Almost every invention can be traced back to a mechanical engineer, or someone who drew from mechanical engineering principles. The first wheel and axle, the clock on a classroom wall, the family car: all of these exist because of mechanical engineering. To celebrate the amazing feats of mechanical engineering and to inspire the next generation of engineers, we are highlighting some of the world’s most famous mechanical engineers from history and today.
Famous Mechanical Engineers in History
While less famous than historical movie stars or politicians, there are many notable mechanical engineers from the past. Each of the following engineers has made the history books for good reason: they have all contributed something that has shaped how we live our lives today.
George Stephenson (1781-1848)
A British civil and mechanical engineer, George Stephenson is known as the “Father of Railways” thanks to his innovations in locomotives. In fact, it’s largely due to Stephenson that trains became a popular form of commuter transport in 19th-century Europe. Throughout his career, he designed and built many steam engine trains, established standards for the size of train rails, and even helped bring to life the first public English railway in 1825.
Elijah McCoy (1844-1929)
Elijah McCoy is the real McCoy. Literally. The son of slaves who escaped via the Underground Railroad, McCoy was born in Canada in 1844. After studying mechanical engineering, he went on to work in the rail industry, where he invented many useful technologies, including automatic oiling systems that helped trains run faster. This invention was so reliable that railroad engineers were said to have requested “the real McCoy”, coining the phrase that lives on today. McCoy also has other inventions under his belt, including an ironing board and lawn sprinkler.
Lillian Gilbreth (1878-1972)
California-born Lillian Gilbreth was one of the first female engineers to earn a Ph.D. She dedicated her life to improving the efficiency of workplaces, particularly in the home. Gilbreth made a number of breakthroughs in her career, including designing the modern kitchen layout for the best efficiency and ergonomics; inventing the foot-pedal trash can; and designing fridge door shelving. Her work has been hugely influential and changed kitchen standards across the world.
Best Mechanical Engineers in the World Today
Inventions and mechanical engineering innovations aren’t a thing of the past. Every day, mechanical engineers across all industries are coming up with new solutions to improve how things work. Here are some of the leaders in mechanical engineering today.
Ursula Burns is a mechanical engineer and businesswoman. Her professional career began when she joined an internship program at the printing company Xerox in 1980. She stayed at the company for decades, working in product development and eventually was appointed President and CEO. Burns holds the title of being the first black female CEO at a Fortune 500 company.
Bill Nye, better known as “the Science Guy”, was a student in mechanical engineering and started his career at Boeing, making airplanes. From there he made a rather unusual but highly successful shift into entertainment, hosting a massively popular kid’s show about science and introducing new generations to the world of STEM. To this day, he remains a pop culture icon and an advocate for science and the environment.
Born in India, Subra Suresh got his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and has led innovative research focused on controlling the mechanical properties of materials. Suresh served as Director of the National Science Foundation from 2010-2013. He has since worked as President of Carnegie Mellon, where he helped to increase the number of women in STEM programs, and is now President of NTU Singapore, where he focuses on making the campus smarter and more eco-friendly.
Aprielle Ericsson-Jackson was the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at Howard University. Much of her career has been at NASA as an aerospace engineer. Her work at the space agency has been critical, contributing to better spacecraft stabilization, satellite development, and the design of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been in orbit since 2009. She is also committed to promoting STEM, particularly among minorities and girls.
Jamaican-born Walt Braithwaite got his start as a mechanical engineer and went on to study computer science. He used this combination of knowledge in his career at Boeing to pioneer the company’s use of computer-aided design (CAD) software to design commercial planes, like the 747 and 777. Braithwaite’s work has been highly influential and helped the aerospace industry adapt to a digital future.
How to be a Successful Engineering Student
Mechanical engineering is a rich field of study that lets students learn about different industries and choose their own path. Interests, like space, building blocks, robots, and video games, can translate into prolific careers with a degree in engineering. By encouraging kids to hone skills like drawing, communication, and problem-solving, and by promoting interest in STEM topics from an early age, students will be well-equipped to pursue mechanical engineering.
Sphero’s programmable robots and engineering kits allow PK-12 kids to explore mechanical engineering and computer science at an early age and are a great tool for inspiring students to pursue a fruitful career in the field. Who knows, a child you know could come up with the next great invention or product innovation when they grow up, joining the list of the most famous mechanical engineers in the world.