Last week we published a column noting that today “discussion of incentives often begins from the false belief that only cash can influence behavior.”

This remark—the heart of the piece in as few words as possible—prompted a regular reader to offer a comment so compelling that it’s worthy of reprising and expanding upon in a column of its own; this is that column. The reader, who I know, is an engineer, which will become clear momentarily.

In opposition to the belief in cash as incentives , our friend wrote that “Once – and not that long ago – the motivation would have been based on honor, and that notion of honor would have been widely understood and acknowledged.”

He proceeds to relate the tradition (hitherto unknown to me) of the “iron ring” given to all engineers upon graduation from Canadian universities.

The tradition dates to the collapse of the Quebec Bridge, a span across the St. Lawrence River between Quebec City and Levis, Quebec, Canada, while still under construction in 1907. Proposals to bridge the river were considered in 1852, 1867, 1882, and 1884 before finally being approved in 1897.

By 1904 construction was well underway but preliminary engineering calculations on stress and load-bearing had never been properly re-checked when the design was finalized—at substantially greater length than originally proposed. As a result, the actual weight was to be well in excess of its carrying capacity. As completion neared in the summer of 1907, engineers noted distortions of critical structural members already in place. Despite warnings which were mailed (not telegraphed) by the lead engineering firm to the construction manager, skepticism prevailed (including the suggestion that the beams in question were bent before they were installed) and only after another round of discussions did word finally come down to halt construction.

Too late. After four years of construction, the south arm and part of the central (cantilevered) span of the bridge collapsed into the St. Lawrence in just 15 seconds, killing 75 of the 86 workers on the bridge that day.

The iron ring ceremony incorporates a composition by Rudyard Kipling:

Gold is for the mistress – silver for the maid!

Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.

“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,

“But Iron – Cold Iron – is master of them all!”

Kipling also alluded to the New Testament story of Martha and her children who continued doing the household chores needed to keep things running rather than sitting at the Lord’s feet, and approvingly compares the “sons of Martha” to engineers.

Originally the rough iron rings were composed of iron from the failed Quebec Bridge, but in the century since that has shifted from reality to symbolism, yet the rings remain rough and unfinished, not to be in any way confused with adornment or jewelry.

Our reader continues the story:

The ring is small and very plain – not a piece of jewelry. It is worn on the little finger of the working hand, so that as the engineer writes or drafts, the resistance of the rough ring moving across the paper will remind him/her of the need for care. Although the ring ceremony and wearing of the ring is not a requirement for the PE in Canada, every engineer I know who graduated from a Canadian university has the ring, and almost all of them wear it regularly. The final part of the tradition, which I very much like, is that one returns the ring to the association on retirement, and families do so on death.

Our profession has no equivalent, and we are immensely poorer for it.

Symbols matter.

There’s the tangible and the immanent, the quotidian and the aspirational, the meretricious and the virtuous.

Can we still tell the difference?  Do we care, or even have the self-awareness left to know, which we are pursuing as a profession?

You have to wonder:

Have we, I repeat, lost our way as a profession?

Speaking of symbols, here’s another one that speaks unforgettably to the difference between merely surviving to fight another day vs. attaining something difficult and worthy:  The years I ran the New York City Marathon, the organizing body, the New York Road Runners Club, had psychological counseling stops every few miles along the route, together with the obligatory medical/EMS tents. I assume the EMS teams had every state of the art technology available to them, but the psych teams had no tools save one: Small 2-inch long snippets of the neon orange finish-line tape.

Runners having a tough time would get a pep talk, sure, but also a tangible symbol of what they were striving for: the tiny piece of orange tape which they could hold in their hand, stuff in their shoe or their waistband, and which would (we all hope) carry them over the finish line.

Lawyers have no equivalent of the iron ring, or the scrap of orange tape.

We need one, and it can come none too soon.


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