Engineering's Grand History

Article excerpt

Engineering's Grand History A new book examines eight technological events that helped transform the United States. REVIEWED BY ROBIN TATU POWER, SPEED, AND FORM: Engineers and the Making of the Twentieth Century By David P. Billington and David P. Billington Jr. Princeton University Press 2006 294 pps.

IN THEIR INTRODUCTION to "Power, Speed, and Form: Engineers and the Making of the Twentieth Century," authors David P. Billington Sr. and David P. Billington Jr. contend that introductory engineering instruction is often overly abstract and narrow, serving to alienate entry-level students and nonmajors with demands for advanced science and mathematics. With this book they offer a more coherent and appealing approach, introducing engineering as a historical sequence of ideas and events, part of a canon of great ideas. Framing their study between the world's fairs of 1876 and 1939, the Billingtons examine eight technological developments that helped transform the United States from an agrarian society into an industrialized nation-the creation of electricity, the telephone, oil refining, the automobile, the airplane, the radio, large steel bridges and reinforced concrete. Their aim is "to explain to a nontechnical audience, and to engineers themselves, the ideas behind historic innovations that are still essential to modern life."

In addition to an engaging narrative that explores the work of key innovators such as Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford-as well as more obscure figures like Edwin Howard Armstrong, creator of radio's super heterodyne receiver-"Power, Speed, and Form" provides numerical formulae to clarify the technical ideas. The calculations of Thomas Edison and Francis Upton in determining electrical line resistance and the computations of the Wright brothers in solving the problem of aeronautical lift and drag are clearly illustrated in full-page diagrams. The authors note that while engineers today employ more complex mathematics, the simple formulae in "Power, Speed, and Form" convey core concepts to allow readers to grasp the basic choices that went into a design and to encourage them to "think about great works of technology as engineers would."

For the Billingtons, design is the primary function of engineering, one that distinguishes it from science. Scientists seek to discover fundamental principles, while engineers design new works and systems. And unlike mathematics or physics, engineering formulae do not possess a single correct answer or "one best way. …