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Engineering Spelled Out PUBLIC ACCESS

Reflections on the State of the Art, In Alphabetical Order.

[+] Author Notes

Henry Petroski is a professor of engineering and of history at Duke University. An Engineer's Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession, from which these entries are excerpted, will be published in the fall by Cambridge University Press.

Mechanical Engineering 133(11), 46-49 (Nov 01, 2011) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2011-NOV-4

This article presents an alphabetical order as a type of abecedary of brief essays on concepts and practices that are central to mechanical engineering. Codes and Standards is one of the topics, which highlights that the development of standards is generally identified as a sign of professionalism, in which voluntary committee efforts go toward writing standards that are adopted widely. The Mechanical Engineering essay explains that with the rise of specialization, civil engineers focused on alignment, grades, roadbeds, and bridges, and mechanical engineers on locomotives and rolling stock. The development of such divergent interests led to the feeling that the civil engineering societies that initially encompassed all of non-military engineering could not satisfy an increasingly diverse membership. Hence, new and more specialized societies began to be established in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Symbols of Engineering essay explains that the legal profession is symbolized on many a courthouse façade by a representation of blindfolded Justice holding a pair of scales—and sometimes a sword in her other hand—an image that also has roots in Greek culture.

When collecting a set of thoughts, quotations, anecdotes, facts, trivia, arcana, and miscellanea relating to the practice, history, culture, and traditions of this profession, it's not obvious how to arrange it to make the most sense. These entries, which represent the distillation of decades of reading, writing, talking, and thinking about engineers and engineering, are culled from a book of brief essays on concepts and practices that are central to the profession. In lieu of some overarching thematic organization, these brief essays, most of which touch on themes related to mechanical engineering, have been placed in alphabetical order as a type of abecedary.

Alexander Calder's Crinkly avec disc rouge, (1973).

Grahic Jump LocationAlexander Calder's Crinkly avec disc rouge, (1973).

Engineers are not generally known for their involvement in the fine arts, although there have been some notable exceptions. Alexander Calder (1898–1976), now best known for his mobiles and stabiles that have become part of the cultural infrastructure, earned a mechanical engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology and worked as an engineer before studying art. His early works exploited his talent for creating wire sculptures, some of which he animated in a performance piece known as Calder's Circus. His engineering background greatly influenced the design of his later larger works, in particular his mobiles and stabiles, many of which could form the basis for homework exercises in the elementary engineering science courses of statics, dynamics, and strength of materials.

Also known as pins, badges of distinction were once worn on watch chains but now are often worn on the lapel of a jacket to identify members of a society and to distinguish members of different grades. Among the oldest badges is that of Phi Beta Kappa. The society's famous key, which evolved from the original square badge, did not come into use until decades after the society's founding in 1776.

The crest of the Institution of Engineers, Malaysia

Grahic Jump LocationThe crest of the Institution of Engineers, Malaysia

However worn or displayed, engineering society crests, emblems, pins, and logos come in a wide variety of designs. Many incorporate overt engineering symbolism. The emblem of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers is in the form of a four-leaf clover, sometimes incorrectly said to be a sham-rock. The crest of the Institution of Engineers, Malaysia, features a pencil and a slide rule. Like many modern corporations, engineering societies have come increasingly to give over the redesign of their logos to image consultants, often to the great disappointment of members with a sense of history and a respect for tradition.

A standard is an agreed-upon design practice, procedure, or specification of an industry or profession. The development of standards is generally identified as a sign of professionalism, in which voluntary committee efforts go toward writing standards that are adopted widely. Standards incorporate the considered judgment of experienced engineers, especially with regard to the design of structures, machines, and other artifacts on whose safety and reliability the lay public depends. Standards of practice, also called codes, are intended to define and disseminate what a profession considers at the time of their promulgation best practice in design.

Seal of Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company

Grahic Jump LocationSeal of Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company

The story of the origins and development of the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers is representative of this process. The background to the story begins in the nineteenth century, when steamboats were plagued by exploding boilers, in large part because they were inferiorly manufactured and inappropriately operated. Federal legislation regulating steam boilers was called for as early as 1824. In the early 1830s, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia was granted federal funds to develop a testing program, the results of which served as the basis for 1838 legislation requiring independent inspections of boilers. The lack of standardized inspection criteria made the law ineffective, however, and explosions continued to plague the steamboat trade. Finally, in 1852, a regulatory agency was created, which led to a diminution of deaths due to steamboat boiler explosions.

Stationary boilers used in factories remained unregulated, however. One incident, the 1854 explosion of a boiler in a Hartford, Connecticut, engine room, led a group of local businessmen to organize the Polytechnic Club, which was devoted to the rational study of the properties of steam and the causes of boiler explosions, which conventional wisdom blamed on acts of God, demons in the boilers, and bogus chemistry. The study group rationally concluded that boilers exploded when steam pressure exceeded the ability of the boiler to contain it: a cause that should be able to be controlled. The Polytechnic Club redoubled its efforts after the 1865 explosion of a boiler on the Sultana, a Mississippi River steamboat carrying Union soldiers freed after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. The death toll, estimated to be as high as 1,500, made it the worst marine disaster in America up to that time.

In the wake of the Sultana disaster, some Polytechnic Club members formed the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, incorporating it in 1866. The company served manufacturers with expert advice on choice of materials, design, manufacture, and installation of boilers that were to be insured. The Hartford's inspections soon came to be accepted by municipal and state authorities as certifying boilers as safe, thus greatly reducing the occurrence of explosions, at least where the inspections were properly carried out.

