Skip to Content
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationSEPTEMBER 2006Volume 16 | Number 1 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
Woman of the World - BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS
Getting in Gear -     BY JEFFREY SELINGO

REFRACTIONS: Engineering and the City - By Henry Petroski
ASEE TODAY: President's Letter - Conference Highlights - 2006 Awards - Calls for Papers
LAST WORD: Closing the Gender Gap - BY RAYMOND SIMON

YEAR OF DIALOGUE: A Focus on Scholarship - BY RONALD E. BARR
BOOK REVIEW: Leonardo's Lost Robots - BY ROBIN TATU
ON CAMPUS: Ready, Get Set, Go!

REFRACTIONS: Engineering and the City - BY HENRY PETROSKI Henry Petroski  

This site of this year’s annual conference provided a showcase for the marvels of engineering.

Attending ASEE’s annual conference this past June gave me the opportunity to see a great American city in a new light. Carl Sandburg called Chicago the “city of broad shoulders,” referring to its working-class population. Chicago also has a long tradition of outstanding engineers and engineering accomplishments. It has been called the “home of the skyscraper,” and this is certainly an image that it presents to visitors today.

I took a taxi from O’Hare Airport to downtown Chicago in the early afternoon, when traffic seemed to be at its best. We were moving along nicely, when, for no apparent reason, the traffic began to back up. It was only when we rounded the bend in the road that I could see what had caused the delay. There, the skyline of the city was dominated by the Sears Tower, once the tallest in the world and once again the tallest building in America. I believe that drivers, coming upon this sight, unconsciously slowed down, wishing to prolong the experience.

Settled into my hotel, I looked out at a city of engineering on exhibit before me while I called my office from the comfort of an air-conditioned room. My cell phone worked perfectly, signaling to me that I was enveloped in the invisible achievements of electrical and computer engineering that we have come to take for granted. But my gaze fell on more tangible things.

The Chicago River is crossed at this location by one of the city’s many drawbridges, a form that allows for street-level crossings while at the same time accommodating river traffic. The drawbridge genre—which takes both structural and mechanical engineering skills to design—was raised to new heights here by engineers like John Waddell and Ralph Modjeski.

Amid construction cranes building future skyscrapers, I could see the John Hancock Center, immediately recognizable by its tapered sides and exposed framework. It speaks of the genius of the legendary structural engineer Fazlur Khan, who, working with the equally brilliant architect Bruce Graham, developed the tubular frame that enables tall buildings to stand steady in the Windy City and elsewhere. Virtually every record-setting skyscraper being built in the world today has a tubular frame of one kind or other.

From the window in the elevator lobby I looked east and saw another side of Chicago—where the river meets Lake Michigan, into which it once flowed, complete with raw sewage and slaughterhouse waste that contaminated the city’s water supply. It was one of the great achievements of hydraulic and sanitary engineering to reverse the flow of the river, allowing the water to be cleansed in the course of its long journey via the Des Plaines and Illinois rivers into the Mississippi to the west.

Also to the east sits Navy Pier, where a branch of the University of Illinois College of Engineering once offered opportunity to students from the city who could not attend classes in Urbana. A colleague in graduate school was a product of Navy Pier, and he showed me that where one studies is not so important as how well one studies.

With the establishment of the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle campus, classes ceased to be taught at Navy Pier, but the site has become a great recreational destination. Symbolizing this is the Ferris wheel that today stands out so prominently on the pier. This is fitting in the city of the original Ferris wheel, designed by George Ferris for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

It was at that world’s fair that ASEE was founded, as the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education. There is more engineering history and heritage in this city than can be fit into a book, let alone a column.

Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, is the author of “Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design” and other books on engineering and design.



Learn about diversity at ASEE
ASEE would like to acknowledge the generous support of our premier corporate partners.


American Society for Engineering Education