Systems Engineering – Another Perspective on its “short” history

Engineering arose from the need to harness increasingly complicated knowledge to provide solutions for humanity. Simple needs were addressed by individuals. As the needs grew, the number of designers/implementers increased, as did the number of disciplines that needed to be addressed. This drove a transition from artisans to craftsmen to teams of craftsmen. As knowledge advanced, the craftsmen included scientists, and then discipline specialists and engineers. Relatively isolated products could be successfully designed often in a single discipline. As product s applied multiple disciplines, teams of scientists and engineers formed to address solutions.

Modern Systems Engineering had its formal beginning in the major weapons programs and logistics of World War II (although systems approaches can be found in communications systems earlier in the 20th century)1 . The ‘discipline’ grew by including all of the activities needed to coordinate various suppliers and bring together independently developed and test parts to realize complicated, dispersed systems.

Through the 1970’s and 80’s some of the activities associate with the discipline of systems engineering split off to form their own focused disciplines (e.g. program management, software engineering2). By the early 1990’s, the rise of Mechatronics and larger systems of systems (such as the Global Positioning System) brought the need to revisit formal processes for analyzing, designing and managing project developments. The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) formed to address this need (1995)3.

INCOSE has made progress in formalizing and promoting engineering practices as applied to systems. I recommend contributing to the discipline and organization, by becoming a member INCOSE, joining a chapter and participating in discussion groups and working groups4. Bring and share your skills, experience and perspectives.

This juncture offers the opportunity to examine current formalism and offer additions and perspective for practicing engineers.


  1. From INCOSE – the International Council on Systems EngineeringEncyclopedia Britannica.
  2. Software engineering, as the ‘glue’ between sub-systems and systems immediately ran into the complexity of systems issues and began a parallel path addressing complications in systems solutions (but without any of the hardware issues). Many of the processes and tools of SwE have been brought into SE discipline.
  3. Originally formed as NCOSE (National Council on Systems Engineering) in 1990, the organization expanded its scope to INCOSE in 1995. Some history here.
  4. We have been members of INCOSE since 1997 and associated with chapters when they were available locally.

What is a system?