Read CHAPTER VII of Opportunities in Engineering , free online book, by Charles M. Horton, on


The consulting engineer represents the pinnacle, as it were, of professional success. The inventor is something else a wilding in the profession and as such cannot be considered in a paper of this kind, save only as to say that he is the presiding genius among engineers, the Shakespeare or Milton among his kind, a man whose path to the heights is nowhere known of men. The consulting engineer, on the contrary, representing, as he does, the zenith of slowly attained power in some certain branch of engineering, a vantage point open freely to all, is the embodiment of the goal toward which all graduates should strive. The consulting engineer has perfected himself in his chosen field; he has become an authority in his branch of engineering; his word is accepted as final in court and privy council. Having gained to this enviable position only after prolonged study and protracted and wide experience in his particular specialty, the consulting engineer has well earned whatever accrues to him in the way, among other things, of generous fees for his services.

Still, there are consulting engineers who have become so through accident. The writer personally knows a consulting engineer who was following a general engineering practice when called upon one day to advise a group of capitalists in the matter of a garbage-disposal plant of new design for a large mid-Western city. His services were sought not because he was a garbage expert, but rather because he was expert in intricate pipe layouts and the like. However, once he got his hand into garbage disposition on a large scale, he remained in this branch of engineering, eventually traveling about the country supervising the design of similar plants whose object was the economical disposal of municipal refuse. Practically alone in the field, his writings soon became accepted as authoritative, and yet the whole thing began with that first call, quite by chance, in a matter foreign to the subject. Like other professional men, engineers never know when the heavens will open for their particular benefit.

Yet these cases are rare. The average consulting engineer is a man who has won to pre-eminence only through protracted study and hard work in one line. He is a specialist with a high reputation for accuracy and skill in that line. The basis of this skill, of course, lies in a broad general engineering experience, upon which is built a peculiar knowledge of a certain, and not infrequently isolated, branch of engineering. Heating and ventilating engineers are but specialists grown to such large numbers as to form a definite branch of engineering. Likewise, automotive engineers are men who have specialized through long years in this branch. The man who knows more about building dredges, say, than any other man among his engineering brothers is a man who will be most frequently sought by industrial powers feeling the need for a dredge, just as a man suffering eye-strain will seek out the best specialist known to the medical fraternity. He goes to the one acknowledged authority in this line, and in doing so but follows a sane inner dictation.

And that is consulting work. The individual of money who would launch into manufacturing, knowing nothing of manufacturing, will, after deciding as to which branch of manufacturing he wishes to follow, enlist the services of a consulting engineer big by reputation in this branch. The capitalist may wish to enter the paper-manufacturing field. Straightway he will put himself in touch with a consulting engineer whose specialty is paper-manufacturing plants, and, having informed this man as to the amount of money he is willing to spend on the venture, together with the location where he wishes, within certain prescribed limitations, to have his plant stand, may withdraw from the thing, if he choose, until the plant is built and in operation. The consulting engineer has done the rest. He has gone out upon location, seeking sites with an eye to economy both of power and transportation; he has supervised the design of the plant and the location in the plant of the necessary machinery; has enlisted the service of a builder whose task it is to follow these plans from foundation to roof in the work of actual construction. For this work the consulting engineer receives a fee, usually based upon a percentage of the cost, and then turns to other clients waiting in his outer office who would enlist his services in a similar capacity.

The consulting engineer has other sources of revenue. Like the lawyer, he is frequently retained by traction and lighting interests to guard the rights of these interests, service for which he receives payment by the year. His testimony is valued in matters of litigation, sometimes patent infringements, sometimes municipal warfare between corporations, but always of a highly specialized nature. He is an authority, and when I have said that I have said all. His retainer fees are large; his work is exact; he is a man looked up to by those in the profession following a general practice. He has his office, and retains a staff of engineers, usually young engineers just out of college, who, like himself at one time, are on their way upward in the game. He is rarely a young man; generally is a man of wide reading; is a man respected in his community not for what he knows as an engineer, but for the standard of living which he is able to set by virtue of his income. Besides the sources of revenue which are his, and as I have set forth above, he is sought by technical editors to contribute to magazines powerful in his field, and this is a pleasurable source of income to any man in any walk of life. The consulting engineer is a man to be admired and emulated by all engineering students.

As to the time in life when an engineer feels qualified to enter upon consulting work, that is something which must come to him from within. Usually the engineer knows that he has become a factor in his chosen branch or specialty when he finds himself becoming more and more sought in an advisory capacity among his fellows. He can judge that he has become an authority in his work by the simple process of comparing himself and his work with others and the work of these others in the field. If he finds that he is designing a better plant or automatic machine, or more economically operated mine or more serviceable lighting station than his neighbor, and, together with this knowledge, perceives also that capitalists are beating a deeper path to his door than to the doors of his competitors to warp an Emersonian phrase then the handwriting on the wall should be clear to him to quote the Bible. Having sufficient capital to carry him through a year or two of personal venturing in the consulting field, he will open an office and insert his professional card in the journals in his field and fly to it. If he be a man of righteous parts, he will succeed as a consulting engineer and can go no higher in the profession.

The game is certainly worth the candle.