refractions  

Deserving of Recognition

By Henry Petroski


Henry PetroskiThe National Academy of Engineering awards ceremony is a highlight of Engineers Week in Washington, D.C. In this regard, the 2001 black-tie event was not unlike the half dozen prior ones that had taken place since the first Charles Stark Draper Prize was given in 1989 to Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce for their independent development of the monolithic integrated circuit. In other regards, this year's ceremony marked the beginning of a new era for engineering prizes.

As stated in the program, the Draper Prize is given for engineering accomplishments that have, regardless of field, "significantly impacted society by improving the quality of life, providing the ability to live freely and comfortably, and/or permitting the access to information." The 2001 Draper Prize was awarded to Vinton Cerf, Robert Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, and Lawrence Roberts "for principal contributions to the development of technologies that are the foundation of the Internet."

To the Draper Prize ceremony this year was added the inaugural presentation of the National Academy's Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize, named after the founders of the electronic and automation corporation, Systems Research Laboratories. The Russ Prize is intended to recognize "outstanding achievement in an engineering field that is currently of critical importance and that contributes to the advancement of science and engineering, as well as improves a person's quality of life and has widespread application or use."

Initially, the biennial Russ Prize will be awarded for achievements in bioengineering. This year's prize went to Earl Bakken and Wilson Greatbatch "for saving, extending, and improving the quality of human lives through the engineering development and commercialization of implantable heart pacemakers."

The reputation of a prize is ultimately established by the aptness of the innovation and the quality of the recipients whom it recognizes.

The highlights of the ceremonies were the brief acceptance speeches by each of the prize recipients, many of whom recalled circumstances under which they were given the opportunity to pursue an education or how they engaged in the work that led to their achievement. Perhaps it was Earl Bakken who looked most like an engineer at the lectern, as he pulled out of his tuxedo pockets example after example of early pacemakers.

As the evening drew to a close, National Academy President William Wulf reminded those in attendance that, thanks to an augmented endowment from the Draper Laboratory at MIT, the Draper Prize would henceforth be given annually. In odd-numbered years, like this year, it will be awarded with the Russ Prize at a joint ceremony. Of course, that would leave a single prize to be awarded in even-numbered years, an asymmetrical schedule that some engineers might find unsettling. There was hardly time to reflect on such an asymmetry, however, before President Wulf made public the establishment of a new award to be presented in conjunction with the Draper Prize in even-numbered years, beginning in 2002.

The new award is the Bernard M. Gordon Prize, which will be given for innovation in engineering and technology education. Named after the electrical engineer and acknowledged "father of high speed analog-to-digital conversion techniques" who is presently CEO of Analogic Corporation, the Gordon Prize is intended to identify experiments in engineering teaching and learning that have wide-ranging potential impact on the field.

Like the Draper and Russ prizes, the Gordon Prize will carry a remarkable $500,000 honorarium, thus emphasizing its preeminence among engineering prizes of all kinds. Half of the amount of the new prize will go to the recipients of the award, with the remainder going to their institutions in the form of a grant in support of further development and dissemination of the innovation recognized. In addition, the winner of each Gordon Prize will be asked to present a public lecture at the next annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering, thus giving engineering educators a forum of unprecedented distinction.

The reputation of a prize is ultimately established not by the institution that administers it or the honorarium that it carries but rather by the aptness of the innovation and the quality of the recipients whom it recognizes. The achievements and achievers recognized by the Draper, and now the Russ prize unquestionably have been deserving, but that is not to say the choices each year have been easy. Awards processes thrive on a pool of highly distinguished nominations, but having a plethora of eminently qualified achievements to consider can make the task of a selection committee excruciatingly difficult, if obvious in retrospect.

Engineering educators should wish a wealth of choices upon the inaugural selection committee for the new Gordon Prize. Nothing will make next year's Engineering Week ceremony more successful than for observers present and at a distance to recognize immediately, as they have many times already, that the recipients of the National Academy's prizes, both established and new, are clearly deserving of the recognition.

 

Henry Petroski is the A.S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering
and a professor of history at Duke University.
He is the author of Remaking the World and other books
on engineering and design and is a member
of the current Draper Prize Selection Committee.