Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

A Nation of Engineers

Advice to graduates: Become an engineer. Design the future. Become someone who knows how to squeeze energy out of seawater or turn sunlight into electricity for pennies on the kilowatt.

Or how to make an American car that people want to buy.

Reading Michael Leahy's article this morning on GM auto workers -- including one who is a natural tinkerer and auto-didact ready to adapt to the next new thing to come along -- I thought of a quote from Jules Verne's "From the Earth to the Moon" [cited in a Craig Nelson's book "Rocket Men"]:

"The Yankees, the first mechanics in the world, are engineers -- just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians -- by right of birth."

Lots of stereotypes there. But it wouldn't hurt to believe in ourselves -- in our engineering acumen. This has always been a society of tinkerers. But maybe somewhere along the line we took all the engineers for granted. That's a subtext in Nelson's book: That we've failed to appreciate the marvels of modern engineering.

If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we ...

We need more Manhattan Projects. Want a punch list for the country? A one came out last fall from the National Academy of Engineering:

1. Make solar energy economical

2. Provide energy from fusion

3. Develop carbon sequestration methods

4. Manage the nitrogen cycle

5. Provide access to clean water

6. Restore and improve urban infrastructure

7. Advance health informatics

8. Engineer better medicines

9. Reverse-engineer the brain

10. Prevent nuclear terror

11. Secure cyberspace

12. Enhance virtual reality

13. Advance personalized learning

14. Engineer the tools of scientific discovery.

Dang it, I'm going to go build something.

[Does staking tomatoes count as engineering??]


By Joel Achenbach  |  June 8, 2009; 7:46 AM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Beach Week: Good, Clean Fun!
Next: Recession Road Trip


Many of those things we already know how to do, just not economically. One of the pat definitions of engineering is to do with one dollar what any damn fool could do with two.

Posted by: yellojkt | June 8, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Here's a good article from yesterday's WaPo on how the rush to solar power is resulting in some environmentally suspect projects being funded because of poorly defined incentives skewing the economic viability.

The law of unintended consequences is nearly immutable.

Posted by: yellojkt | June 8, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

I don't think I'd want to engineer my brain into reverse...

Forward is way too much trouble as it is.

Posted by: Scottynuke | June 8, 2009 9:30 AM | Report abuse

And while I am link-dumping, here is Tom the Butcher's valedictory Editor's Note:

He will be missed. A lot of muscle being trimmed from the WaPo carcass.

Posted by: yellojkt | June 8, 2009 9:30 AM | Report abuse

Well, it is buy-out or what happened at the Boston Globe.

Posted by: russianthistle | June 8, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Begging the question of whether engineers are born or made (both, I think), I learned in college to ask an engineer to pack my car for the trip home every summer.

Someday in the supermarket you may be behind someone who loads the conveyer belt with great precision and an offhand manner. . . engineering, it's not a job, it's a lifestyle. :-)

Posted by: -dbG- | June 8, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Or invent a better over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder. Think Harold Evans' "Made in America"...

Posted by: laloomis | June 8, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

A neat topic today. I'm off to the lawnmower repairman, because a 10-cent part is not removable and so the entire carb must be replaced.

I know enough to know about schmaltz. I did not know what gribenes meant.

Posted by: Jumper1 | June 8, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

I prefer a system of mildly 'compliant' rib-based cantilevers, for that natural 'floating' look.

Posted by: ScienceTim | June 8, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

This is a topic near and dear to my heart because where I work we do this kind of thing every few years. We sit around and try to figure out what efforts related to science and technology we want to pursue. This is the easy part. It’s execution that’s the bugger. And history has shown that what can hamper huge efforts are often not technical problems, per se, but funding and focus.

Clearly, if a program is nickel and dimed to death, compromises will be made that can jeopardize success. And the most pernicious way that poor funding can damage an engineering program is lack of documentation. Many technical people don’t much cotton to writing things down to begin with, and so when money is tight the first thing that goes is documentation. Throw in the inevitable work stoppages and changes in personal and things get forgotten. This can be bad. (Does anyone remember, is it the red wire or the blue wire? Just to be sure I’d step back.)

The other big problem is focus. When you have big squishy technical goals different engineers can have radically different interpretations of what this means. Without effective management and oversight efforts can become splintered, so that instead of funding one successful program, you end up funding a bunch of unsuccessful ones that are only kinda sorta even working towards the same general goal. A whole lotta money can be squandered in this way.

