PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo Summer 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 9
Appreciating Engineering


Engineering’s important role in everyday life is on view at a 19th-century Richmond, Va., hotel.

Henry Petroski - Photo By Leonora HamilMy wife and I recently drove to Richmond, where I was giving a lecture sponsored by the department of communication design, known for its graphics design program, at Virginia Commonwealth University. Our hosts were putting us up for the evening at the historic Jefferson Hotel, which dates from the late 19th century but has been tastefully reengineered to incorporate modern conveniences. It is a tribute to engineering and design that so much of the Victorian fabric and ambience has been preserved while at the same time the structure and machinery have been updated to meet today’s expectations.

Upon our arrival, the inquisitive desk clerk asked if I were a graphic designer. No, I told him, I was an engineer there to deliver a lecture to graphic designers. He told us he was married to an engineer but he did not have the personality to do calculations or pore over plans the way she did. He preferred to read books on history and philosophy. In the interest of time, I did not tell him that engineers can have the personality to do both.

In our room, I found that one of the lights above the wash basin was blown, which reduced the effectiveness of the mirror because there was a divider wall between it and the window, the only source of light from that side. I notified a housekeeper, and she assured me that the bulb would be replaced promptly. And it was, for upon retuning to the room that evening I found a discreet card—signed “Engineering”—lying on the vanity right below the light, informing me that it was fixed just minutes after we had left the room to go down to the hotel lobby.

The lobby is dominated by a statue of Thomas Jefferson standing under a large stained-glass skylight. The grand staircase, which leads down to the great room known as the Rotunda, is claimed to have been used in “Gone With the Wind.” The staircase still has all the height and width it did in earlier years, but its spaciousness is broken up by a central pair of hand railings. This concession to safety has been done visually unobtrusively with the brass blending into the color and pattern of the carpeting. Updating a classic design does not have to be done with a heavy hand.

There are some aspects to the physical structure of an old hotel that cannot so easily be brought up to today’s standards, however. The clothes closet in our room was so narrow and shallow that it could barely hold the few clothes we had brought on this overnight trip. Like the room’s, the closet’s ceiling was quite high, but the vertical bonus was not usable space. In its original layout, the commodious room no doubt was fitted with a similarly commodious freestanding wardrobe.

After my talk, we were taken to dinner in the hotel’s fine restaurant, Lemaire, which is named for Thomas Jefferson’s maître d’hôtel Etienne Lemaire, who is said to have introduced to America “the fine art of cooking with wines.” The meal, accompanied by a pleasant Virginia Pinot Grigio, was a striking example of what culinary chemical engineering can produce in a modern kitchen. Engineering is everywhere.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His new book, “Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design,” has just been published by Princeton University Press.


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REFRACTIONS: Appreciating Engineering - By Henry Petroski
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LAST WORD: The Real Numbers - By Vivek Wadhwa


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