ASEE Prism Magazine
Taking Time

By Henry Petroski

Some years ago I had to meet an engineer-turned-lawyer in London, at the Inns of Court. I was to be his guest at a dinner meeting of the Society of Construction Law, to be held at Middle Temple Bar, and he was going to give me a tour of the Inns beforehand. He had given me very specific directions to the gate at which we were to meet at six o'clock, and I gave myself plenty of time to get there via the Underground and a few blocks' walk.
As I approached the gate at the appointed time, I saw him approach it from the other side. We waved to each other and shook hands as the clock struck six. His first words to me were that he knew I would be on time, because I was an engineer. Engineers and scientists respected time, he believed. Barristers and solicitors, he complained, were never on time for their appointments, and they never ended their speeches on time.
In the years since that London meeting, I have been on the lookout for situations in which I could test my colleague's hypothesis. An opportunity arose last fall at a workshop on scientific evidence.

The day-long program consisted of several panels, with the moderators, panelists, and commentators being a mix of lawyers, scientists, and engineers. A very full program, with about 20 speakers, made it clearly of the utmost importance that each one stay within a specified time limit, if everyone was to have a fair share of the program. I was not privy to the amount of time the panelists were allotted, but it soon became clear to all workshop attendees that time limits were being ignored by lawyers and scientists alike.

The first presenters were epidemiologists and toxicologists, and these scientists came armed with Powerpoint presentations. Unfortunately, difficulties with the projection equipment caused considerable distraction and delay, not to mention excuses for taking extra time, and the program began to fall behind schedule from the start. Though the last of the first series of panelists, a lawyer, spoke without visual aids, he too appeared to take longer than his allotted time.

Whenever a speaker began to exceed the time limit with no conclusion in sight, the moderator rose from his seat, walked slowly to the lectern, and slipped a note to the speaker. He then walked slowly back to his seat, no doubt hoping to be stopped in his tracks by some concluding remarks. If the speaker continued for another few minutes, as many did, the moderator repeated his trek across the stage and remained standing behind the offender. In some cases, even this was to little avail.Clock

The pattern was repeated in subsequent panels, and the audience began to be amused, if not distracted, by the moderator-speaker dynamics. Moderators walked deliberately to stage right and stood silently behind speakers whose reaction ranged from totally ignoring the hint to spending more time explaining why they were taking extra time. The workshop managed to keep on schedule in a gross sense only by limiting questions from the audience, curtailing breaks, and shortening lunch. In this regard, it was not unlike a lot of meetings I have attended.

As for testing my colleague's hypothesis, I would have to say that the workshop proved overall to be a counterexample. To me, it appeared that scientists and lawyers equally spoke beyond their allotted time. The one engineer on the panel did appear to me to speak the most concisely and did watch the time, but he was a singular data point from which even I, as a fellow engineer, would be hesitant to draw too strong a conclusion.
My general experience has been that engineers, too, can be disrespectful of time, especially that of others. I have sat through too many engineering seminars that droned on well beyond any reasonable, agreed-upon limit. Among complaints I have heard from engineering students is that some of their professors are always late for class and then go on lecturing well beyond the end of class, causing the students to be late for their next class.
Each of us gets tied up now and then just as we are leaving our office for the classroom, but chronic tardiness is no more excusable in a professor than in a student. If I am late for class, I should take the time out of my lecture, not out of the students' transit time.

Another way in which we can take time that is not ours is by delaying the start of a class, lecture, or workshop to wait for latecomers. This only capitulates to those who are late and penalizes those who were on time. I believe it was the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, John Roebling, who left his office when those who had made appointments to see him did not show up promptly.

Lawyers, scientists, and engineers alike should be mindful of being on time and of taking time that is not theirs, whether in meeting the expectations of a colleague, a class, or an audience at a workshop. We should all take time to be on time and to finish on time, lest we be guilty of taking time that is not ours to take.

Henry Petroski is A. S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book is The Book on the Bookshelf.