Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1107:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1107.

Today, we learn where engineers come from. 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.

How long have engineers been around? Well, it depends on what you mean by engineer. Whoever organized construction of the Great Pyramid, 5000 years ago, richly deserves to be called an engineer. But the term has only been in general use for 200 years -- since universities began training people to build things.

Before that, the great inventors and builders did their work without formal education. James Watt spent a year in London as an apprentice instrument maker when he was young. The rest he had to gain from conversation, reading, or his own invention.

By the mid-1600s, artillery and fortifications had grown so complex that armies began training officers in math and mechanics. That gradually turned into civil engineering. In 1775, King Louis XV of France authorized Jean Perronet to set up a School of Bridges and Highways with a three-year program.

After the chaos of the French Revolution, Napoleon decided he needed to start over. In 1794 he replaced Perronet's school with the Ecole Polytechnique and the game changed. The Ecole Polytechnique hosted the greatest mathematicians and theoretical mechanics of that age -- Biot, Arago, Fourier, names we engineers still know.

Lawrence Grayson's history of engineering education shows how that tradition exploded into America. As early as 1795 a crude form of military engineering was being taught in the town of West Point -- even before the military academy was set up there.

In 1819 West Point began modeling itself on the Ecole Polytechnique. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute offered civil engineering by 1828 and the University of Virginia by 1833. Norwich University was probably in the game even earlier. They all looked to France for guidance.

As I trace the old photos in Grayson's book, I see something I like. It's formality -- of dress, of behavior: An old professor lectures in a black frock coat; surveying students stand outside their tent in vests and hats; students at the blackboard work exercises with formal sketches and neat solutions.

I'm probably the last dinosaur who still wears a necktie to teach classes. I do it to honor the process -- like going to church. That necktie doesn't make me a better teacher or a more devout worshiper. It merely says I'm doing something I value.

One photo jumps off the page -- a man and a boy at a blackboard, both friends of mine from long long ago, both serious at their complex work. The man died young, from cancer. The boy went on to become a research director. The man lives on in the boy.

And I realize that I've now been in engineering schools for a fourth of the time the field has existed. I suppose it's no wonder I feel such love for these stiff images of students and teachers, once so serious and intent -- on building America.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Grayson, L.E., The Making of an Engineer: An Illustrated History of Engineering Education in the United States and Canada. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993.

I am grateful to Steve Gideon of John Wiley & Sons, Inc., for providing me with Grayson's book.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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