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Engineering, Invention and Technology
How Engineers Do Their Technical Magic

By: John Shepler

Imagine a world without engineering and you'll have to give up much more than personal computers, jet planes and television. You can also forget about roads or riding anything more high tech than the horse. There would be no bridges, no appliances, no electricity, gas heat or even running water in your house. You would have shelter, say a log cabin, mud hut or a cave, but certainly not a high rise office building. Life would be...well...back to nature. If you want something beyond what nature cares to provide, then you need an engineer or maybe lots of them.

Invention & Tech.I've been re-reading an issue of one of my favorite magazines, American Heritage of Invention & Technology, and pondering a bit on the subject of what engineering really is. As someone who got enthralled with science and radio projects as a kid and went on to pursue a career in engineering for, oh my gosh, almost 30 years now, I've been so close to the subject that I never gave it much thought. But every once in awhile, someone will say right out of the blue "so what is it you engineers really do?"

If you peek into a room where engineers are working, you might never figure it out. You'll see them sitting quietly at desks, looking at papers, making notes, opening various books from time to time and filing papers in binders. In years past, you might have seen more of them at drawing boards with mechanical pencils and slide rules. Today, they do what most everybody in an office does, stare at computer screens and type on a keyboard or manipulate a mouse. No, you won't learn much peeking in on engineers anymore than you'll figure out what writers are up to by watching them from afar. To learn the secrets you have to get inside their heads. The real magic is happening in the mind. You'll also have to speed up time, because the results of engineering are often measured in months and years.

Perhaps the best way to understand engineering is through the stories of what great engineers have accomplished as their life's work. Thomas Edison was such an engineer. We all know he invented the light bulb after painstaking test after test after test to find a material that would glow but not burn up. Had Edison confined his work to testing thousands of formulations and dutifully recording their characteristics, we might call him a scientist rather than an engineer. Scientists give us new knowledge. They probe, they measure, they investigate, they theorize. They give us new formulas and predictions. Engineers also engage in these activities to a degree, but engineers have a different end in mind. Engineers are trying to make something.

Edison made the electric light. But he also built power houses, distribution wiring and everything that was needed to make the bulbs light up with the flick of a switch. Today we take such infrastructure for granted, but there were no power plants, electric lines, or even light sockets when the incandescent bulb first lit up in Edison's lab. All of that needed to be figured out, or engineered.

Invention & Technology magazine has a story about an engineer you may not know, named Howard Aiken. As a teenager he got a job installing telephones to support his mother and grandparents. Someone in the school system recognized how talented he was with mathematics, and helped him get a night job with the gas and electric company so he could finish his education. He studies eventually led him to Harvard University, where he found himself mired in extremely time consuming calculations of differential equations in support of his Ph.D. research thesis.

This is where the scientist turned engineer as Aiken realized he could devise a machine to automate the endless repetition of calculation. He sat down and listed the steps a machine would go through in doing the calculations, figured out what information would have to be input to the machine, the tables that would need to be stored, and what the results would be. He wrote what we call a design specification. Then he went out for help.

IBM got interested in the project and assigned a group of their engineers to translate Howard Aikens specifications into a design using components that IBM already had, including electromagnetic relays, rotary switches, counters, paper tape readers and electric typewriters. There were 760,000 parts in all. When it was finished, the Mark I stood 51 feet long, weighed 5 tons and in 1944 was the world's first general purpose programmable computer. During the later years of World War II, the Mark I ran almost continuously 24 hours a day working problems for the defense department, including studies on protecting ships from magnetic mines and the development of the atomic bomb.

The Mark I design was copied for the Mark II and then expanded for the next machine, the Mark III, which was built with a magnetic drum memory and vacuum tubes for faster operation. That's another characteristic of engineering. As engineers learn, they improve on their designs and contribute improvements to the designs of others. You can see this in the rapid evolution of personal computers from being able to do just word processing, spreadsheets and simple games a decade ago, to the worldwide Internet communication we have at our fingertips today. You can bet that there are thousands of engineers who, right now, are devising ways to make computers offer services we can't imagine today...but won't be able to do without tomorrow.

 

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Magazines and Books of Interest:

American Heritage of Invention & Technology Magazine puts the amazing history of American inventiveness in your hands. The magazine's clear writing and beautiful graphics help to explain how the extraordinary ideas, machines, and inventions of America's great inventors have changed the entire world over the past two centuries. Read all about Edison, the Wright Brothers, Robert Fulton, and many other notable inventors. This is one of my personal favorites and make a great gift, especially for aspiring engineers and inventors.

Existential Pleasures of Engineering by Samuel C. Florman. Exploring how engineers think and feel about their profession, this book discusses engineering as neither cold nor passionless, but instead a pursuit rich in both spiritual and sensual rewards. Florman emerges with a practical & creative philosophy of engineering that proves his pride in his craft.

High Tech Start Up The Complete Handbook for Creating Successful New High Tech Companies by John L. Nesheim. "High Tech Start Up" presents a classic, step-by-step strategy for making a solid plan and securing multiround financing. Author Nesheim--a premier start-up veteran, having single-handedly structured over $300 million in new venture deals--provides more than 23 case studies that reveal how readers can modify their strategies to fit their particular objectives.

The Introspective Engineer by Samuel C. Florman. An exciting look at how engineering and engineers can shape the future of our society--from the author of the classic The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. In this elegantly reasoned and passionately argued book, Samuel Florman suggests that at this moment in history, a few good technological fixes are just what the world needs.

Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices.

 

Also visit these related sites:

National Engineers Week - Celebrated every year since 1951.

T1 Rex's Business Telecom Explainer - High speed voice and network technologies explained in simple terms.

 

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Copyright 1999 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com

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First Published: February 21, 1999 as part of A Positive Light