This is an email from RE: Engineering, a newsletter by Eiffel’s Paris — an Engineer’s Guide.

The Perversity of Inanimate Things, Rudyard Kipling, and Me

I wear an iron ring. This means that, like most Canadian engineers, I have participated in the Ritual Calling of an Engineer ceremony. It was there that I first heard a phrase that perfectly captures what I had long known to be true — the perversity of inanimate things. And, it has stayed with me ever since.

The Ritual was created by Rudyard Kipling in 1922 at the request of leading Canadian engineers. Kipling was a prolific writer and poet during the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. His work epitomized English culture in the later part of the Victorian age, when the worldwide British Empire was at its peak.

It was during this period that engineering emerged as a profession. A number of Kipling’s works resonate with engineers, among them The Sons of Martha and the Hymn of Breaking Strain. Therefore, Kipling was a natural choice to create a ceremony to indoctrinate aspiring engineers into the profession.

I was interested to know more about the phrase “perversity of inanimate things,” its origins and its meaning. So, I went to Google to see where and how Kipling had used it.

As far as I have been able to determine, Kipling used this phrase only once, before writing the ritual, in a short story called The Devil and the Deep Sea. Here is the section of text, which describes a crew’s first look into their ship’s engine room after being hit by an artillery shell:

“…He warned them that it was as much as a man’s life was worth to enter the engine-room, and they contented themselves with a distant inspection through the thinning steam. The [ship] Haliotis lifted to the long, easy swell, and the starboard supporting-column ground a trifle, as a man grits his teeth under the knife. The forward cylinder was depending on that unknown force men call the pertinacity of materials, which now and then balances that other heartbreaking power, the perversity of inanimate things.”

Much of the action of the story takes place in that engine room. The Victorian ship’s engineer, a distant cousin to most practitioners of the engineering profession today, works diligently to get the engines working again. Kipling does an admirable job, for a mere writer, in naming all the parts of the machinery and describing what they do.

But,there among the multitude of valves and gauges, bearings and push-rods, always lurk the malevolent forces of pertinacity and perversity. Ultimately, unknown and unknowable in nature and intent, their presence cannot be ignored. Indeed, at times they demand the engineer’s full attention.

The consequences of the unknowable forces Kipling refers to are closely related to what others, outside the particular setting of a ship’s engine room, have characterized by the aphorism “Whatever can go wrong probably will.” Popular literature written by the generation of writers that followed Kipling’s spawned a litany of “laws” usually offered in a jocular, mocking tone — Peter’s Principle, Murphy’s Law, Finagle’s Corollary, Resistentialism, etc. (See also Science 14 Jan 1994 and Industrial Engineering and Chemistry March 1955.)

But, to quote my father-in-law, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.”

There can be serious consequences when the things we are playing at are ships, bridges, airplanes, power plants, pipelines, spacecraft, etc. Not only is the success of the project at stake, but also the safety and lives of others.

The workings of the world depend on many things that are, as Kipling might put it, imponderable. An engineer’s expertise must extend beyond what can be theorized, measured, and calculated.

The iron ring reminds me that the imponderables demand respect.

Read more about the 19th century roots of the engineering profession and the 72 engineers and scientists named on the Eiffel Tower.

RE: Engineering publishes occasional notes and comment on what it means to be an engineer in a world created by science and technology. To view other issues of the newsletter and/or sign up to receive future issues via email, go here.



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William Nuttle

William Nuttle

Navigating a changing environment — hydrologist, engineer, advocate for renewable energy, currently writing about the personal side of technological progress