9 of the First Engineers Who Left Their Mark in History

Who were the first engineers and what did they engineer? Let's find out.
Christopher McFadden
Imhotep, Archimedes1, 2

Humans have been creating, some might say engineering, things for many tens of thousands of years. Living long before the invention of the written word, many names (if they had any) of the very earliest engineers will likely never be known.


Who were the first engineers?

Before we attempt to answer this, it might be useful to consider some definitions.

The term engineering, and by extension engineer, is as follows: 

"A person whose job is to design or build machinesengines, or electrical equipment, or things such as roadsrailways, or bridges, using scientific principles" - Cambridge Dictionary.

The English word "engineer" itself has a Latin origin. Its root-word "gene" means, in effect, to create, invent, or more specifically bring forth. 

The first part of the word comes from, in English at least, the word "engine". While we associate this word with a large piece of complex engineering today, it actually has its roots in the Latin terms "ingenium" or "ingeniare".

The former means to contrive or devise, while the latter refers to a device or machine. Today, the term "engineer" entered English, well Middle English, through Middle French, and had a relatively broad usage.

We know that in at least the 14th Century the term "engineer" had come to be commonly used to refer to either:

  • A builder of siege weapons
  • A maker of devices or
  • A cunning artificer

So, who could be considered the earliest engineers? Who invented the wheel? Would you consider spear throwers to be engineering? What about stone tools?

While it is speculated that many early inventions like these were the process of accidental discovery and refinement over generations, being able to think of the applications of these things, if discovered by accident, is an important trait of engineers today.

Who was/were the first engineers in history?

And so, without further ado, here are some of the world's first known engineers in human history. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. Göbekli Tepe ("Pot-bellied hill") in Turkey could be evidence of knowledge of engineering many thousands of years ago

first engineers gobekli tepe
Source: Teomancimit/Wikimedia Commons

Located near Sanliurfa in south-eastern Turkey, Göbekli Tepe (Go-Beck-Lee-Te-Peh) is the world's oldest known megalithic structure. Built sometime between the 10th and 8th Centuries BC, this impressive structure is widely considered one of the greatest, and earliest, examples of human architectural engineering.

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Whoever designed and built had at least rudimentary knowledge of some basic construction and structural engineering techniques, and we would definitely consider them engineers today.

Little is known about this enigmatic construction or the civilization behind it, but it is likely that the skill involved in this building project had even earlier origins.

2. The earliest "true" engineers were probably from what we call the "Middle East" today

first engineers mesopotimia
Source: Goran tek-en/Wikimedia Commons

As previously mentioned, it will probably be impossible to ever give a name to the first engineer that ever lived. But we do have some names from antiquity that would certainly fit the bill. 

From modern-day Syria to parts of Europe, many other ancient constructions have been found. Buildings like Tell Qaramel just north of Aleppo is believed to be between 9.67 and 11 thousand years old. 

Sometime around 3,500 BC, fairly complex elevated irrigation canal systems began to appear. Developed in Sumeria, Mesopotamia, these allowed for evermore successful farming techniques and crop yields, further ramping up, excuse the pun, of further engineering progress. 

Eventually, the first cities were founded and the rest, as they say, is history.

With no evidence of written records from the time, the men, and possibly women, behind these feats of engineering will sadly never be known.

3. Imhotep is the earliest recorded engineer in history

first engineers imhotep
Source: Dr. Chris Naunton/Twitter

An ancient Egyptian called Imhotep is currently the first engineer ever recorded in historical records. From what can be ascertained, he appeared to be the chancellor of the Pharaoh Djoser, and is thought to have responsible for the construction of the Pharaoh's step pyramid in Saqqara. 

Built sometime in the 3rd millennium BC, it is one of the world's oldest existing megalith structures. He was also deified by the Egyptians after his death in 525 BC. 

4. Archimedes was also one of the world's first visionaries

first engineers archimedes
A modern example of an Archimedes screw, Source: Carlito20/Wikimedia Commons

The great Archimedes (287-212 BC), is another of the world's first recorded engineers. He appears to have been gifted with great genius and is credited with a number of engineering achievements.

For example, he developed the transport ship, Syracusia, which was 110 meter-long vessel supposedly the largest of its kind at the time. He also devised the Archimedes screw, an effective water pump still in use today.

He is also credited with many innovations in warfare including catapults, the famed "Claw of Archimedes", and a "Death Ray" (an array of mirrors that could set ships on fire). 

5. Hero of Alexandria was well ahead of his time

Another pioneer in the field of engineering was the great Hero of Alexandria. Also known as Heron, he invented things like the first vending machine and steam-engine thousands of years ago.

He lived between 10 AD and 70 AD in Alexandria, Egypt, and is also credited with developing early programmable robots and many other amazing things. 

6. The Romans were among the great early engineers

"All roads lead to Rome", as the famous saying goes but there is more to this than meets the eye. The Romans were incredible engineers in their day and developed, or refined, many engineering practices that would last for millennia after the fall of the Empire.

Thankfully for us, they also kept a lot of written records. Among them are some notable early engineers whose names were recorded for posterity till the present day.

Vitruvius, Sextus Julius Frontinus, and Pliny the Elder are just some of the most notable among them. 

7. Sostratus of Cnidus was one of the world's most prominent engineers

first engineers sostratus
Source: Ma'at/Twitter

Yet another early engineer from antiquity was Sostratus of Cnidus. Credited as the mastermind behind the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, he built many other megalithic structures throughout his lifetime.

8. Polyidus of Thessaly's inventions helped the Macedonians besiege Byzantium

earliest engineers polyidus
Reconstruction of the Helepolis, Source: Gts-tg/Wikimedia Commons

Polyidus of Thessaly was a notable early engineer. He served under King Phillip II of Macedon as a military engineer. 

Phillip II, the father of none other than Alexander the Great, relied on Poliydus' genius to help develop new and improved siege weapons like the Helepolis, a giant siege tower. 

9. Philo of Byzantium, last but not least

And finally, Philo of Byzantium is one of the world's earliest recorded engineers. Also known as Phile Mechanicus, he was a prolific polymath who wrote about and developed some important mechanical principles.

He was born in the latter half of the 3rd Century BC in Byzantium and spent most of his days in Alexandria, Egypt. Recent discoveries show that he made early descriptions of water mills, repeating crossbows and even the world's first written description of what appears to be a gimbal. 

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