Like all scientific disciplines, modern engineering is built on a foundation laid by geniuses of past eras. While there are many engineers throughout history that made important contributions to the field, these five stand above the rest for making discoveries that changed the way we understand the world, and how engineers do their work to this day.
Archimedes of Syracuse
Any list of the greatest engineers throughout history has to contend with Archimedes, easily the most influential engineer in the ancient Western world. Archimedes not only formulated the principles of fluid displacement and invented the compound pulley (two of the most important discoveries in science to this day), but also invented early versions of the laser and the water pump, and constructed a working siege engine hundreds of years ahead of its time. Oh, and he also calculated the value of pi.
The world of the 21st century runs on computers, and the computer as we know it almost certainly wouldn’t exist without the work of Alan Turing, a genius computer engineer whose contributions were downplayed during his lifetime thanks to a public scandal involving his homosexuality. Turing developed the binary architecture used by computers to this day, cracked the Enigma code that the Nazis used to encrypt their messages during World War II, and made numerous other contributions to software development and the theory of computers. To this day, his “Turing Test” is still the theoretical standard used to judge whether or not a calculating machine can legitimately be called an “artificial intelligence.”
Tesla has undergone a massive resurgence in popularity over the last decade, to the point that he is more famous and beloved now than he ever was during his lifetime. But the fact that Tesla was largely ignored while he was alive doesn’t minimize the value of his contributions to electrical engineering, which include the development of Alternating Current, the invention of fluorescent lighting, the induction motor, and, of course, the Tesla Coil.
James Watt’s improvements to the technology of steam engine were so great, he is often attributed with its creation. While Watt did not actually invent the steam engine, his improvements to steam power generation made the Industrial Revolution possible, and were put to use in industries as varied as coal mining, textiles, and transportation. In addition to his improvements to the steam engine, Watt also developed the practice of measuring power output in “horsepower.” For his contributions to engineering, a “Watt” is now the name given to a unit of power.
Leonardo da Vinci
It’s not often that a person makes their mark as one of the most important artists of all time AND one of the greatest engineers of all time, but Leonardo da Vinci was nothing if not extraordinary. Da Vinci’s thinking was so far ahead of its time that many of his inventions seemed like wild flights of fancy when they were created, only to become the basis for important creations and discoveries in the centuries to follow. Leonardo is credited with helping invent the submarine, the hang glider, modern bridges, transmissions, and the parachute, among many other things.
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