“Engineering is the rearrangement of what is.” – Henry Petroski
Engineers walk through life differently from the rest of the world. It’s as if we have a different set of glasses through which we view everything. No, it’s not the proverbial rose-colored glasses, but ones where we are always looking at how things work. Feats of engineering surround us at every point, from behemoths of infrastructure to comfortable environments in the midst of harsh conditions, but without the special glasses, these masterpieces often get taken for granted.
I recently took a train trip with my 9-year-old son from Atlanta to Washington DC during his Fall Break. As we boarded with the other passengers, who were talking about their trip and looking for their seats, I was examining the air conditioning system – an exposed 480v compressor labeled R-22, and noticing that it’s well-used since the interior of the train was a chilly 68 degrees. While I was very likely the only passenger noticing the design of the system, it is certain that universal note would have been taken had the system NOT functioned well.
We found our way to our “room,” which was a 2-bunk compartment – a pure marvel of compact design. For something so incredibly small, it’s surprisingly comfortable for a 9-year-old kid and his not-too-old dad. But I do start to wonder how well the same room works for those that are larger than us, in this super-sized nation of ours. The amazing design, so carefully worked around human needs and comforts, appears to have outlasted the physical form we present as a culture! Engineering morphs as we do, but a well-designed system tends to remain not static, but stable, continuing to be refined within the parameters of the original design until something as unforeseen as new human dimensions renders it obsolete.
Somewhere north of Gainesville, Georgia, not too far from our origination point, we were playing cards in the lounge car. With no warning at all, the lights went out and we coasted to a stop. In the ensuing conversation with fellow passengers, we agreed this wasn’t a good turn of events. One rider chimed in with, “At least we’re not in an airplane,” which got us all laughing. He was right, though. The costs of failure, major or minor, vary hugely between systems. Five minutes later, the lights came back on and the train started moving again. The conductor told us that the stop was due to a loose connection in an interconnecting cable somewhere forward of our car. Once it was found and fixed, all was right with the world and we were back on our way. On a train, an electrical failure was no big deal. On an airplane, it could have been catastrophic. As a result, engineers design the plane with redundant and sometimes self-compensating systems. On the other hand, the train has redundancy in the braking systems – the design responds to the risk associated with failure.
That night when we returned to our sleeper compartment, my engineer’s glasses came back out. I was impressed by the temperature control in the sleeper compartment. Each seat had a simple, sliding damper with which to control the air flow on that passenger. I love it when things are simple, easily maneuvered and even intuitive. There were no electronics at all, as the user interface is simply a black knob. It is satisfying to slide a well-designed lever and feel immediate results. One of our challenges as engineers is to remember that the end user just wants the thing to work – they usually don’t care how and they certainly don’t want to learn a new control system just to adjust the temperature. Sometimes a simple black knob is better than a graphical user interface. I’d like to see us get back to this sort of thing more often, maybe starting in the typical office cubicle farm.
Applying established designs to new phenomena is one of the joys of engineering.
As we were rolling through the countryside, I was reading “Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering,” by Henry Petroski, my favorite engineering writer. This book is a collection of essays Petroski wrote for Scientific American. The time in DC allowed for very little reading, so I’m just getting a good start on the book, but here’s what has caught my eye so far…
- Alfred Nobel, founder of the coveted Nobel Prizes, may have intended them to be given more for engineering achievements than scientific.
- Henry Martyn Robert, of Robert’s Rules of Order, was an engineer. That probably doesn’t surprise anyone who has ever been frustrated by one of us.
- In the mid-1980s, as steel was beginning to overtake concrete as a building material (in the U.K., at least), one of the more significant impediments to its use was the engineers who thought in concrete. From an article in Civil Engineering magazine, “The trouble with steel was that the first design that went on the back of a cigarette box (the British equivalent of the back of an envelope)… was a concrete design.” It seems that engineers had trouble thinking in, and working with, the new materials. They also had difficulty changing their way of thinking – in a sense, their initial idea became “cast in concrete.”
Of course, all of us in engineering depend heavily on what has been done before, especially drawing from our own experiences. That is a large part of learning to be an effective engineer. But successful engineering must be driven by expanding upon what we know, as we find new problems and formulate new questions. Concrete thinking is an important skill, but fluidity is necessary as well. The great challenge is to learn enough about new ideas and technologies that we incorporate them into our creative thinking so that we always deliver the best solution possible.