Engineering is the practice of applying scientific and mathematical principles to real-life situations. While scientists usually get all the credit for all of humanity’s scientific achievements, it’s actually engineers who build the things that make all that possible – from intricate lab equipment to large-scale city projects. Some of the best engineers ever also happened to be prodigious scientists, even if their names have now been largely lost to history.
10. Martha Coston
Night flares were an important method of communication in early modern warfare, especially before the advent of radio and other electronic forms of communication. Developed and patented by Martha Coston in 1859, they were deployed to great effect during the American Civil War. The flare and code system was eventually adopted by military forces around the world, paving the way for the elaborate flare systems still in use today.
Surprisingly, Coston never intended on becoming an engineer or inventor, as it was her deceased husband – Benjamin Franklin Coston – who originally came up with the blueprint. His version didn’t work, however, and Martha largely came up with a working model on her own. According to some historians, her flares were crucial during the civil war, as the Union Army was the first major client to purchase them in bulk.
9. Filippo Brunelleschi
Filippo Brunelleschi was one of the pioneers of architecture during the earliest phases of the Italian Renaissance, and is even sometimes referred to as the first modern engineer. Brunelleschi had a huge role to play in the modern scientific approach to infrastructure design, breaking away from the more decorative kind of architecture common across Europe before.
Filippo Brunelleschi’s most renowned masterpiece was the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, built by machines he invented specifically for that purpose. His geometric, proportion-based approach to architecture laid the foundation for many Italian engineers and inventors after him. Apart from engineering, Brunelleschi was also inducted into the Arte della Seta – or the Silk Guild of Florence – as a master, as he was also an accomplished goldsmith and sculptor.
8. Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-born American actress still remembered for her roles in classics like Algiers, Samson and Delilah, and Come Live with Me, among countless others. She’s often called one of the most beautiful actresses ever, inspiring iconic cartoon characters like Snow White and Catwoman. What’s much less known, though, is her contribution to modern science, as Lamarr was also a gifted engineer and inventor of the technology used in many communications systems today.
During the Second World War, Lamarr came up with a system called frequency hopping, which could be used to block enemy jammers from interfering with radio-controlled torpedoes. While it wasn’t used during the war, it was widely implemented by the US Navy in the 1950s, even if she was never credited for it back then. The technology has since been used to develop innovations like Bluetooth and GPS, as well as early WiFi systems. For her contributions, Hedy Lamarr was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
7. Jacques de Vaucanson
The list of things invented and designed by Jacques de Vaucanson is quite long. Born in 1709, he was a pioneer in automatons, and many machines that made the Industrial age possible would’ve never been possible without his contributions. In 1737, Vaucanson built a life-size flute player that could play a total of twelve songs on a traverse flute, which was unheard-of for that time. In 1738, he designed something called The Digesting Duck – a rather impressive replica of a duck with hundreds of parts that could flap its wings, eat and drink, and even defecate, which is still considered to be a masterpiece of the time.
His most important invention, however, was the all-metal slide rest lathe in 1750. While lathes – a kind of machine tool based on an axis used to complete various industrial tasks – had existed since ancient times, he massively improved on the design for his age, providing a base machine to build other machines. Nearly every automatic machine used during the Industrial age was based on Vaucanson’s improvements, including the Jacquard loom.
Yes, the guy from The Mummy took his name from a real guy. Let’s get that out of the way first.
The real Imhotep lived and died so long ago that it’s difficult to ascertain precise details about his life, though we do know a few things. Archeological evidence from later Egyptian sources place his achievements somewhere around 2600 BC during the reign of Djoser of the Third Dynasty, or the first Old Kingdom dynasty. He was an immensely important figure across Egypt, and may even have been the first individual to be deified and worshiped as a god… ever.
Mythology aside, Imhotep was also the first architect – or at least the first architect to show up in historical records. We can see his imprint in some of the most impressive ancient Egyptian structures found in and around Cairo, especially the step pyramid complex dedicated to Djoser at Saqqara, called the ‘The Refreshment of the Gods’. It was an unprecedented creation undertaken entirely under his supervision, using a stone-dressed style of building and columns for the first time in history. Not just that, ancient Egyptian structures started to get more complex and elaborate around exactly this time, suggesting that Imhotep may have had a larger role to play in ancient Egyptian architecture than we may ever know.
