Engineering is often associated with science and understandably so. Both make extensive use of mathematics, and engineering
requires a solid scientific basis. Yet as any scientist or engineer will tell you, they are quite different. Science is a quest for “truth for its own sake,” for an ever more exact understanding of the natural world. It explains the change in the viscosity of a liquid as its temperature is varied, the release of heat when water vapor condenses, and the reproductive process of plants. It determines the speed of light. Engineering turns those explanations and understandings into new or improved machines, technologies, and processes—to bring reality to ideas and to provide solutions to societal needs.
A Century of Innovation is a book about engineering, a profession whose roots lie in the building of the bridges and cathedrals of the Middle Ages and whose growth expanded rapidly with the powered machines and the increased productivity of the Industrial Revolution. But this book is not about those beginnings or even about that rapid growth. Rather it is about the remarkable achievements of engineering in the 20th century.
During that century, the engineering disciplines, which had been principally civil and mechanical, broadened with the addition of a number of new sectors such as metallurgical, automotive, electrical, and aeronautical and deepened with the development of new methods, powerful computational tools, and dependable testing techniques. This evolution has left its imprint on our society in countless ways. Certainly the ability to cross continents and oceans in a matter of hours has changed our sense of the size of the world—it is a much smaller place than it was in our great-grandparents’ day or even our grandparents’ day. The world is also smaller by virtue of our being able to communicate instantly with people at a distance, whether across town, across the state, or on the other side of the globe by telephone or electronic mail.
There are myriad other ways in which engineering has affected society and our quality of life, ways we so take for granted they are virtually invisible to us. In part that may be because we each have our own definition of the term “quality of life.” One person might think having no need to work would be ideal, while another person would think having a great deal of work to do would be ideal. But most of us would probably acknowledge that certain living conditions are essential to a preferred quality in our own lives. Think for a moment about what your day would be like if you turned on the tap in the morning and there was no water. Of if you knew that the water coming from the tap needed to be boiled before it was safe to drink or to use to brush your teeth. A century ago, typhoid fever, cholera, and other waterborne diseases could strike anyone at any time. Today, clean, safe water is something everyone can expect in most of the developed world.
True, the 20th was a century punctuated by two world wars and an ongoing epidemic of smaller hostilities that took countless lives. And it was marked by societal struggles to overcome injustice. But it was also the first century in which technology brought those traumas to the awareness of distant viewers and listeners, to touch people in previously unimagined ways. John Pierce, the engineer who fathered Telstar, the first satellite to relay television signals across the Atlantic, said that engineering helped create a world in which no injustice could be hidden.
In the closing year of the 20th century, a rather impressive consortium of 27 professional engineering societies, representing nearly every engineering discipline, gave its time, resources, and attention to a nationwide effort to identify and communicate the ways that engineering has affected our lives. Each organization independently polled its membership to learn what individual engineers believed to be the greatest achievements in their respective fields. Because these professional societies were unrelated to each other, the American Association of Engineering Societies and the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) helped to coordinate the effort. The NAE, in particular, took a leadership role in this effort because of its unique ability to convene the world’s greatest engineering minds under the congressional charter that it shares with the National Academy of Sciences.
The NAE issued the call for nominations to the societies, convened a selection committee of leading engineers from all fields, and set about the laborious job of qualifying and quantifying the information in the nominations. After several rounds of narrowing the nominations, the committee met for two full days to determine which engineering achievements of the 20th century had the greatest positive effect on mankind. While intercontinental ballistic missiles and laser-guided bombs were undoubtedly technological marvels with important justifiable reasons for their existence, projects of this type were somewhat disadvantaged on the "positive effect on mankind” basis. Other engineering marvels (e.g., spectacular bridges, dams, skyscrapers, tunnels, and canals) did not qualify because their impact was largely local.
As you read this book, you’ll find that the choices the committee made have one thing in common—that is, if any of them were removed, our world would be a very different and less hospitable place. Each of these achievements has been important to the transformation of society in the past hundred years. These are technologies that have become inextricable parts of the fabric of our lives—some spectacular, some nearly invisible, but all critically important.
If you’ve leafed through the book or looked at the table of contents, you already know that electrification was the top-rated engineering improvement to the life of earthlings in the past century. The majority of the top 20 achievements would not have been possible without widespread distribution of electricity. Electrification changed this country’s economic development and gave rural populations the same opportunities and amenities as people in the cities. It provides the power for small appliances in the home, for computers in control rooms that route power and telecommunications, and for the machinery that produces capital goods and consumer products. Clearly, the ready availability of the electric power we use in our homes and businesses exemplifies how engineering changed the world during the 20th century.
I hope this book will remind you of the breadth, the depth, and the importance of engineering to human existence and progress. The likelihood that the era of creative engineering is past is nil. It is not unreasonable to suggest that, with the help of engineering, society in the 21st century will enjoy a rate of progress equal to or greater than that of the 20th. It is a worthy goal.