So yes, we want lots of smart engineering and science types. But it’s the boring and fundamentally unglamorous administrative and management stuff that eventually will bring great things to fruition.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | June 8, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Engineers - the people who design large structures and heavy machines with the thought if something goes wrong, It could result in the death and/or injury of thousands.

And all the extra stuff they will do for a Certificate of
Appreciation from their company to hang on their wall in a handsome plastic frame...

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | June 8, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

ALWAYS cut the red wire.

Except when that doesn't work.

Posted by: yellojkt | June 8, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Don't know that we need a nation of engineers, but we do need a nation of learners, people who have such high level learning skills they can pick up new approaches and knowledge without breaking into a sweat. Whether you're in a "white collar" or "blue collar" job won't be able to show up with a set finite box of skills and leave with the same ones slightly revised 35 years later. Too much focus in our schools on exams that measure isolated pieces of knowledge may not be what we need right now.

Posted by: barbaque | June 8, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Th engineering solution to these problems is simple, effective, obvious, universal, and evil: synchronized widespread dispersal of rats bearing bubonic plague in the world's major population centers. Maybe some other virulent diseases, too. Kill off approximately 3/4 of the Earth's human population, before the medical community has time to cope, and the other problems will take a big step backwards in significance. If it's quick enough, leadership will largely die before they figure out which of their enemies they want to take with them as they go. Then again, nuclear war is a problem only if you, personally, are interested in living. Think of it as a 're-set' button. Clear the decks. Clean the chalkboard. Start work with a clean desk.

The remaining 1.5 billion survivors of this harrowing event may approach their newfound level of responsibility, as inheritors of the human legacy, with perhaps a little more understanding of what can go wrong if you plan poorly. Or not. Either way, it will be a big hiccup in the march to making the world a toilet of chemical pollution. Fallout and radiation are, of course, hard on individuals, but not too bad on the species level. Except, of course, for the poor creatures of limited range who find themselves in a heavy fallout zone.

Ah well. Collateral damage: bane of an evil genius' existence.

Posted by: ScienceTim | June 8, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse

SCC: I didn't mean "personal" I meant personalle, um personnele, um... staff.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | June 8, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I've got a Volkswagen Jetta which failed inspection because the brake lights come on as soon as the headlights are turned on. They work normally when the running lights are on, so it presumably isn't the brake switch itself. Anybody ever run across that problem before?

Alternately, anybody got a suggestion for a mechanic who can handle electrical problems on a Volkswagen in the NoVa-DC area?

Posted by: bobsewell | June 8, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

RD_Padouk and ScienceTim have both made me laugh. A good start to a Monday.

Good morning, Boodle. I'm very late today, because I've tacked an extra day onto my vacation, so am lazing about drinking coffee and dreaming of great things. Well, maybe not great, exactly, but fine in their way.

Still colder than expected in Calgary, but at least we're not being pelted with hail and snow the way we were over the weekend. And I like cooler weather, because all my favourite clothes are too heavy for summer. I will shop today for a summer wardrobe. And more shoes!

I like to think that I stand up for frivolity.

Have a lovely day, Al.

Posted by: Yoki | June 8, 2009 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Loomis -- I had to laugh at what you wrote. The way I learned the phrase was "over-shoulder-bolder-holder" -- both of them actually can apply to the contraption. But not everybody has "boulders" -- some have pebbles and some have in-betweens. Funny.

I have great admiration (mostly) for engineers. Implementation of ideas can be very difficult, but since the "impossible" only takes about 45 more minutes or so to figure out the task, EYE think practically anything is doable over time. Gotta put shoulder to the wheel, pedal to the metal, brain to the task and have a good set of pliers, a good set of screwdrivers (flat edge and philips, as well as a pitcher full), all metric from start to finish, and just go to it!

Me, I'm an idea person. Great, expansive and non-intuitive-completely-outside-the-box ideas. Gotta start somewhere, eh?

Hey Yoki!

Posted by: firsttimeblogger | June 8, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Hey ftb!

Posted by: Yoki | June 8, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

I'm off topic, if there is one, but it's time for an annual tradition.

