Highlighted Selections from:

The Engineered Century


Armstrong, Neil. “The Engineered Century.” The Bridge 30.1 (2000): 14–19. Print.

p.15: I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer—born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in the steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.16: Engineering is a profession which leaves its imprint on our society in countless ways. We all intuitively understand the term “quality of life,” but we have difficulty in attempting to define it. Each individual has a unique group of factors which are important to him or her in quality of life. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.16: We do know that a century ago the world really needed improvements in quality of life—health, mobility, living standards. At that time, life was a constant struggle. There were epidemics of tuberculosis. Child labor and 12-hour work days were used to ensure economic output. The average life expectancy had barely budged in a thousand years. If you reached senior-citizen status you beat the odds; to have all your children reach adulthood was rare. Waterborne diseases like typhoid fever and cholera were scourges around the globe. Industries blanketed cities with soot. Streets were filled with garbage and sewage. The world’s forests were being decimated to fuel burgeoning industries and to build and heat homes for the world’s growing population. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.16: The twentieth century was often punctuated with the terror of war and darkened with societal struggles to overcome injustice. But it was also the first century in which technology enabled the tenets and the images of those traumas to reach across the world and touch people in ways that were previously unimagined. 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. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.16: Engineers are dedicated to solving problems and creating new, useful, and efficient things. So should not the world admire and respect them? Answer: Only occasionally. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.16: Many of our fellow citizens are mistrustful of logic and critical of technocrats, and often with reason. Bridges fail, airplanes crash, storage tanks leak, radiation escapes, and automobiles are recalled. Such failures are reported widely, and the search for whom to blame is initiated. But there are a couple of problems here. Engineers are not good communicators. We are mistrusted because we are perceived as being slaves to technology, as technocrats who don’t care a whit about the environment or safety or human values. And I reject those criticisms. In my experience, engineers aren’t really bad folks. A little too focused, maybe too intense for some, but they are as caring and concerned as other segments of our society. The fact that their failures are so widely reported is evidence of their rarity. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.18: What did make the list were technologies that have become inextricable parts of the fabric of our lives—some spectacular, some nearly invisible, but all critically important. So, let me introduce you to the list, the 20 engineering achievements that had the greatest positive impact on society in the twentieth century. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.18: Number 19 is nuclear technology. Although controversial in the public mind, the engineering achievements related to conflict deterrence, power generation, and medical diagnostics and treatment remain among the most important of the twentieth century. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.18: Number 17 is petroleum and petrochemical technologies. Transportation became petroleum-based in the twentieth century, as did much of the energy and chemical industries. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.18: Next is the Internet, which to the surprise of many made it only to number 13. It was the consensus of the committee that the impact of the Internet will be felt more significantly in the twenty-first century. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.18: I believe that space flight was certainly one of, and perhaps the greatest engineering achievement of the century, but it was selected number 12 on the basis of its effect on the quality of life, and I do not disagree. While the impact of seeing our planet from afar had an overpowering effect on people around the Earth and provided the technology for tens of thousands of new products, other nominees were judged to have a greater impact on worldwide living standards. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.18: Next is the interstate highway system. With 44,000 miles of limited-access, multiple-lane roads without a single stop sign or stop light, it’s a model of efficiency and an engineer’s dream. While it clearly improves the lives of all who travel on it and all who are served by it, its rating suffers because it is not worldwide. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.18: When the founder of IBM, Tom Watson, reportedly predicted before World War II that there was a world market for about 5 computers, he slightly underestimated the number of machines and applications for these devices, which reached number 8 on our list. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.19: Fourth are the technologies that purify and deliver safe and abundant water. At the outset of the century in the United States, typhoid alone killed more than 150 of each 100,000 citizens. Water treatment and distribution techniques led to longer lives and better living standards around the globe. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.19: The airplane is ranked third. From its birth in 1903 with no obvious important use, aircraft rapidly changed the character of warfare, found dozens of new uses, and in the latter half of the century decimated passenger competition in trains and ships. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.19: The winner, the top-rated engineering improvement to the life of earthlings in this century was electrification. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.19: The majority of the top 20 achievements would not have been possible without electricity. Electrification changed the 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. If anything shines as an example of how engineering has changed the world during the twentieth century, it is clearly the power that we use in our homes and businesses. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.19: All of you have your own opinions on the importance of various technical developments to our society. What I really hoped to do was shamelessly use this occasion to remind you of the breadth, and the depth, and the importance of engineering as a whole to human existence, human progress, and human happiness. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.19: There are perhaps, even more far-reaching consequences of this exercise. The likelihood of today marking the end of creative engineering is nil. The future is a bit foggy, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the twenty-first century will enjoy a rate of progress not unlike the twentieth. And a century hence, 2000 may be viewed as quite a primitive period in human history. It’s something to hope for. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014

p.19: For three decades I have enjoyed the work and friendship of Arthur Clarke, a prolific science and science fiction writer, who back in 1945 first suggested the possibility of the communications satellite. In addition to writing some wonderful books, he has also proposed a few memorable laws. Clarke’s third law seems particularly apt today: Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic. Truly, it has been a magical century. -- Highlighted jul 3, 2014