Engineers really are different. From early childhood, they want to "fix" things--or at least take them apart and find ways to create new capabilities. When they go to college, the faculty emphasizes that they have a responsibility for bettering the lot of people. When they graduate, they go to work in the appropriate industry or government sector. And there we find civil engineers designing and building bridges, dams, and highways; mechanical engineers doing the same for cars, lawn mowers, and farm machinery; aeronautical engineers with their aircraft, rockets, and space stations; and electrical engineers with power grids, computers, and TVs. In addition, there are chemical engineers, railway engineers, and even systems engineers. All doing their "thing" to serve mankind.
However, long before there were engineering curricula in colleges and even before there were colleges, there were "engineers." A fellow engineer, upon visiting Egypt recently, wrote about how the pyramids were constructed. "Recent excavations showed that these ancient engineers scraped the sand and gravel off a prospective location until they got down to bedrock. They then chiseled a trench in the rock, just outside the area of the proposed pyramid. (The corners of the trench were squared with ropes knotted in the 3-4-5 right triangle configuration, thus guaranteeing 90-degree corners.) The trench was filled with water from the Nile. The bedrock was then smoothed to the level of the water, before they started hauling those enormous blocks from the quarry to begin the pyramids. It's amazing that 3000 years ago, one of our predecessors was figuring out the optimum approach to a problem."
Upon reading this, good friend and engineer extraordinaire Bob Everett, former president of the Mitre Corp., noted, "There is no evidence that human beings have evolved mentally over the last 6000 years. So there was an engineer A in ancient Egypt who was just as smart as engineer B today, although somewhat lacking in computer capacity. He must have had a lot of well-behaved labor and, more important, the backing of the government--the pharaoh. Most important of all, I bet he didn't have any ’-ilities' to contend with." ("-Iities" refers to a group of "requirements" placed on military contracts for aircraft, tanks, ships, etc., covering such topics as reliability, maintainability, transportability, and so forth. Each such "requirement" calls for scads of useless meetings and reports whose only apparent impact is to increase the costs and extend the schedule.)
Of Engineers and Nerds
The word "nerd" was apparently first used in the 1950 Dr. Seuss book "If I Ran the Zoo." Near the end of the story, the wannabe zookeeper, young Gerald McGrew, sails "to Ka-Troo" to bring back other unusual animals.
"an IT-KUTCK, a PREEP and a PROO,
a NERKLE, a NERD and a SEERSUCKER, too."
The nerd, it turns out, is a yellow critter with a red face and tufts of white hair wearing a black body shirt.
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., defines nerd as: "an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; esp: one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits <computer ~s>" Both nerdish and nerdy are acceptable adjectives.
Thus, nerd was originally considered an insulting term, but engineers quickly adopted it (and "geek" also) as a badge of honor. MIT offers a pin and a shirt pocket protector (to hold all those pens and pencils an engineer carries along with his slide rule, or "slipstick"; the latter has been largely displaced by calculators today) displaying the words "NERD PRIDE" along with "Massachusetts Institute of Technology."
Engineers have a well-deserved reputation for pranks. The MIT Museum for many years had a Nerd Corner, featuring in words and photos the best-known MIT pranks.