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Refractions

Celebrating Engineering Achievement

By Henry Petroski

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 accomplishments—ranging from electrification to high-performance materials—brought 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 century—as 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 year's calendar.

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 itself.

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.

 

Henry Petroski, A.S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, was a member of the Great Achievements Selection Committee and Book Development Committee and participated in the launch of A Century of Innovation at the NAE 2003 annual meeting. His own latest book is Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design.

 

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