It has been almost four years since the National Academy of Engineering
(NAE) announced its list of the Greatest Engineering Achievements
of the Twentieth Century. The setting was the National Press Club
in Washington, D.C., and the achievements were introduced by Neil
Armstrong, the first Earthling to set foot on the moon.
The 20 accomplishmentsranging from electrification to high-performance
materialsbrought public attention to the profession and its
practitioners at the end of the millennium. But as extraordinary year-2000
events gave way to everyday life in the more ordinary-numbered years
of 2001 and 2002, lists of achievements receded into the background
and were all but forgotten.
It is unfortunate that our celebrations of engineering can be so
ephemeral. Engineering achievement is, of course, much more than a
top 20 list of highlights contained in a press release that quickly
becomes old news. Engineering is an ongoing process that is constantly
changing our lives and the world around us.
The principal criterion for selecting the greatest engineering achievements
was impact on quality of life. Electrification was deemed the top
achievement because without it so many of the others, as we now know
them, would not have been possible. The exact order of the achievements,
however, is less important than the overall impression given by the
group. Engineers of all kinds were very busy indeed during the 20th
centuryas they have been throughout history, are at present,
and will be in the future.
Conveying the grandeur of the ongoing process of engineering is difficult
to do without reference to concrete examples, like the automobile,
airplane, or the latest gadget. Innovation in the abstract is not
the stuff of newspaper stories. An announcement keyed even to an event
of millennial proportions becomes old news more quickly than last
Fortunately, a book has a longer shelf life, and so presenting engineering
achievement in that medium provides an opportunity to continue the
celebration. This has been done in A Century of Innovation: Twenty
Engineering Achievements That Transformed Our Lives, which was recently
published by the National Academies' Joseph Henry Press. The book
is a great achievement not of, but about engineering.
The volume has the look and feel of a coffee-table book, but it is
much more than lightweight prose printed on heavyweight paper. The
authors, experienced freelance writers George Constable and Bob Somerville,
have done an excellent job of bringing a lay perspective to explanations
of engineering achievement and significance. Each chapter (arranged
in NAE-list order but not numbered) puts its subject in context and
is a marvelously concise history of one aspect of engineering in the
20th century. By extension, each of the achievements serves as a paradigm
for engineering achievement generally, thus celebrating the process
Though this book is written for a non-technical audience, engineers,
too, can find in it a wealth of insight and enjoyment. It is not a
dumbing down of engineering but a lifting up of it. The book is a
celebration of engineering that will make nonengineers more conscious
of the origins of their quality of life and will reinforce engineers'
pride in playing the roles that they have in technology, society,
and culture. The 20th century may be history, but the stories of its
greatest engineering achievements harbinger the kinds of fundamental
change we can expect from engineering in this new century.
Engineers can proudly display A Century of Innovation where non-engineering
clients, relatives, and friends might see it, glance through it, and
marvel at how engineering achievement improves our quality of life.
It is a coffee-table book with a mission: providing an opportunity
to keep engineering in the forefront and to serve as a catalyst for
great conversations celebrating engineering achievement.