Today, where did all the engineers go? 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.
A colleague asked a group of
freshman engineering students to write down nine names:
three famous scientists, three famous inventors, and
three famous engineers. Few had any trouble with
scientists. Most could name one or two inventors. But few
of the engineering students could name any famous
What are the implications of that? There are plenty of
names: Vitruvius, Watt, Brunel,
Eiffel, Mulholland, Rickover,
Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter,
Nevil Shute, Henry David Thoreau, and Josiah Willard Gibbs. But we call
Vitruvius and Eiffel architects. We call Watt and Brunel
inventors, and Gibbs a scientist. We call Hoover and
Carter political figures, and Rickover an admiral. We
know Nevil Shute and Henry David Thoreau only as writers,
even though both did major engineering work. Did you know
that cellist Carlos Prieto and
sculptor Alexander Calder were
I used to be more confident in defining engineering than
I am today. The word engineer has evolved from the
word engine and from the word ingenuity. Some people focus on
engineering as a profession -- an enterprise in which the
public places its trust. Others see it as a source of new
technology. Some expect engineers to expand our knowledge
of means for building things.
An essential tension lies among these different pursuits.
The most sober and reliable professional has little
interest in potentially dangerous new ideas. At the same
time, codes and standards are pretty far off the radar
screen of someone deeply involved with, say, creating new
turbine-blade cooling systems.
Maybe we need to look inside schools that teach
engineers. There we find a three-part curriculum. Math
and science is one part; technical engineering is
another; liberal arts and writing form the third.
Engineers get one of the best liberal educations
available. In fact, some schools give their engineers a
Bachelor of Arts degree instead of a Bachelor of Science.
That term liberal education refers to the
tradition of educating students to become effective free
citizens -- people capable of making and carrying out
good choices and decisions. (It has nothing to do with
politics.) It refers only to equipping a person with
freedom of choice. It's about creating effective
People who see the world with an engineer's eye are
typically able to move in many directions. Some become
scientists, others builders, managers, presidents or
beach bums, writers or artists.
Naturally, since engineers are so seldom just one thing,
our students have trouble identifying famous ones. They
often don't know them as engineers. They don't yet see
that they're also being educated, not to do just this or
that, but to maximize their own potential. Watch those
students twenty years from now. Watch them. Like their
predecessors, they'll form their world. But, like their
predecessors, they too will do so under many guises.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.