Civilized Engineerby Samuel C. Florman
Civil engineer Samuel Forman's The Civilized Engineer is aimed at both those observing and commenting externally on engineering, and the practicing engineerto reveal something of the art behind great engineering achievements, and to stimulate debate upon the author's hypothesis that "in its moment of ascendance, engineering is faced with the/i>… See more details below
Civil engineer Samuel Forman's The Civilized Engineer is aimed at both those observing and commenting externally on engineering, and the practicing engineerto reveal something of the art behind great engineering achievements, and to stimulate debate upon the author's hypothesis that "in its moment of ascendance, engineering is faced with the trivialization of its purpose and the debasement of its practice."
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The Civilized Engineer
By Samuel C. Florman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1987 Samuel C. Florman
All rights reserved.
Concrete and Kafka: A Personal Overture
"I became an engineer."
Thus begins John Hersey's novel, A Single Pebble, in which the protagonist travels to pre-revolutionary China seeking a site for a dam along the Yangtze River. As he encounters a civilization little changed since the Middle Ages, the young man finds his faith in technology giving way to awe and self-doubt.
I, too, became an engineer and have spent a number of years thinking about, as well as practicing, this much misunderstood profession, albeit in less dramatic settings than the chasms of the Yangtze, and with less discouraging conclusions than Mr. Hersey's.
How does one decide to become an engineer? I made the decision in 1942 during my senior year at the Fieldston School, a sylvan campus in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, forty-five minutes by subway and footpath from where I lived in Manhattan. The idea had occurred to me earlier — especially during several visits to the 1939 World's Fair — but I was far from being the stereotypical engineer. I did not, for example, build radios, assemble models, or fiddle with car engines. Living in the city, I had no access to cars, and when some mechanical device failed in our apartment, my parents called on the building superintendent. Like my fellow students at Fieldston, I read a lot of books and wrote a lot of papers. My favorite subject by far was English, particularly a senior seminar in which we reviewed great Western literature from Aeschylus to James Joyce. Nevertheless, I did my best work in mathematics, and was gently urged by several of my teachers to consider a career in science.
There were no "two cultures" in those days and I can recall no division between students of different sorts of talents, rather mutual respect and a shared appreciation of achievement. If this sounds idyllic, well it was. Not that we lived in a state of constant elation — we were teenagers, after all — but academically the place was heaven. We knew we would follow many different career paths: the world seemed incredibly open and full of possibilities — in the arts, the sciences, and the professions. Business, however, we regarded with a scorn compounded of intellectual elitism and post-1930s radicalism. Ironically, the fathers who paid our not inconsiderable tuition were mostly hard-working small businessmen.
Of the acceptable career alternatives, science, medicine, and engineering were considered more or less on a par with law, journalism, and the arts. Excellence is what counted; our class had an abundance of it and our expectations were high. We were not surprised in later years when the most accomplished student in the class studied physics at Harvard, got his doctorate there, and ended up at Los Alamos, any more than we were when the president of the student council became a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, ofttimes called a pundit. We were a class full of potential pundits.
Although I wanted my life's work to be creative and stimulating, I was not totally oblivious to money. A part of my Depression-bred consciousness was concerned about some day being able to support a family. For all the appeal of mathematics and physics, it wasn't clear to me how one made a living in those fields. This was even more true of writing and the arts. Business, as I have said, was out of the question, and as for medicine, needles made me queasy. So I chose engineering. Engineers, from the little I knew, studied science and used their brains. They also got jobs and earned salaries. And, after a fashion, they were cultural heroes. The newsreels that I saw every weekend between two movies at Loews 83rd Street often featured the dedication of a new TVA dam or some other impressive public work. There was much cutting of ribbons and drinking of toasts, each event celebrating a counterattack against rural dust bowls or urban slums. And when the movies themselves depicted engineers — usually in the B film, to be sure — they were stalwart men in high-laced boots engaged in heroic endeavors such as building railroads or prospecting for oil. Intellectually challenging, financially sensible, and withal a touch of romance and adventure — engineering seemed like an ideal calling.
I had never heard it suggested that engineers were lower-middle-class, eccentric, or uncultivated — today I believe the epithet is "nerd" — nor did it occur to me that anybody held such opinions. The only sour note was sounded by an uncle who observed that instead of wanting to be an engineer I should aim to be someone who hires engineers, thus implying that I was about to join an exploitable sub-class. The remark enraged my father, who had no clear idea of what engineers did but was proud to have a son who was going to enter a profession.
