Engineers as Visionaries by N.J. Slabbert

Engineers as Visionaries by N.J. Slabbert

The spirit evident in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair and in early 20th century innovations is less common today.

Yet this goal was neither achieved nor adopted as national policy. As a result, America met the 21st century already hamstrung in key areas of scientific and engineering achievement.

Examples of this insufficiency include the government bailout of an automobile industry that relied too long on cosmetic innovation rather than on real technological improvement, and the collapse of and support to financial institutions whose idea of wealth creation excessively focused on paper wealth to the detriment of industrial productivity.

Although America has lost its technological and industrial foundations, engineering may be better equipped than other professions to correct these deficiencies by creating and implementing a new vision of our nation’s technological future.

Massive reindustrialization is now more urgent than ever. Engineers will play a crucial role, not only in its implementation but in motivating the American public and policymakers to pursue reindustrialization and technological innovation as national goals.

How engineers view engineering has much to do with engineering’s potential to project beyond their disciplines. In 1830, Charles Babbage published Reflections on the Decline of Science in England. Babbage, who held the mathematics chair at Cambridge formerly occupied by Newton, and today by Hawking, possessed a broad intellectual range that included mathematics, engineering, computer science, philosophy, economics, social issues, creative writing, and theology.

Babbage’s milieu predated the narrow specialization to which we are accustomed today, in which engineers have little time or interest for their profession’s history, much less significant commitments outside of formal work. During the nineteenth century, engineering overlapped other fields of tremendous importance, which made polymaths like Babbage possible.

The willingness of engineers and scientists of Babbage’s day to consider larger societal issues was closely related to their transdisciplinary freedom and their capacity for transcending the limits of their training, and even of conventional knowledge.

Engineering’s Golden Age

Imagination, optimism, and the determination to change the world through innovation are an unusual combination in modern American culture but flourished during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as evidenced by the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

During this golden age for engineering, economic growth and national identity were inseparable from large-scale engineering. The infrastructure America built during this era—encompassing railways, highways, electrification, high-rise skylines, airlines, telecommunications, and all the industries serving these systems—forms, in a sense, a single vast artifact: the largest engineering feat in history.

Yet as this engineering marvel was unfolding, the seeds of a different era were being sown. Increasingly, technological inventiveness would take a back seat to management expertise, and in the process be reduced to redundancy. The Efficiency Movement, popularized by nonengineer Peter F. Drucker, is but one example. It is ironic that Herbert Hoover, the only engineer to serve as U.S. president, embraced this movement.

Although management theory is extremely valuable, it cannot replace technologic innovation as an engine for moving society forward, either materially or intellectually.

Reviving Engineering Expectations

America today is paying the price of deindustrialization. While there is no single solution to this problem, all useful answers are likely to involve promoting scientific advances and technological innovation.

Engineers once served society as transdisciplinary, visionary thought leaders. Reclaiming this earlier status, in a manner appropriate to 21st century circumstances, can only be good for society and engineers alike.

[Adapted from “Engineers as Visionaries,” by N.J. Slabbert, for Mechanical Engineering, June 2010.]

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