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
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
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
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.