ROBERT'S RULES OF ORDER
by John H. Lienhard
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retired as a brigadier general the year after the
terrible Galveston flood of 1900. Galveston immediately
put him on a board charged with creating means to
protect the city in the future.
Today, a civil engineer creates order. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
You're at a meeting. A motion
is on the floor. Someone moves a substitute motion.
The group debates it. Another person moves closure
on debate. Now the chair has to know whether that
motion is legal, whether it demands action, what
fraction of the vote is needed to close debate, and
what action should follow.
We agree on a code called Robert's Rules of
Order to resolve those questions when we
meet. Robert's code guides the chair through the
thicket. It keeps meetings from descending into
chaos. So let's meet Henry Martyn Robert, the man
who gave us those rules.
Robert was born in South Carolina in 1837.
Engineer/historian Henry Petroski tells how Robert
went to West Point and then saw service in Panama.
During the Civil War he worked with the North while
his brother became a Confederate General. For the
rest of his life he worked for the Corps of
Engineers on projects all over America.
Here in Texas, we honor Robert for his work on
Galveston Island. After 1895 he worked on building
jetties on the northern end of Galveston. Those
jetties shifted the currents in such a way as to
erode the sand bar that was blocking Galveston Bay.
So it was that Henry Robert worked on the huge
project of raising the level of
Galveston and building a seawall around it. If
you live in this area, you've read his name on the
Sea Wall plaque.
But Robert's greatest engineering achievement was
made much earlier -- in 1876. And it began when he'd
attended an out-of-control church meeting in
Massachusetts in 1863. He came away vowing he would know
parliamentary procedure before he attended another
meeting. But he found little written on the subject
and no general agreement as to how to run meetings.
A jurist named Cushing had written on parliamentary
procedure in 1845, and Jefferson had written rules
for the conduct of Congress. Neither book was
widely read or easy to use. So Robert went to work.
With highly-honed logic and an engineer's
appreciation of structure, he created an extremely
robust set of procedural rules that would serve
every kind of deliberative gathering.
No publisher would touch such a dry subject, so
Robert published it himself. He originally had 4000
copies printed, figuring they'd last two years.
They were gone in four months. He kept revising and
improving the work. By 1914, a half million copies
had been sold. The ninth edition came out in 1990.
Here in Texas, we see the raising of Galveston as a
great engineering miracle. But few of us know that
the same structural genius gave us the set of
conventions for doing business in peace -- when
passions could so easily destroy the democratic
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Petroski, H., Henry Martyn Robert. American
Scientist, March- April 1996, pp. 106-109.
Click on the thumbnail for a
Images from Green, N. C., Story of the
Galveston Flood (also given as The Story of
the Galveston Hurricane) Baltimore: R.H.
Woodward. 1900. (A copy of this remarkable book,
printed the same year as the Sept. 8th
hurricane, was lent to me by Roger Eichhorn, UH Mech.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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