When it came time to select a college, I naturally thought about M.I.T. Two of my engineering-bound classmates went to that august institution and never regretted their choice. But there was something about the huge labyrinth of laboratories that made my spirit sink, and still does in spite of all the good things I know about the place. Instead, I chose Dartmouth College, whose beautiful New Hampshire campus captured my heart.
I had only the vaguest idea of how one went about getting an engineering education. According to the Dartmouth catalog it seemed that I would "go to college," earn a Bachelor of Arts degree while majoring in the sciences, and then pursue an engineering degree in graduate school. This is how General Sylvanus Thayer thought it ought to be when, in 1867, he gave Dartmouth $40,000 for the purpose of establishing the Thayer School of Engineering. As Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy from 1817 to 1833, the general had overseen the development of that institution into a distinguished school of applied science, and in his later years he decided to endow a graduate school of engineering at a liberal arts college. He believed that before embarking upon professional training one ought to become "a gentleman." The Thayer School's two-year program originally was designed to follow a full four-year undergraduate education, but in 1893 a five-year program was devised combining the senior year of college with the first year of engineering school. That program endures to this day.
In most of the nation, however, engineering education evolved along different lines. The technical institutes, and later the land grant colleges, developed four-year programs that carried students directly from high school into engineering studies. This effectively did away with the concept of a liberally educated engineer, although the accrediting arm of the profession eventually required that an engineering curriculum have a minimum 121/2 percent liberal arts component.
Of all this I was blissfully unaware as I arrived in Hanover, New Hampshire, in July of 1942. (A year-round program had been instituted because of the war.) I embarked on a typical course of study: English literature and French, sociology and economics, psychology and political science. As a pre-engineering student I also took mathematics, physics, and chemistry, and two other subjects — then required but long since discarded — graphics and surveying. I will not argue that these courses deserved to maintain their place in the curricula of higher education, but I recall vividly the delights of T-square, triangle, and india ink, and the thrill of carrying a transit through the autumn woods. These sorties into the tangible world, combined with the abstract fancies of mathematics and the sciences, reinforced my conviction that I was headed toward the best of all possible careers.
I was barely into my sophomore year when, almost imperceptibly, I began to undergo a metamorphosis. As if under a spell, I became increasingly absorbed in my technical, pre-professional studies. Looking back, I find it difficult to explain what happened, although since many of the hundred thousand-plus Americans who enter engineering each year go through the same experience, how extraordinary can it be? All I know is that the liberal arts began to pale and seem trivial, even annoying. Mathematical formulas took on the quality of fun-filled games, and the physical world became an enchanted kingdom whose every secret seemed worth exploring. Also I began to think of courses in terms of how they would help me become a better engineer, more thoroughly grounded in the sciences, more perceptive and quick-witted, and — let us face facts — more desirable to some future employer. Despite the educational advantages I had enjoyed in high school, and notwithstanding the proclaimed policy of the liberal arts college I was attending, I came down with a bad case of vocationalism. I lost interest in becoming an educated person — the "gentleman" envisioned by Sylvanus Thayer. I wanted to become an engineer.
Could an inspiring humanities professor have prevented this from happening? I like to think so. Surely the situation was not helped by a freshman English course devoted mostly to the painstaking dissection of Lord Jim, nor by the introductory social science courses which were informative but deadly dull. More exciting teachers and better-planned classes might have made the difference, but it is common knowledge that when one is embarked on an affair of the heart, the most prudent counsel, even skillfully presented, often falls on deaf ears. And there can be no doubt but that my feeling about engineering was not altogether different from falling in love.
As it happened, my most exciting professors were mathematicians. I recall winning a prize in a mathematics competition — second prize to be exact — and being invited along with the other winners to dinner at the home of the department head. After dining, we sat in the living room sipping brandy and listening to recordings of Mozart sonatas. Although at the time my musical taste ran more to Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, I found the experience extremely agreeable. I associated my euphoria with the delights of mathematics, not giving adequate credit, I now believe, to Mozart and the winning of prizes, to say nothing of brandy.
Along with my commitment to mathematics and science, I developed a taste for extracurricular activities that I can only characterize as anti-intellectual. I and my pre-engineering fellows spent our leisure hours attending movies and sporting events. Occasionally we hitchhiked to Smith College and looked for girls. When lectures, concerts, and plays were offered on campus, it seemed natural that they be attended by other students, those increasingly strange young men who had decided to major in history, philosophy, or literature. One of my dormitory mates was enrolled in a special course with Robert Frost, who was at the time poet-in-residence at the college. Several times this friend invited me to join him for an evening of readings and discussion with the noted poet, but I was always too busy writing up my laboratory experiments, or else committed to a party at some local tavern. Today I cannot believe — simply cannot believe — that I never even saw Robert Frost, much less spent an evening with him when I had the chance.
