The History of the Iron Ring

“We are the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything, with nothing.”

A chorus of a thousand voices calling out the oath of a McMaster engineering student. A smothering silence lays about the stadium in which every faculty says this year’s student oath to properly welcome and display faculty pride. For engineering, this oath is the same as last year, and the year before that and so on. This was my first proper experience witnessing the unity throughout the engineering undergraduate degree, but as I soon found out, there was so much more that bound engineers together.

In Canada, once an engineering student graduates from university, they are presented with the biggest symbol of the profession: The Iron Ring. A giant iron ring rests outside of the engineering building; a twin sits outside of Hamilton’s city hall. Why? Why an Iron Ring? Why is it called Kipling? Why is this single band of iron worn around the pinky such a distinction?

The Quebec Bridge collapse of 1907 inspired the first ceremony. The bridge was lost due to poor planning, oversight and construction practices, killing 76 workers present. It was found that the only conceivable cause for the collapse lay at the feet of the two lead engineers responsible for the cable designs, who went forward with the project. H.E.T. Haultain, a civil engineering graduate from the University of Toronto proposed an ethical oath for the engineering profession to hold engineers accountable for work done. The iron ring is meant as a reminder to engineers that the work they will accomplish is laborious, uncelebrated and perilous. The ring is worn on your writing hand as a weighted expression of an engineer’s obligation to safety and quality in any task they may accomplish.

As for McMaster’s “Kipling” ceremony? Haultain commissioned Rudyard Kipling, a famous poet and author, with the writing The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer. Kipling’s other work includes The Jungle Book and Ba Ba, Black Sheep, as well as a poem The Son’s of Martha which celebrates the unsung achievements of the professional engineer. It’s this poem that served as the inspiration for the ritual to evoke the passion needed for one’s craft.

The Iron Ring ceremony is different for every school in Canada and is organised by one of twenty Camps of the Corporation of the Seven Wardens. This group is the governing body of the iron ring ceremony across the country and is responsible for organising and performing the ritual as well as upholding the honour and integrity of professional engineers.

Our McMaster Engineering graduating class received their rings on March 29th. Congratulations to you all, and good luck in your professional career!