I just finished my third year teaching high school journalism. The yearbook was a modest hit. And I asked my students in all my classes what they had learned.

Here's what they wrote.

“How to frame and crop photos. … How to get in front of the camera and talk. … Some of the best ways to take pictures. … How important it is to write in small paragraphs. …The rule of thirds. … A lot of things that I never thought I would learn. … How to write a story. … I learned about news reports and radio and TV commercials. … Most radio stations don’t really take caller requests. …How to shoot a video. … How to focus a camera through glass [and] nets. … Frame the photo, fill the frame, watch the background. … You do not write like language arts class. … I would be good in voiceovers. … a lot about making commercials. … not to use ‘has been’ and ‘have been’ when writing. … not to sit down during the moment of silence. … Short sentences keep you out of grammar trouble. … The word “Kafkaesque” is usually misused. … Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner didn’t like each other. … Ask a stranger if you can borrow the Metro Section and you’ll look smart. …The man known as ‘Deep Throat’ is dead. … Mike Royko often stood up for the little guy. … How to wrestle a bear and win every time. …”

Posted by: bayouself | June 8, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

The United States views engineering as a commodity instead of a profession. After the lawyers, marketing people, and finance people have taken a crack, it goes to the low-bid engineer for detailing. These days, much of the engineering is being outsourced to places like India - if you want to kill an economy, that is one of the fastest ways to do it.

It will be interesting to see if the current economic cirisis will help reviive people's perspectives on engineering and technology. We should be able to take the graduating brainpower that otherwise would be thinking up ways to implode the financial system and train them to come up with new technologies and means of construction and manufacturing. Similarly, the coming reduction in the size of the health-care sector as well will mean that some of those people could move into engineering as well in order to be able to pay for health-care for the next century.

Posted by: raydh | June 8, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

That is one heckuva smart class. I wish I had learned half those things in school. Especially the wrestling a bear trick. You never know when that could come in handy.

Posted by: yellojkt | June 8, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Hey bayouself! Congrats for surviving another year, and teaching kids things they need to know.

No, seriously. Sounds like they are learning to think - that's what's important in life.

SciTim, you may consider yourself an evil genius, but you're right about dieoff. The ethics of the issue, though, that's the killer.

Posted by: slyness | June 8, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Bayou Self! So good to see you. Hope you can stick around more this summer.

Your students are so lucky to have you! Sounds like you all had a good year.

Posted by: -TBG- | June 8, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

I wish I had a nickel for every time I had to break up a fistfight between Ernie and Bill.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 8, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Bob, MD or VA side (or DC)?

Posted by: russianthistle | June 8, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Bob re-read. I know someone solid in Bethesda... pretty close to metro. Small shop and great people. Seriously good.

Posted by: russianthistle | June 8, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Busted Transmission by Jamie Kitman, Foreign Policy.

Kitman's take on refurbishing GM is about like mine--Saturn and Opel were the good parts that needed to be retained. Opel did all the worthwhile design work, apart from big cars (Holden, in Australia is responsible for the Pontiac G8) and pickup trucks (US).

My Big State University had a Big College of Science and an Even Bigger College of Engineering. Liberal Arts was wimpy by comparison. Years later, I was asked, as a biologist, to take the Strong Interest Inventory for their calibration program. Of course the results showed I looked like a biologist. But was it coincidence that I came out looking almost as much like an engineer?

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | June 8, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Mudge, I have the same problem with Ernie and Burt. Of course, the best they can do is lay a finger on you.

Posted by: russianthistle | June 8, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Bob, I swear by HRM (stands for Honest Reliable Mechanics, and they are) in Springfield. If they don't know how to fix it, they *will* tell you.

Posted by: Raysmom | June 8, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Weed, I always thought Burt should have gotten the Nobel Prize for "The Sound and the Furry." But the Swedish Academy's prejudice against hand puppets is notorious.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 8, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Great minds, Yoki. I'm off too.

Whackyweasel, you got a Certificate of Appreciation in a plastic frame? All I got was a 1 word IM.

barbaque, agree with you on needing a nation of learners, but we also need those who break a sweat and keep working on it anyway.

Speaking of which, . . .

Posted by: -dbG- | June 8, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Bayou Self, great to see you! Looks like you're teaching them well.