* * *
Shortly after entering college, I had enlisted in the Navy V-12 program on campus, and at the end of each term there was a period of uncertainty while we recruits waited to hear what the government had planned for us. After a year, we were called to active duty, but this merely meant putting on a uniform and learning how to march in formation. Those of us who were heading for engineering were encouraged to continue our studies. After twenty-four months of nonstop schooling, I accumulated three years worth of credits and was ready to enter the professional phase of my education.
I had by this time resolved to become a "civil" engineer. The term was coined in mid-eighteenth-century England by John Smeaton, builder of the Eddystone lighthouse, who wanted to demonstrate that his work had no military implication (which is ironic in view of the fact that most military engineers subsequently have been trained in civil engineering). Civil engineers design and construct buildings, dams, and bridges; towers, docks and tunnels — structures of all sorts. Civil engineering also encompasses highways, railroads, and airports, along with water supply and sewage disposal. In short, civil engineering is basic and of the earth, historically — along with mining — the root of all engineering. In the eighteenth century the development of the steam engine led to a new specialty called mechanical engineering, and each major technological advance has brought with it a fresh division of the profession: electrical, chemical, aeronautical, petroleum, computer, and so forth. I make this digression into the self-evident only because so many otherwise well-informed people keep asking me what it is that engineers do. Every technological product has to be designed and its fabrication overseen, and that is what engineers do. They occupy the vast middle spectrum between theoretical scientists and sub-professional technicians.
Buildings are usually planned by architects, but engineers design the structural and mechanical components within them, and civil engineers often oversee the actual construction process. These overseers are sometimes called construction engineers, and this is what I have become — more a business manager, I suppose, than a creative spirit, more a master builder than a man of science, yet still a member of the engineering family.
I have long forgotten most of the theorems that I learned in engineering school, but I recall vividly the nature, the "feel" of that learning. Like all engineers, I took basic courses in electricity, fluid mechanics, metallurgy, and thermodynamics (the study of heat and energy, particularly the workings of internal combustion engines, air conditioners, and the like). As a civil engineer, I took a series of courses in "structures," learning how to design beams, walls, slabs, and trusses. Then there were the more specialized studies: highways, water supply, and sanitation. In all of this there was a good amount of "hands-on" work. We poured concrete, cured it, and tested it to failure, analyzed the behavior of water in pipes and over weirs, and experimented with a variety of motors and generators. Occasionally we ventured out into the field, visiting construction jobs and sewage treatment plants, or — a great favorite — measuring the flow of a river while perched above it in a tiny hand-operated cable car. The theoretical work was difficult — some of it exceedingly so — but the physical doing made it seem worthwhile.
Nowadays engineering education is much more "scientific" than it used to be. In addition to the subjects that were taught in the 1940s, a contemporary curriculum will include computing and information processing, probability and statistics, systems, optimization, and control theory, even system dynamics (policy design and analysis based on feedback principles and computer simulation). Much of the so-called "shop work" has fallen by the wayside, relegated to students who take two-year technician courses or four-year engineering technology programs. The change came about in the 1950s, particularly in the aftershock of Sputnik. Also, the growth of new disciplines has meant that there is simply more material to learn and so less time for knocking about in overalls or muddy boots. This has been inevitable, appropriate, and a darned shame.
* * *
In the spring of 1945, the Navy decided to call in my debt, so to speak, and I was ordered to officers training school. After a few weeks of shooting guns, large and small, and studying semaphor code and naval etiquette, I was commissioned an ensign in the Civil Engineer Corps and sent to serve with the Seabees. I arrived in the Philippines just as the war was ending and went with the 29th Construction Battalion to occupy Truk, an atoll in the Caroline Islands that had been bypassed during the westward counteroffensive in the Pacific.
It was a pleasant enough life for a young would-be engineer. During the day we worked on construction projects, repaving the airstrip with fresh coral dredged from the sea, erecting Quonset huts, and building roads and a water supply system. In the evenings we drank beer, played cards, and talked — mostly about our work, baseball, and girls. Also — and I could not remember this happening since early childhood — I found myself with long periods of spare time. As the tropical sun sank into the sea behind implausible palm trees, it was impossible not to become introspective.
Excerpted from The Civilized Engineer by Samuel C. Florman. Copyright © 1987 Samuel C. Florman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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