Imhotep was also a gifted physician and, well, a God, so it’s difficult to say exactly how influential his works really were, as archeological evidence tends to overplay his achievements. Still, Imhotep’s tomb has never been found, and it may hold some clues to the precise scope of his engineering and scientific achievements.
Born in 287 BC in Syracuse, Sicily, Archimedes was easily one of the greatest minds of classical antiquity. While he’s mostly remembered for his contributions to mathematics – especially early geometry – he was also one of the greatest engineers of his time, even if he was always more interested in theorems and proofs rather than actually building anything.
Many of Archimedes’s greatest inventions happened under the reign of King Hieron II of Syracuse. He built a lever and pulley system that could easily launch large, newly-constructed ships into the water with a simple mechanism. Archimedes is also credited with building the first ever working odometer – an idea that was eventually adopted and improved upon by other inventors of the time. His creations also contributed to the war effort, as he built a giant Iron Claw to thwart invading ships during the Punic wars between Ancient Carthage and the Roman Republic, among other effective war machines.
4. Nikolaus August Otto
Nikolaus August Otto was born in 1832 in Holzhausen, Germany, and remains one of the most important inventors of the Industrial Age, even if most people today have likely never heard of him. While many engineers and businessmen aided in the invention of the modern automobile in their own way, Otto could be singularly credited with developing the technology that made it all possible – the four-stroke internal combustion engine.
Built in 1876, Otto’s engine improved upon Étienne Lenoir’s two-stroke system in many ways, providing the first working replacement for the widely-used steam engine at the time. In his honor, the four-stroke internal combustion cycle – comprising the four stages of intake, compression, combustion, and exhaust – is still called the Otto Cycle. His invention was used in the design of the first motorcycle by Gottlieb Daimler in August, 1885, as well as nearly every type of autmobile engine built since that time.
3. Fazlur Rahman Khan
Fazlur Rahman Khan is also sometimes referred to as the ‘father of tubular designs’ for high-rise buildings, as well as a pioneer of computer-aided designs – or CAD – in modern architecture. Easily one of the greatest engineers of the 20th century, Khan’s innovations are visible in modern skyscrapers around the world, even the ones he wasn’t directly involved with, such as the first World Trade Center in New York.
Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1929, Khan joined the renowned Chicago-based architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1955. His tubular designs ushered in a kind of a revolution in skyscraper design during the second half of the century, especially the ‘bundled tube’ structural system, which minimized the amount of material required for construction. Fazlur Rahman Khan’s most well-known works include Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) and John Hancock Center in Chicago, and the Haj Terminal at the King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, among many others.
2. Ismail al-Jazari
Ismait al-Jazari was a prolific polymath from the Islamic Golden Age – a nearly-five-centuries-long period of scientific, cultural and social renaissance across the Islamic world, beginning with the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 8th century. Born in 1136, al-Jazari built upon the works of other notable scientists and inventors from the region, and his inventions have since been recognized as a major influence on European inventors during the European Renaissance, like Leonardo da Vinci.
While we don’t know much about his early years – as many records from that time have since been lost – we know that over the course of his life, al-Jazari invented over 50 types of unique devices, including an elephant water clock and a mechanism for raising water for irrigation and other purposes, along with multiple other types of automatons. His inventions are illustrated in his magnum opus, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, which remains an important treatise in early engineering to this day.
1. Charles Babbage
It’s unclear exactly when or where Charles Babbage was born, though according to some sources, it was probably in London some time in 1791. Unlike many other inventors on this list, Babbage never went to school and mostly taught himself during his early years. He was exceptionally-good at algebra and calculus, though, earning him a place at the prestigious Trinity College at Cambridge by 1811.
Over the course of his life, Charles Babbage would prove himself to be an important figure in early computing. Out of his countless contributions to the fields of mathematics and engineering, perhaps the most important was the Difference Engine, and later the Analytical Engine, which are now recognized as the earliest types of mechanical computers. His designs were so far ahead of his time that they were impossible to build during his lifetime, as they far exceeded the technology available to him. Later attempts to recreate the Difference Engine would prove successful, however, even if many of his other prototype machines remain incomplete to this day. While he’s now called the ‘father of computers’ due to his contributions to early computation, much of Babbage’s work was never supported by his peers or the British government at the time.