Power, Speed, and Form: Engineers and the Making of the
By David P. Billington and David P. Billington Jr.
Princeton University Press 2006
In their introduction to “Power, Speed, and Form: Engineers and the Making of the Twentieth Century,” authors David P. Billington Sr. and David P. Billington Jr. contend that introductory engineering instruction is often overly abstract and narrow, serving to alienate entry-level students and nonmajors with demands for advanced science and mathematics. With this book they offer a more coherent and appealing approach, introducing engineering as a historical sequence of ideas and events, part of a canon of great ideas. Framing their study between the world’s fairs of 1876 and 1939, the Billingtons examine eight technological developments that helped transform the United States from an agrarian society into an industrialized nation—the creation of electricity, the telephone, oil refining, the automobile, the airplane, the radio, large steel bridges and reinforced concrete. Their aim is “to explain to a nontechnical audience, and to engineers themselves, the ideas behind historic innovations that are still essential to modern life.”
In addition to an engaging narrative that explores the work of key innovators such as Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford—as well as more obscure figures like Edwin Howard Armstrong, creator of radio’s super heterodyne receiver—“Power, Speed, and Form” provides numerical formulae to clarify the technical ideas. The calculations of Thomas Edison and Francis Upton in determining electrical line resistance and the computations of the Wright brothers in solving the problem of aeronautical lift and drag are clearly illustrated in full-page diagrams. The authors note that while engineers today employ more complex mathematics, the simple formulae in “Power, Speed, and Form” convey core concepts to allow readers to grasp the basic choices that went into a design and to encourage them to “think about great works of technology as engineers would.”
For the Billingtons, design is the primary function of engineering, one that distinguishes it from science. Scientists seek to discover fundamental principles, while engineers design new works and systems. And unlike mathematics or physics, engineering formulae do not possess a single correct answer or “one best way.” “Numbers and natural laws define limits,” the authors write, “but in every technical problem, there is room for choice between alternatives that make engineering sense.” Indeed, in many of the studies in the book, engineers challenge established technologies.
To support his incandescent light bulb, Edison developed a parallel circuit that defied conventional theories of electric power and voltage; Alexander Graham Bell looked beyond the telegraph to the telephone, a new technology others considered a frivolous novelty. Yet “Power, Speed, and Form” further demonstrates that the success of engineering creations relies not only upon efficiency but cost-effectiveness and elegance, as well. As the first aerodynamically designed automobile, the Chrysler Airflow was a commercial failure despite its technical advancements because consumers disliked its ungainly bulbous shape. In addition, brilliant innovators such as Edison, Ford and Wilbur and Orville Wright eventually succumbed to competitors when they failed to move beyond their original conception and designs.
With research and writing supported in part by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education, “Power, Speed, and Form” grows out of a popular engineering course that David Billington Sr. has taught to Princeton undergraduates for nearly 50 years. The book reflects this legendary educator’s passionate belief that technology education should form part of all undergraduate liberal arts studies and that engineering must be demonstrated to be part of society, not isolated from it. David Billington Jr. contributes to the book a historian’s sense of continuities as well as a conviction that “history is central to an integrative understanding of modern engineering.” Together, this father and son team has produced a work that stands in testament to the great tradition of engineering, one that should inspire both future and present engineers. As companion to “The Innovators,” Billington’s earlier book that examines technology in the 18th and 19th centuries, “Power, Speed, and Form” provides an excellent overview of the history of American engineering.
Robin Tatu is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.