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ON THE SHELFNot a Straight Line

The evolution of engineering owes much to accident and personality.

Engineers: A History of Engineering and Structural Design
by Matthew Wells. Routledge, 243 pages.

When structural engineers tackle building projects, they are guided by a solid grasp of core knowledge and craft, and employ both to achieve expedient, elegant solutions. But just how did foundational engineering concepts first gain acceptance? What was the process of accretion and codification – as well as rejection of other systems? In this history of structural design, English engineer and architect Matthew Wells argues that technological development has never followed a logical, linear, or self-sustaining trajectory. Instead, accident, personality, and politics have all played a part in the adaptation of modern engineering ideas. Perhaps, he suggests, “the whole edifice has more contingency than inevitability about it.”

Engineers: A History of Engineering and Structural Design spans centuries of practice, from ancient Neolithic Welsh stone rings and Egyptian pyramids up through the “continual present.” Wells explores paradigmatic shifts and the confluence of elements that helped shape current practice. An engineer who is known for his work on innovative contemporary structures, he is also intrigued by ideas that once held sway but were eventually discarded, suggesting that greater understanding of past systems can help engineers address the limitations of their own perceptions. “For who is not aware of the mental ties that bind,” writes Wells; “the impossibility of doing anything but working over the palimpsest of earlier understandings?”

While engineering histories tend to champion the genius of notable individuals and their innovations, Wells strives to illuminate political, social, and cultural context. Take, for example, his consideration of Galileo Galilei, often hailed for penning the first truly modern treatise on structural engineering. Wells considers how the trajectory of Galileo’s scientific career was driven by his personal desire for social advancement and aided by 16th-century demand for technology to support economic development. His early contribution aimed at reducing the hull weight of Venetian warships and commercial vessels. Galileo’s solution was flawed but reveals his intellectual influences, an early blending of Arab algebraic concepts and classical Greek mechanics. Nor was Galileo alone in applying mathematical models to engineering problems; he did so within a milieu of mathematicians, astronomers, and inventors all working through similar abstractions, often in correspondence with one another. Their ideas gained currency as never before, thanks, in part, to Gutenberg’s printing press, which revolutionized the dissemination of knowledge.

This sort of contextualized overview enlivens Wells’s study of Baroque England’s penchant for “dismemberment” – the systemized study of parts, reassembled into wholes; the 18th-century struggle to devise a theory of elasticity; the technical idealism that suffused Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire building; and the frenzy of American industrialization, during which “almost every possibility for advantage was grasped at.”

Given the ambitious scope of this book, some topics are covered in far too cursory a manner: Japanese “propensity for invention and improvement” is recognized as key to the country’s modernization, for example, but no details are provided. Equally perplexing is Wells’s inclusion of only one woman among the numerous men singled out for their contributions. His justification, that “the gender bias of engineering reflects historical and social conditions” may not convince some readers, nor his pronouncement that “engineering has no gender differentiation at all.” Yet, if certain topics are given short shrift, others are covered extensively – bridges, skyscrapers, early uses of reinforced concrete, and the ways in which transportation innovations and American wartime aviation influenced structural design.

Despite the book’s idiosyncrasies – it began, Wells freely admits, as “a sheaf of notes appended to an office design manual” – Engineers provides a fascinating consideration of past ideas, experimentation, and the embrace of engineering principles, all handsomely illustrated in photographs and technical drawings. Wells concludes by urging “a stronger awareness of the influences that affect the way we construct things, a recognition of the feathered edges of our field of inquiry.” It can be, he says, a step toward a new kind of engineering.

Robin Tatu is senior editor of Prism.




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