Imhotep: First Engineer, Physician, Chancellor, and…Deity?

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Imhotep, looking as good today as 5,000 years ago

Most engineers know that if they work hard, they can aspire to working their way up the corporate ladder, higher salaries, and maybe a larger cubicle.  The most successful and ambitious of us may also eventually hang out a shingle as owner of our own consulting firm.  But did you know that there was one engineer – in fact the world’s first engineer – who achieved even greater success?  Imhotep, who lived in Egypt from 2650-2600 BC, was actually deified in recognition of his innovative career, taking his place in the pantheon of Egyptian deities alongside Ra, Isis, Horus, and the others.

Last year my wife and I vacationed in Egypt for two weeks.  We completely covered the country – from the (new) library of Alexandria on the northern coast, to Cairo’s pyramids and Sphinx, upriver to Luxor and the amazing Temple of Karnak, then by boat to the Aswan Dam — a modern engineering marvel — and finally to the unparalleled Ramses temple in Abu Simbel, just a few miles from Egypt’s southern border with Sudan.  It seemed that on any given day, whatever we saw eclipsed the wonders of the previous days.

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But looking back on the trip a year or so later, I spend a lot of time thinking of one of the so-called “lesser” sights – the royal necropolis at Saqquara, about 20 miles south of Cairo.  This complex is best known for the Step Pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser – a somewhat decrepit and awkward structure that doesn’t look at all like the traditional pyramids that we all know and love.

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Yours truly at the Step Pyramid                          The world’s first stone building?

The reason I remember this particular location is because of what I learned about its creator – Imhotep, who is generally considered to be the world’s first engineer.  It seems that Djoser, the Pharaoh at the time, decided that he deserved the most impressive tomb ever seen in Egypt – taller (closer to the sun god Ra) and more durable than any of the tombs of his predecessors.  In order to get this done, he turned to the smartest guy he knew – the royal chancellor and physician (and “maker of vases”, but we won’t stress that title), Imhotep.

Imhotep knew that this challenge required an innovative solution — a material with greater strength and durability than anything used to date.  In ancient Egypt, as elsewhere, construction had always been done using wood and mud bricks, so Imhotep decided to experiment with stone.  The only problem was that without precedent, there was no understanding of how to use this new material.

Imhotep studied the problem by going to the only sources he had – contemporary best practices using wood and mud.  To support roofs, columns had always been made by binding together bundles of logs – so Imhotep decided that form might be responsible for function, and thus directed his workers to carve stones into the shape of log bundles.  Likewise for beams and lintels builders had traditionally laid logs across horizontal spaces; so once again Imhotep had workers carve single logs out of stone.  Door hinges were carved to reflect the look of the wooden peg and rope construction used to date.  So construction methods (once the structural members had been fabricated) remained familiar to the workers, and style remained familiar to the visitors.

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Imhotep’s “log bundle” columns
at a Saqqara out-building

Imhotep constructed all of the buildings of the complex from stone, using the earlier, smaller buildings as a training ground to learn more about the capabilities and requirements of his new material.  Finally he put his knowledge to use on the great Step Pyramid, the largest structure in the world at that time – and an inspiration for the later pyramids that we see at Giza.  Today, nearly 5,000 years later, we can visit most of the original buildings at the site – the great legacy of the first engineer to build with stone (although some sources merely grant that Imhotep was the first engineer to build a stone structure that survived, but that seems like quibbling to me).

The news of Imhotep’s success spread quickly.  He was celebrated by famous poets of the day (equivalent to being mentioned in a blog article today), inspired some of the most famous (and most recognizable) buildings in history, and was so revered by his nation that he became one of the few Egyptian commoners to receive deification after death.  And all that without even access to a computer!

For an example of today’s engineering innovation, please go to www.cloudcalc.com – Structural Analysis Software on the Cloud.

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