning and design been thoroughly checked. Nor would it have been a problem if the construction had halted until the error was rectified. However, Phoenix was fearful that delays would increase the cost of the project and possibly extend the construction through the winter.

At 5:30 PM on August 29th, 1907, the first of two whistles rang out signaling the end of work. Workers waiting for the second whistle instead heard a loud boom, “like a cannon shot”. Two compression chords in the south end of the bridge had failed, immediately compromising the integrity of the rest of the bridge. As failure rippled throughout the structure, nearly twenty thousand tonnes of steel – central span, cantilever and all collapsed. Wreckage of what was moments ago the Quebec Bridge now lay across and beneath the St. Lawrence. Not long after, with a Royal Commission of Inquiry having apportioned blame to those responsible, the construction started on a second bridge. Original weight miscalculations were corrected and the bridge builders predicted a quick completion time since both the north and south spans remained intact. The two outer sections of the bridge were completed by the summer of 1916 and the central span had been assembled on dry ground. The plan was to lift it into position with a hydraulic elevating system, completing the bridge.

On September 11th, 1916, the central span was positioned beneath the bridge using tugboats. As it was being lifted, the elevating system failed, plunging the span into the St. Lawrence and killing thirteen workmen that day. The central span its collapse due to a failure of the elevating system used was also damaged beyond repair. A second identical spanwas constructed from the same blueprint as the original.

In August 1919, construction was finally completed and the central span was lifted into position successfully. The Quebec Bridge was finally complete, at a total cost of $25 million, and 88 human lives. The embarrassment and tragedy surrounding the bridge had fueled some speculation, not all of it without substance. Near the turn of the century, many engineering projects were performed with a rough trial and error approach. Often, project completion and construction profits were given a higher priority than safety and ethics; an attitude that often resulted in failure. Never was this more apparent than in the case of the Quebec Bridge.

In 1922, H.E.T. Haultain, a mining professor at the University of Toronto wished to improve the image of the profession. Haultain’s experience in Europe and British Columbia had given him firsthand experience with conditions that he thought had called for instilling a strong sense of ethical standards in young engineers. He approached the famous author, Rudyard Kipling, and together they conceived of the idea of the Iron Ring, which all Canadian engineers now own. While the belief existed for quite some time that the rings were actually made of the failed bridge’s iron, the myth has since been debunked, as steel was material used in its construction.

The Iron Ring – a symbol of engineers and their profession, was inaugurated at the first Iron Ring ceremony held and the University of Toronto in 1925.

To this day, it is presented to all graduating Canadian engineers in the Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer. At this ceremony, all engineers take a solemn expression of intention called The Obligation. The Obligation states the duties and responsibilities of the engineer. The circular shape of the iron ring symbolizes the continuity of the profession and its methods. The ring is worn on the little finger of the working hand of the engineer, symbolizing pride in their profession and reminding them of the importance of humility, high standards and professionalism.
In 1970, the United States began the tradition of the Iron Ring as well. Their ceremony is not a secretive one and is administered by The Order of the Engineer. What’s more, all of their rings are stainless steel. As for the Quebec Bridge, it still stands today and has now been modified to allow trains and pedestrian traffic. It is a stark reminder of humans’ potential to succeed, yet ability to fail.