It was exactly half a century ago this month that American
engineering and science experienced a rude awakening. On
Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial Earth
satellite, thus beating the United States into space. As Sputnik
orbited the planet, emitting radio signals that today might evoke
the sounds of a digital alarm clock, American citizens lay awake
stunned and scared.
Within days of the shock, there were calls for accelerated efforts
to catch up and surpass the Soviets. This was to be accomplished
in part by encouraging more students to study mathematics, science
and engineering, and there was to be increased funding for education
and research and development.
I was beginning my junior year in high school at the time but had
not yet given much thought to college, let alone to what I might
study there. But high-school advisers had been quickly sensitized
to the country’s newly realized need for more scientists and
engineers, and so I and my classmates who, by grades and standardized
tests had demonstrated talent in math and science, were directed
toward those fields. By my senior year, it was a foregone conclusion
that I would seek admission to an engineering school.
Since I not only excelled in math and science but also enjoyed
those subjects, it should have come as no surprise that I enjoyed
the courses I took as a college freshman. That is not to say that
I excelled in them initially. College social life was a strong competitor
for my time and attention. First-year calculus, chemistry and physics
required more studying than I was giving them, and my first midsemester
grades provided a personal wake-up call. I had not been doing my
part to beat the Soviets, and I resolved to be a better student.
The first true engineering course was Engineering Measurements,
taken at summer camp at the end of freshman year. In the sophomore
year, all engineering students took Statics and Dynamics, Electric
Circuits and Engineering Drawing and Descriptive Geometry. I especially
enjoyed the first two courses, mostly because they relied heavily
on math and science concepts.
My introduction to real-world engineering came through summer jobs,
one involving a fallout-shelter survey and another traffic-signal
layouts. In each case, the work was largely routine and required
little of what I was learning in college. What was remarkable to
me was that the older engineers with whom I worked were uniformly
bitter and disgruntled, with little good to say about engineering
as a profession. Of course, they were not doing much more than a
college student could do and seemed to be without hope or motivation
for advancing their careers.
Such experiences did make me wonder whether engineering was for
me. I soon learned that other engineering students had similar concerns,
and we debated whether to switch majors to science or math. But
any doubts that I had were dispelled by my junior-year courses,
which were taught by accomplished engineers who conveyed a sense
of excitement and pride in what they were teaching and doing. They
were real-world designers, and they brought their experiences into
the classroom. I am grateful to them for their enthusiasm.
It had been near the end of my
sophomore year that President Kennedy pledged that Americans would
set foot on the moon within the decade. Scientific and engineering
manpower was growing at a rate three times faster than the population,
and I was part of that growth. Although I would not be involved
in the Apollo program, I would be part of the profession that would
put the United States on the moon first.
Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil
Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, is the
author of more than a dozen books on engineering and design. His
latest, a technical and cultural history of the toothpick, is being
published this month.