Wednesday, March 08, 2006

History of Engineering Drawing

A project I occassionaly return to is the history of engineering drawing. The primary text on the field seems dated and limiting. Booker provides biographical detail but leaves out all the really interesting bits. I suppose he created a history without writing a "social history."

There are a number of papers that deal with elements of the topic and a few books that deal with other elements. One of the most cited works is The Art of the Engineer by Baynes and Pugh. It seems that Ken Baynes also published at least one other paper that provides a very interesting take on drawing.

In a paper entitled The Ethics of Representation (pp. 12-16), Baynes provides both a good overview of the history of engineering drawing and some exposition on how it differs from other types of technical creative activity.

He notes: "All models are an abstraction from the chaos of information presented by the complexity of the real world. This is their value. It enables us to isolate variables, describe them accurately and analyse their significance. Different kinds of model have been developed to do different kinds of job--in essence, to describe and manipulate different aspects of reality." (p. 12)

He then describes three general types of model:

ICONIC: "These are models that work by looking like a selected aspect of existing or proposed reality."
SYMBOLIC: "These are models that work by using an abstract code to stand for a selected aspect of existing or proposed reality."
ANALOGUE: "These are models that work by means of diagrams that stand for but do not look like a selected aspect of existing or proposed reality." (p.12)

Baynes also provides a more detailed article entitled The Role of Modeling in the Industrial Revolution (pp. 17-31). It is both derivative of--and expands--his earlier work in the The Art of the Engineer. He introduces the article by noting:

"The emergene of engineering drawing as a recognizable gaphic form took place at the end of the Eighteenth Century. For the development of design as a separate discipline it was indispensible. Without a method of modelling by drawing, the early engineers could not have distanced themselves intellectually or technically from the limiting conceptual framework of traditional craft procedures. Engineering drawing was a dramatic and powerful modelling tool that made possible a new relationship between management and manufacture and separated the process of deign from the process of construction. It was a tool of the new industrial specialisation that the Scots economist Adam Smith christened 'the division of labour.' It was at the heart of the industrial revolution and the new work relationships it brought into being." (p. 18)

His history also contains some other interesting tidbits on the very origin of the practice of drawing:

"However, engineering drawing did not emerge in isolation from other, less specialised, developments in the history of European drawing. Its sources straddle the technical, aesthetic and scientific worlds. Although its application to industry was strictly utilitarian, its origins were at one with the intellectual ferment that began in Italy at the time of the Renaissance. It was Italian architects, shipwrights and military engineers who first used drawings in a recognisably modern way, just as it was Italian artists who first introduced the revolution in the means of representation that is at the basis of objective drawing. It was they who first pursued rational rules for perspective, illusionist representation of solids and depiction of buildings and objects through a series of systematic projections." (p.19)

There were several attempts to formalize technical drawing. Desargues, Philippe de la Hire, and Blaise Pascall all made contributions. Things didn't really get underway until the mid 18th century when patronage in France really started to support the basic investigations required: perspective, solid geometry, and applied drawing. Much of this work was centered around the nascent military colleges and L'Ecole Polytechnique. With the Napoleonic wars, interest in drawing increased due to commercial concerns.

There was also research effort in England: King George III was interested in drawing (he appointed Joshua Kirby as his personal tutor in perspective). Kirby, in turn, produced a manificent book on perspective called The Perspective of Architecture. The Military Survey of Scotland also had an effect on precise representation. The Royal Navy was also influential. From the days of Pepys, it had become a very effective commercial bureacracy that required documentation for every new ship design: drawings and a model (many of which are still preserved at the National Maritime Museum). It should be noted that these drawings were intended as working drawings for craftsmen and differ considerably from contemporary techne-documents such as the plates in Hendrik Chapman's Architectura Navalis Mercatoria.


Roberts, Phil, Bruce Archer, and Ken Baynes (1992). Modelling: The Language of Designing. Occasional Paper No. 1 from the Loughborough University of Technology Department of Design and Technology. Downloaded March 1 2006 from


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