(formerly known as mostlylurking)

Posted by: seasea1 | June 8, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Tom Shroder leaving is a punch to the stomach. Thanks for the link, yello.

Posted by: seasea1 | June 8, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Staking 'maters most assuredly counts for engineering. You're talking statics and tension distribution and all sorts of good stuff.

And, as in many engineering challenges, there are multiple solutions like chicken wire cages, or sticks. Then there are those avant garden types who favor upside down 'maters. (Too radical for me.)

Personally, I favor flying buttresses.

But the point is, whole books have been written on the topic of tomato suspension. And a few of them have actually been read.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | June 8, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I think "Flied Green Tomatoes" was one such book about airborne 'maters, RD.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 8, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

BayouSelf!!! *VLTNS Grover waves* :-)

Posted by: Scottynuke | June 8, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

I'm pretty sure bc uses MacPherson struts for his 'maters...

Posted by: Scottynuke | June 8, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I can't remember - Did we lose Tomfan, or is that someone who's still here under a different nom de keyboard?

Posted by: bobsewell | June 8, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: Yoki | June 8, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Bayou, hi, you.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 8, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Hey Señor Achenbach and Internautas;

Science, engineering and creative thinking is what we need; indeed! Maybe smaller Boards of Directors and Marketing Divisions. But historians can also help. The amazonian peoples developed ways to enrich the soil with food scraps. Is tinkering with food stuff genomes such a good idea? When I lived in Las Vegas I was struck by the absence of passive solar water heaters. Some PVC, black paint and a good fight with the neighborhood association ... Can you believe that is illegal to line dry clothes? Well better get some outside time before it becomes illegal to walk.

Posted by: RUBENMORTIZ | June 8, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

I have to take mild exception to your entire view of the universe, RD.

It's not the engineers and it's not the managers who are responsible for great things getting done. It's the technicians who are the only ones who know what's going on.

Posted by: Jumper1 | June 8, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the recommendation, Raysmom. HRM is reasonably convenient for me, so I'll give 'em a try.

Posted by: bobsewell | June 8, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Dreamer also used the names Tomfan and Achenfan. She'll be crushed.

Posted by: seasea1 | June 8, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

hope everyone's having a happy monday. i'm related to a few engineers, but that's about all i can say in response to the kit.

i just waved goodbye to my old saturn this morning. the transmission crapped out (again) last week, so i donated it to the local pbs station.

which means that i need a car, but i don't really have the time or the energy to figure out what to buy. have only started looking at edmunds and consumer reports. fortunately, there is a bus i can take to work (circuitous route that takes too long, but nonetheless) and a neighbor's car i can borrow for groceries and errands.

oh well, it will all work out.

Posted by: LALurker | June 8, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

"Advice to graduates: Become an engineer."

A joke right.

Spend over 100k on education and then find out all the American jobs in your field are shipped offshore for cheap labor.

Posted by: bsallamack | June 8, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse


Much better to tell them to go into journalism.

Posted by: yellojkt | June 8, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Good point, Jumper, that the techs (who are sometimes described as "crusty" ) do often have a deeper understanding of the pragmatics. They know where to kick when the dang thing is acting up. But they still won't write things down.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | June 8, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Engineers don't know everything, but techs sometimes know the wrong things. I frequently have to diplomatically explain why some ideas techs have will or won't work. They have a far better working knowledge of the machinery than I do but are often weak on fundamental concepts. It's an interdependent world and we need people with all sorts of skill sets. None of us can be the Heinleinian super-man that knows everything about anything.

Posted by: yellojkt | June 8, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Synchronicity strikes again, RD. I pretty much think of myself pretty much as a technician, although I did get some good time in as a researcher. My best stuff came from ignoring the PhDs when they said something was impossible. (It just takes a little longer.)

In the interim today I have been working on my website, wherein I purchased some hamburgers and analyzed the construction techniques. I thought I had photographed and written down all I needed, and scarfed the burgers.

I had not taken sufficient photos and definitely not enough notes.

Posted by: Jumper1 | June 8, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Only this morning have I looked more closely at Slate's article about fencing = chess with knives, and realized that it is rather more relevant to my own life than I had originally realized. The fencing instructor mentioned on page 2 of the article -- I know him rather well.

