St. Patrick the Engineer
by Tim Walker
You probably know St. Patrick was a missionary and bishop in Ireland during the 5th century. You may also know he played a big part in bringing Christianity to Ireland. And you've probably also heard that St. Patrick is credited with driving all of the snakes from the island (obviously a feat that only an engineer could have accomplished!).
But did you also know that many associate Patrick with engineering? It's true!
The Worm Drive
According to one story, engineers began associating St. Patrick with their profession in the 1930s in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Worm Drive. The worm drive is a gear arrangement popular in early 20th century automobiles. And since St. Patrick drove the snakes from his country, he must be responsible for the first worm drive! In the picture below, NC State engineering students paraded a 200-ft snake through town as part of the 1930 Engineers Fair.
(credit: NC State Engineering)
The Restless Engineering Student
According to a different tradition, a group of restless engineering students at the University of Missouri are responsible for creating the tradition:
"Another version of the origin places a group of engineering students in 1903 in the library or in a drafting room waiting for class to start. They were discussing the long time span between holidays, especially since the College of Engineering attended classes six days out of seven. Professor Greene was unusually late that particular day and the students considered cutting class. Realizing that St. Patrick's Day was soon approaching, the students reasoned that St. Patrick was an engineer and this should be celebrated. The discovery was announced through notices on the Engineering Building and in Academic Hall. As a result, many engineering students cut class in honor of St. Pat. on March 17."
Source: University of Missouri Archives
The story gets even better at the University of Wisconsin, where their St. Patrick's Day Parade put on by engineers routinely mocked other disciplines (mostly lawyers). The university had to put a stop to the festivities in 1938 when engineers and lawyers nearly rioted over the antics.
(credit: University of Wisconsin Alumni
Many engineering colleges still celebrate the official-unofficial holiday today!
This story is the only one that actually associates St. Patrick with engineering or building. Some suggest that because Patrick was born in Roman Britain , he would have been familiar with the advanced engineering techniques of the Roman Empire
. It is claimed that St. Patrick was instrumental in building churches in Ireland and teaching the Irish to build arches from mortar instead of masonry.
Whatever the true origin of the association, engineers should feel proud claim St. Patrick as one of their own and wear a wee bit o' green on March 17th!