The what, why and how of mechanical engineering

Did you know that mechanical engineering is one of the oldest engineering disciplines? Or that aerospace engineering is one of its many branches? Or even that cruise control was invented by a blind mechanical engineer named Ralph Teetor? Mechanical engineering is a fascinating discipline with a multitude of real-world applications, but before we get ahead of ourselves, first things first…

What is Mechanical Engineering?

Broadly speaking, mechanical engineering involves the design and development of mechanical systems from the initial idea through to the final product. It is arguably the most diverse discipline in the field of engineering, with mechanical engineers lending their knowledge and skills to a wide range of industries and working on everything from prosthetic devices to wind turbines. It’s hardly surprising then that this field of engineering has given rise to so many specialist branches, including aerospace, manufacturing and industrial engineering, biomechanics and mechatronics.  

Mechanical engineering milestones

Mechanical engineering may have emerged during Europe’s Industrial Revolution (1760–1840), but its origins date back as far as 8000 BCE with the invention of the oldest-known boat, the Pesse dugout canoe. 

In 2000, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) released its list of Top Ten Technologies (1900– 2000). Topping the list was the Apollo Space Programme, which included 28 missions and culminated in Apollo 11 landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969. The other nine were as follows:

  • Power Generation
  • Agricultural Mechanisation
  • Integrated Circuit Mass-Production
  • Computer-Aided Design and Manufacturing Technology
  • Bioengineering
  • Codes and Standards
  • Air Conditioning and Refrigeration
  • Airplane
  • Automobile

Now that we know what mechanical engineering is and some of the most important technologies this discipline is responsible for, let’s take a look at four examples of mechanical engineering in action – on land, sea, air and space.

Land: The Crawler-transporters

If you’ve ever watched one of the space shuttles lift off, you’ll no doubt have been amazed by its size and power. But have you ever stopped to wonder how it got to the launch pad in the first place? Since 1965, two Herculean crawler-transporters have carried the weight of every spacecraft from the Saturn V to the space shuttle Atlantis. Weighing in at a staggering 2,721 tonnes and able to transport 9,000 tonnes (that’s the equivalent of 20 fully loaded 777 passenger planes*!) the overhauled crawler-transporter 2 will form an integral part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and person of colour on the moon.


Sea: Freedom Ship 

Imagine a ship 1.6 km long and 25 storeys high where people are able to live and work as it cruises around the globe. The brainchild of US engineer Norman Nixon, Freedom Ship, may only be an idea in the making, but that it’s even possible is a testimony to the ingenuity of modern mechanical engineering. Initially proposed in the late 1990s, the design includes 17,000 apartments housing over 60 000 people, offices, schools, a hospital, shopping mall, hotels, restaurants, a yacht marina, aircraft landing strip and more. As for the nuts and bolts of this floating city, the plan according to howstuffworks is to construct 91 m  x 122 m units formed from 24 m-high airtight steel cells that have been bolted together. These enormous units will then be moved out to sea where they will be assembled to create the ship’s base.   

How will this enormous structure be powered? The vessel will be equipped with 100 diesel-powered engines, each generating 3,700 horsepower. It’s estimated that should the Freedom Ship ever progress into construction, it would take around three years to complete.

Air: RoboFly

An insect-sized robot that weighs little more than a toothpick and flies – sounds like the stuff of movies, doesn’t it? But thanks to a group of dedicated engineers at the University of Washington, the RoboFly not only exists, it’s also able to flap its own wings thanks to a miniscule microcontroller. How will this micro-marvel of mechanical engineering make a difference in the real world? Once completed, the RoboFly will provide valuable assistance in surveillance, search and rescue, climate monitoring and even agriculture. Team leader, Sawyer Fuller, explains in an interview with CNBC, “Robotic flies will have a part to play in terms of their ability to fly around and really monitor the environment — things like humidity, state of disease — in a very detailed level, flying down, in and above the plants to look for disease or pests and to monitor air quality.”

Space: The International Space Station

Did you know that the International Space Station (ISS) is visible from Earth with the naked eye? That should give you some idea of just how big this 108 m-long modular structure really is. A collaboration between the space agencies of the US, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada saw the first section of this engineering phenomenon launched in 1998 with the last parts being positioned in 2011. So, how do you build in space? According to, the ISS “was taken into space piece-by-piece and gradually built in orbit using spacewalking astronauts and robotics. Most missions used NASA’s space shuttle to carry up the heavier pieces, although some individual modules were launched on single-use rockets.” As of 27 April, 2021, 244 individuals from 19 countries have set foot on the ISS, which is manned by six permanent astronauts who remain on board for four to six months at a time.  

Need mechanical engineering expertise?

These fascinating achievements, made possible by mechanical engineering, are only the ‘tip of the iceberg’, as they say. If you’re thinking of creating something, large or small – land, air, sea or space – Lithon’s mechanical engineering team would love to be a part of your journey. We leverage years of experience along with engineering, physics, mathematics, thermodynamic and material science to provide optimised solutions across a broad range of areas. Let’s discuss your next project today.