ASEE PRISM - September 2000
Seeing Eye to Eye

By Henry Petroski

When I see my ophthalmologist for an annual check up, I have come to expect a conversation about engineering. Over the years, our discussions have become more and more personal, and in the rear-view mirror of hindsight we now agree that engineering and medicine are closer than they might appear.

Illustration by Rob CollinetThe first conversation we had was about 15 years ago, shortly after my doctor had learned that I was an engineer. He told me about a recent vacation on which he had taken a tour of the Paris sewer system. He marveled at the subterranean engineering achievement that is right under everyone's nose yet out of sight and out of mind.

During a subsequent appointment, I learned that the doctor had a son who was an engineer. Still later, the doctor told me that he had given to his son as a gift a copy of my recently published book on the pencil. Why a whole book on pencils, the doctor wanted to know. I replied that I wrote the book to explore the nature of engineering through a simple artifact.

During my most recent checkup, there was a second doctor-- a resident--in the examining room. I was introduced to him as an engineer and author of a book on pencils and engineering. We also talked briefly about my latest book, on bookshelves, and the ophthalmologist pointed out how he had to use a double thickness of shelf to eliminate the sagging beneath his heavy medical books. I remarked about the structural significance of sagging shelves in the history of the bookshelf, and described how much the technological system of books and bookshelves had changed since the Middle Ages.

Our conversation grew more and more animated, and soon the resident expressed the wish that he had majored in engineering as an undergraduate. He knew it to be an analytical discipline and being analytical, he now understood, was part of being a good doctor. My ophthalmologist then let us know that he had begun his own undergraduate studies as an engineering major. That was in the years when the freshman curriculum included mechanical drawing, and it was that course that caused him to switch to pre-med. Drawing the threads of machine screws, he told us, was not his idea of how to spend a career.

Though an engineering student today is not likely to have to draw machine-screw threads, a good number still do change their major on the basis of their experience in introductory courses. Among these transferees are future doctors who might look back and realize that while the elements of engineering do indeed involve a good deal of tedium and repetition, they are by no means all there is to engineering, and that tedium and repetition are not confined to the engineering profession.

To the engineers working on the Paris sewer system, its design may have involved seemingly countless calculations of gradients and flow rates, but the end product is a monument to ingenuity and an invaluable contribution to public health. Likewise, the screw threads that engineers once drew so meticulously evolved into a standardized system that enables us to walk into any hardware store and match a nut to the loose bolt in our pocket, a milestone in the development of modern society.

Every profession has its tedium, but it is tedium for a higher purpose. Examining eyes all day long has its degree of tedium, but it pales against the satisfaction that a doctor must get in providing a means of correcting debilitating nearsightedness or diagnosing a detaching retina before it causes blindness.

Medicine and engineering are in fact not that far apart in their underlying reliance upon repetitive methods, but in engineering, the repetitive tasks now have been largely taken over by the digital computer. Engineers today are much more likely to have the role of manager--but they may be managing a computer rather than a group of people. What engineers learn in their introductory courses is, rather than being an end in itself, a means to understanding the technology they will almost invariably come to manage. It is unlikely, however, that the tedium of practicing engineering will ever go away entirely.

Our first- and second-year engineering students must not be allowed to confuse tedium with ennui. What counts is not the repetitiveness of exercises and calculations but the satisfaction with the finished product. It is important that engineering educators convey to young students the beauty in a sewer even before they encounter the hydraulics to design it. It is important to convey to students the existential pleasures of engineering as an antidote to what they perceive to be its Sisyphean efforts. If we can do that, we can retain as future engineering leaders many students who might otherwise change their majors.

    Henry Petroski is 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.