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