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Engineering's Mr. Chips

Princeton's David Billington opens students' minds by building bridges between engineering and the liberal arts.

By Viva Hardigg

Photographs by Linda Creighton Imagine that you're a college freshman attending your first engineering lecture. The lights go out and your professor projects a salvo of images on a screen in front of the blackboard, starting with two landscapes by the American painter Thomas Cole. You might think you have entered an art history class and, in a certain sense, you have.

In his "Engineering in the Modern World" course at Princeton University, civil engineering professor David Billington teaches the history of technological innovation using the tools of the art historian as well as the engineer. In the dark, with the aid of about 80 slides per lecture, he examines the nature of engineering from three crucial perspectives: the scientific, the social, and the symbolic.

Pointer in hand, he suggests that two paintings by a Hudson River artist illustrate the speed with which technology transformed American society in the early 19th century. The first landscape-which Cole painted in the 1820s-shows a wilderness devoid of man. The second, titled The Pic-Nic and created two decades later, depicts a woodland scene with people in it. "What domesticated nature?" Billington asks. The answer is the steamboat and the railroad, by providing transportation into the wild. He then proceeds to describe how Robert Fulton came upon his idea of the steamboat, what he wrote in his 1809 patent, and which calculations he used.

Building Bridges and Opening Minds

During his nearly half-century career as a civil engineer and academic, Billington has proven adept at bridge design -both figuratively and literally. Outside the classroom, he continues to work as an engineer, serving as a consultant on various structural projects at home and abroad. Through his teaching, he has built a bridge between engineering and the liberal arts by focusing on great works by brilliant innovators.

"I consider engineering to be understandable by the general public by speaking about the four great ideas of engineering: structures, machines, networks, and processes," he says, explaining that the liberal arts student who isn't intimidated by relatively simple mathematical formulas can master a great deal of technological history.

"In engineering, when the great leaps were made, the people who made them had to think very simply," he explains. "They couldn't think in complex terms really, because there were so many new things involved. So they tried to simplify and get at the essence of things. That's why it's very instructive to look at what they did. Later on, in competition, engineers developed quite sophisticated methods of analysis in order to make small, incremental improvements."

Billington's freshmen courses have garnered so much respect at Princeton that they have become part of the core curriculum. French, philosophy, and history majors sit alongside engineering and architecture students in his fall semester course. Attending the same lectures and taking the same exams, students have different assignments based on whether they are taking the class to satisfy the university's writing seminar requirement or laboratory science requirement. Freshmen engineers write papers and prepare oral presentations while nontechnical students make concrete in a KitchenAid mixer as one of their lab experiments. His spring semester course on structural art, Structures and the Urban Environment, also satisfies the laboratory requirement for nontechnical majors.

Billington is quick to note that original development of such courses would have been impossible without help from colleagues both in engineering and the liberal arts; particularly Michael Littman, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor and his closest teaching colleague, who developed the laboratories and co-teaches Engineering in the Modern World.

Enrollment in Billington's courses is at an all-time high. An average year used to draw a little over 200 students for the two courses. Last year, he taught close to 300 and this year, close to 400 (out of a freshman class of 1,150). "Take this course. No matter what," reads a recent review of his structural art class in Princeton's Student Course Guide. Billington regularly receives postcards from former students when they come across a structure they first saw in his classroom.

The popularity of Billington's courses cannot be dismissed as liberal arts students seeking an "easy A," given the fact that they require understanding important engineering formulas. In learning about the steamboat, for example, students don't stop at reading Samuel Clemens' stories based on his experience as a riverboat pilot; they calculate boiler stresses as well. "Each great idea has a formula," Billington says. "We're not trying to teach liberal arts students how to design engineering works. But to understand how they function, you need to understand certain relationships that can be most clearly expressed through a formula. The formulas are all very simple: They don't involve anything beyond 10th grade algebra, but a lot of college students are happy to forget their 10th grade algebra and move to something else."

In addition to the history major learning an elegant formula or two, the young engineer learns the importance of writing. "Most people do not really understand something until they've tried to explain it to somebody else," Billington says. "The whole idea is that students have to learn to write for a nonspecialist audience." He adds that engineers need to be able to communicate what they're doing to the general public, who pays for most of their projects.


"I consider engineering to be understandable by the general public by speaking about the four great ideas of engineering: structures, machines, networks, and processes."

Full Circle

Billington came to Princeton as a freshman in 1946 after spending a year in the Navy as an electronics technicians mate. ("The Navy had a misguided notion that people who were good in math and physics would be good at fixing radar sets. Not so," he quips.) He chose the school over Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, which was near his hometown on the Philadelphia Main Line, so that he and his brother James-now the Librarian of Congress and a renowned Russian scholar-could pursue their studies together.

"As a boy, erector sets were my favorite toy, so there must have been some predestination toward engineering," Billington recalls with a smile. He soon got to know the engineering dean, Kenneth Condit, who recognized that this student might have a career in teaching, though at the time Condit didn't share that prediction with Billington.

When Billington graduated in 1950 and went to Belgium on a Fulbright fellowship, he had little idea he would return to Princeton eight years later at Condit's suggestion, let alone stay for more than 40 years. After two years in Europe, where he became fluent in French and Dutch, Billington worked for a consulting engineering firm in New York, analyzing designs, figuring out stresses, and using knowledge of prestressed concrete gleaned abroad to design structures. In 1958 he was invited to teach a night course at Princeton. Two years later, he moved his family (which would ultimately grow to six children) to Princeton and joined the faculty.

From Weakness to Expertise

Speaking of his early days in teaching, Billington says his biggest "defect" was his lack of knowledge of the tradition of engineering. "I knew nothing about the great engineers of the past. I knew nothing about the great structures that they had designed, so my mind was what you might call an aesthetic blank," he remembers. "Technically, I could do the calculations and make things work, but whether the project was really an important structure or an appealing structure never occurred to me."

It didn't take him long to fill in that blank, however, and in the process create a more humanistic approach to teaching engineering. Not long after his return to Princeton, he was invited to teach a graduate course in structures to architecture students. His use of a standard structural engineering text brought quite a few complaints from the future architects. "The students were exceptionally bored," he recalls. "They came to me and said 'We're tired of dealing with just stick diagrams and mathematical calculations, why can't we study things that are beautiful?'"

Students began bringing him pictures of great public structures, among them bridges by a Swiss engineer named Robert Maillart. Billington decided to integrate Maillart's work into the course but discovered there had been virtually nothing written on him as a structural engineer. Pictures of his bridges appeared in art and architecture books but not in engineering texts. Billington set out to address the omission and, three acclaimed books on Maillart later, he has.

Because of the unique content of his courses, Billington created his own textbooks, The Tower and the Bridge and The Innovators, and he plans to publish three additional volumes. "The overall goal is to establish a way of teaching freshmen engineers and liberal arts students that could be done anywhere," he says.

He has already realized this goal in part. Cornell, Oberlin, Grinnell, and the University of New York at Buffalo are among the schools that have offered structural art classes using his materials-carefully catalogued slides and sets of scripted lectures, including all calculations used in the course. He provides the course materials to other colleges for a small fee. "My objective is to portray this in the same way one would a standard course in statics, thermodynamics, or electronics," he says.

Some engineers don't see the virtue of studying the history of their field, and Billington hopes to change that. "If you ask a student of architecture to name 10 of the world's greatest architects, they can rattle them off. But if you ask engineers who was Maillart, who was Candela, they won't know their work," he says. "This has a very deleterious effect on design. Structural engineers need to know their tradition."

If they've studied with Billington or read his books, they do.

Viva Hardigg is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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