Still, explosions continued elsewhere, and in 1880 a number of engineers met to form the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, a group founded to establish “with scientific precision” standards for threads on nuts and bolts and procedures for testing the strength of iron and steel. A code of practice for the latter purpose was put forth as early as 1884, which laid the groundwork for a comprehensive boiler code. This was not forthcoming from government groups, however, and it was not until the early twentieth century and some catastrophic explosions that the political climate was right for the ASME to increase efforts to produce a boiler code. It was to be promulgated by the engineering profession, rather than individual government bodies, which were beginning to pass disparate rules of their own. The first ASME Boiler Code was approved in 1915, and it has developed into the principal means for ensuring the safety of boilers and pressure vessels of all kinds, including nuclear reactor vessels. A history of the code is contained in The Code: An Authorized History of the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code by Wilbur Cross (New York: American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1990).

It has been said that one way to distinguish between civil and mechanical engineering is to note that the former concerns itself with things that stand still and the latter with things that move. To put it another way, civil engineers design and build targets, and mechanical engineers design and build weapons. Quips of this kind always seem to contain a germ of truth. Historically, both forms of engineering were often embodied in the same individual and both were necessary for developing the railroads. With the rise of specialization, civil engineers focused on alignment, grades, roadbeds, and bridges, and mechanical engineers on locomotives and rolling stock. The development of such divergent interests led to the feeling that the civil engineering societies that initially encompassed all of non-military engineering could not satisfy an increasingly diverse membership. Hence, new and more specialized societies began to be established in the middle of the nineteenth century.

According to a letter to the editor in the June 1946 issue of Mechanical Engineering, “Someday engineering will provide the background for the great American novel. When that day comes the public will begin to understand the engineer.” While the great American novel may not yet have been written, engineers and engineering have played major roles in many works of literature. For a critical discussion of engineering in literature, see Samuel C. Florman's 1968 book, Engineering and the Liberal Arts.

Florman later published a novel of his own, The Aftermath: A Novel of Survival (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001). It's the story of how some surviving engineers, who happened to be traveling together on a ship on the other side of the Earth when a comet impacted it, went about rebuilding the world virtually from scratch after the catastrophe.

This classic piece of engineering satiric humor was written in 1951 by Charles Seim, who at the time was a senior civil engineering student at the University of California at Berkeley. Seim was also then assistant editor of the engineering school's monthly student magazine, California Engineer, and he responded to his editor's wish for “a humorous essay based on a short article he had read in the Arkansas Engineer.” The editor further wanted the essay to be in the style of the technical papers and textbooks engineering students were accustomed to reading. Seim (rhymes with “time”) produced the now-famous stress analysis essay in his spare time, and his editor published it under the name Charles E. Seim, adding the middle initial—Seim had none; the “E” is for “Engineer”—and the title.

Figure 1. Forces Acting On Cloth Element.

Grahic Jump LocationFigure 1. Forces Acting On Cloth Element.

Throughout the world, the medical profession is most commonly associated with the rod of Asclepius—a snake entwined about a staff. This symbol stems from Greek mythology, in which Asclepius was the god of medicine and healing, and is incorporated into the logo of groups ranging from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization. The legal profession is symbolized on many a courthouse façade by a representation of blindfolded Justice holding a pair of scales—and sometimes a sword in her other hand—an image that also has roots in Greek culture. Lady Justice is said to represent Themis, the goddess of justice and law; however, whatever its ancient origins, the symbol is universally associated with the legal profession today.

There is no equally universal and deeply rooted symbol of the engineering profession. The image of Archimedes using a lever to move the Earth has ancient origins, but unfortunately it is not nearly as commonly associated with engineering as the rod and scales are with medicine and law. The official seal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, adopted when the society was incorporated, shows the Earth being moved by a lever operated by a disembodied hand—presumably that of Archimedes. The modernized seal of ASME International also incorporates Archimedes’ lever; however, such seals are generally used only on official documents.

The lever of Archimedes had considerable potential for grounding all engineering students in a single symbol of their profession. Even when they drifted apart to study electrical or chemical engineering, the lever could still constitute a metaphor for what all engineers were capable of doing—leveraging the laws of nature for the benefit of mankind. They might not only move the Earth but also move information all around it and remove undesirable greenhouse gases from it. Indeed, working together in modern interdisciplinary teams, engineers can realize things of which Archimedes and his contemporaries could hardly have dreamed.

Subtitled “An Inquiry into Values,” this book was written by Robert M. Pirsig and first published in 1974. It has been widely assigned in engineering design courses for its insights into the nature of design and the idea of quality. A tenth-anniversary edition of the book, published by William Morrow and Company in 1984, included a new introduction by the author in which he reflected on the astounding success of a book that had been turned down by 121 other publishers and also on the tragic death of his son, who played a prominent role in the book's narrative.

Pirsig, a biochemist by education who became disillusioned with science and eventually came to be identified as a philosopher, has been quoted as believing that “traditional scientific method has always been at the very best 20-20 hindsight. It's good for seeing where you’ve been. It's good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.” That responsibility, at least in the material world, rests more squarely on enlightened and responsible engineering infused with the values of its softer side.

Copyright © 2011 by ASME
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