refractions
laughing at ourselves

By Henry Petroski

Illustration by Dave ClarkI used to get upset at hearing jokes that I thought derided engineers and ridiculed engineering, seeing no way in which they could improve our self-respect or elevate our profession. I was especially incensed when the jokes were reprinted in the organs of our  professional societies--as if engineers should be happy to be acknowledged at all, however tauntingly, and by anonymous comedians at that. In time, I began to lighten up. A good joke is a fair, if exaggerated, characterization of what we are, and we engineers should be secure enough to laugh at ourselves.

Distilling the essence of some group or the nature of some institution appears to be one quality of jokes that attracts us to them. We react with amusement to a spontaneous realization that we and the joke teller are communicating in a knowing way. To laugh at a joke is to signal that we understand it and to some degree assent to the fundamental truth of what it says. We engineers, like members of all groups, do have distinguishing personality traits.  Defining and exploring those traits and characteristics can often be done more gently in jokes than in pronouncements, lectures, accusations, or diatribes. Jokes have always been able to go where serious conversation dare not tread.  A close look at some current engineer jokes--a good sampling of which can be  found on any of the many Web sites identified by, say, a Google search--is revealing  and reassuring. Cutting as they may seem at first glance, many of these jokes  are at heart more positive than negative about the profession and its practitioners.

One popular joke has a lawyer, a priest, and an engineer set to be beheaded. In one version,  the lawyer's head is the first to be put on the block, and the guillotine lever is pulled. When the blade gets stuck before it reaches her neck, she is released  and walks away shouting that justice has been served. When the blade gets stuck a second time, before striking the priest's neck, he is released and walks away  praising a higher form of justice. As the engineer's head is placed on the block, he cranes his neck to look up at the malfunctioning machine and yells at the  executioner, "Stop! I think I see the problem."This joke can be read to be not about the overly engrossed engineer who doesn't even care about saving his  own neck but about the engineer's propensity to try to fix everything he encounters.  Rather than devaluing engineering, the joke honors an overarching trait of the profession.

Some of  the best jokes are one-liners, such as: "Whenever two engineers gather there  are three opinions present." On the surface of it, this characterization might  seem to describe indecisiveness, an undesirable quality. In fact, the joke can  be read to fairly capture the nature of engineering, and a common personality trait among engineers. We recognize that a design problem has no unique solution,  and so to represent engineers as seeing any situation from different points of view is simply to recognize what we do.

Consider  another one-liner: To the optimist, the glass is half full; to the pessimist, half empty; to the engineer, the container is twice as large as it needs to  be. The engineer in this telling quip is neither optimist nor pessimist, but  an optimizer who sees an imperfect fit between form and function and views the question of contents and container in real, not abstract, terms. Rather than  ridiculing engineers, the joke praises us. Which of us is not at heart an optimizer?

The engineer is characterized in many jokes as being naive, as being focused to a fault on the work at hand, and as always making the best of the situation. These are not the kinds of indictments that, say, lawyers suffer in jokes about their profession. One engineer/lawyer joke now circulating has an engineer in hell,  for which he has designed air conditioning. When God declares the engineer's  placement to be a mistake and threatens to sue to get the engineer reassigned where he belongs, Satan laughs, asking God how he's ever going to find a lawyer in heaven.

Many profession-comparing jokes are actually kinder to engineers than their counterparts, and this suggests that our profession fares much better than others in the public mind. If we engineers are portrayed as nerds, we are painted as honest, hard-working, and likable ones. We may not be the subject of anthologies of cartoons from the New Yorker, but neither are we the brunt of jokes as vicious as so many directed at lawyers are. We engineers are in the fortunate position of being liked by the general public, if the messages contained in the jokes they tell are any measure. The criticism  in the jokes is never cruel and bears being laughed at. And a good laugh now and then can help us to better understand the humanity of our profession.  

Henry  Petroski is the A.S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. He is the author of The Book on the Bookshelf and other books on engineering and design.