Engineering and the City

By Petroski, Henry | ASEE Prism, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Engineering and the City


Petroski, Henry, ASEE Prism


This site of this year's annual conference provided a showcase for the marvels of engineering.

ATTENDING ASEE'S annual conference this past June gave me the opportunity to see a great American city in a new light. Carl Sandburg called Chicago the "city of broad shoulders," referring to its working-class population. Chicago also has a long tradition of outstanding engineers and engineering accomplishments. It has been called the "home of the skyscraper," and this is certainly an image that it presents to visitors today.

I took a taxi from O'Hare Airport to downtown Chicago in the early afternoon, when traffic seemed to be at its best. We were moving along nicely, when, for no apparent reason, the traffic began to back up. It was only when we rounded the bend in the road that I could see what had caused the delay. There, the skyline of the city was dominated by the Sears Tower, once the tallest in the world and once again the tallest building in America. I believe that drivers, coming upon this sight, unconsciously slowed down, wishing to prolong the experience.

Settled into my hotel, I looked out at a city of engineering on exhibit before me while I called my office from the comfort of an air-conditioned room. My cell phone worked perfectly, signaling to me that I was enveloped in the invisible achievements of electrical and computer engineering that we have come to take for granted. But my gaze fell on more tangible things.

The Chicago River is crossed at this location by one of the city's many drawbridges, a form that allows for street-level crossings while at the same time accommodating river traffic. The drawbridge genre-which takes both structural and mechanical engineering skills to design-was raised to new heights here by engineers like John Waddell and Ralph Modjeski.

Amid construction cranes building future skyscrapers, I could see the John Hancock Center, immediately recognizable by its tapered sides and exposed framework. It speaks of the genius of the legendary structural engineer Fazlur Khan, who, working with the equally brilliant architect Bruce Graham, developed the tubular frame that enables tall buildings to stand steady in the Windy City and elsewhere. …

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