Posted by: ScienceTim | June 8, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

bsallamack, you're missing an important opportunity. These days, an engineer must diversify his skill set, which means gaining fluency in one or more languages of those places with cheap labor. You can either get a job there (lower cost of living, too), or become a liaison between the money-grubbing international corporation and the local manufacturers. Or, of course, transition from one status to the other. Be a citizen of the world, dude, a citizen of the world.

Posted by: ScienceTim | June 8, 2009 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Back in the early 1700s I used to think of privateering as "yachting with knives." And back then we didn't have techies, only swabbies. One makes do with the tools at hand, I suppose. And of course parrots. And eye patches.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 8, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Not to mention peg legs.

Posted by: yellojkt | June 8, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

And a good pirate never goes anywhere without his or her neckerchief.

Posted by: -TBG- | June 8, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

God loves us so much more than we can imagine through Him that died for all, Jesus Christ.

Hello, friends. Hi, bayouself. Your students learned a lot this year. I'll bet you're a good teacher, the best.

Mudge, Yoki, Scotty, Martooni, Slyness, and everyone here, the day is almost over, but enjoy what is left. *waving*

Science Tim, I hope no one pushes the "reset" button.

I'm looking at my neighbor putting her food in the garbage can and her clothes, and then returning to get these items and use them. Economic downturn and state's budget lack causing a lot of heartache and prayers. And in my heart, I know she's not the only one suffering.

Posted by: cmyth4u | June 8, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Or his jolly roger.

Posted by: Yoki | June 8, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

I was once on a ship that had a bipolar roger. We had a lot of crew retention problems.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 8, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Good afternoon, all.

I'm feeling more human this afternoon, after a long, late hairy night.

My house is a mess and I haven't seen the neighbor's cat lately, though she said something this morning as we both were taking our trashcans to the curb about being accosted by a big ugly dog who she'd found chest-deep in her overturned can in middle of the night as she was looking for said feline. Thank goodness she wasn't hurt, though she says it took a while to get the circulation back in her leg after she shook the animal off with some additional encouragement by smacking it repeatedly across the snout with a rolled-up newspaper.

Oy vey - full moon nights are one adventure after another for me.

More on engineering later, I have a few thoughts on the subject.


PS, Yes, I used Scope this morning.

Posted by: -bc- | June 8, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

New Kit! Road trip!

Posted by: seasea1 | June 8, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

I've never designed much but fixes for problems that had cropped and needed fixin'. That could be fun too, the problem analysis then the creation and implementation of a fix. It could be as simple as changing the material of fabrication sometimes. Other times it really is an original design, as the people putting the structure/machine/system together the first time around did not designed it; they slapped it together based on their own experience and hoped for the best. Sometimes it works, but often it doesn't.

True design story. A naval architect I know's first job for the navy was to design a davit (crane) for a small ship (or big boat, whatever). So he did all those calculations of dynamic loads, masses, moments, sheer, strains and all that and recommended some size of structural steel shape for the mast of the davit. His boss then said: no, no, it's too small. They have a X-ton fork lift on that boat, so you need a mast at least that big to resist the collisions with the forklift. On this bigger class of ship they have 2x-ton forklifts, so you need a member THAT big.
And so it turns out the design limit for a davit on deck of a ship are not the maximum loads and length of the boom but the size of the forklift that will repeatedly hit it.

Tim, I bet that instructor can épée a lobster right in the thorax, time after time.

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | June 8, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse


I don't even remember teaching them about wrestling bears, but yes, it's handy stuff to know.

Posted by: bayouself | June 8, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

An attempt to Google information moments ago about William Reed of Connecticut, old time Wyoming fossil hunter, led me to news I didn't want to hear--from several sources.

From a blog post yesterday:

News has come out that the University of Wyoming will close its Geological Museum in Laramie, Wyoming as part of cost-cutting measures to offset an $18 million budget deficit.

From a blog post today:

“We are dismayed to report that the University of Wyoming has decided to include the Geological Museum in the programs to be cut as a result of a decrease in funding by the state. 45 people across the University lost their jobs, including the Director of the Geological Museum Brent Breithaupt and the part-time museum secretary. This decision was made by the University administration, and in no way reflects a lack of support from the Department of Geology and Geophysics.

LL: Don't know when the geology museum doors will officially close, but I'm beginning to think my timing stinks!

Posted by: laloomis | June 8, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company