Near the end of National Engineers Week, an e-mail message from the executive director of the Texas Board of Professional Engineers reminded its recipients that theirs was “the most unrecognized occupation in the world.” This is unfortunate and paradoxical, for engineering’s works themselves are among the most recognized and revered wonders on Earth.
By coincidence, just days before, I had read an essay by the structural engineer Richard Weingardt about his visit to the Millau Viaduct, a spectacular new cable-stayed bridge in southern France. The towers of this multispan structure are the world’s tallest, and the roadway is so high over the valley that the traffic often moves above or through the clouds.
As Weingardt reported, the bridge had been hailed by President Jacques Chirac as “a new symbol of the excellence of French civil engineering.” However, the viaduct is seldom associated with its engineers. Rather, it is identified as being the work of the well-known architect, Norman Foster.
In fact, as Weingardt pointed out, “the project itself was the brainchild of Michel Virlogeux, a structural engineer,” who is also responsible for the spectacular long-span Pont de Normandie at the mouth of the Seine. Furthermore, the Millau design team included three other “engineering entities” (the firms Arcadis, Greisch and Thales Engineering and Consulting). Foster and Partners was the architect for the project, not its sole designer.
Weingardt laments the fact that engineers do not generally receive the recognition that they deserve, which contributes to public misunderstanding about the profession and its role in society. Furthermore, he believes that “young people considering engineering as a career need to know who’s responsible for designing structural marvels like the Millau Viaduct.” Unfortunately, the situation is even worse than Weingardt states. Young people who do go into engineering are not likely to be taught the names of the engineers responsible for the many great projects that have changed the face of the planet.
By further coincidence, the latest issue of Engineering News-Record carried a story about the American Society of Civil Engineers releasing a draft version of its Body of Knowledge report. This years-long project seeks to establish what and how deeply engineers must know various “knowledge-skill areas,” or “outcomes,” ranging from such familiar ones as design and experiment to those focusing on more recent topics, such as globalization and ethical responsibility.
Whether to include the history and heritage of civil engineering in the Body of Knowledge was hotly debated within the committee, comprising both academics and practitioners. History and heritage did survive the cut and is included among the 28 outcomes contained in the draft document, soon to be released publicly.
The inclusion of history and heritage was reported to have “daunted some academic panelists,” but evidently not practitioners. Teaching it can be a tall task for engineering educators who themselves have not studied history, but faculty members are used to teaching in areas that they did not study in school. Incorporating the history and heritage of engineering into the curriculum should be no different.
If our students learn who the real masterminds are behind great contemporary engineering achievements like the Millau Viaduct and such classic technical milestones as the Brooklyn Bridge, then they are less likely to stand by silently when those structures are attributed to architects or spoken of solely as great architecture. The engineering profession will have found its voice and will speak up for its accomplishments.
Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering at Duke University, is the author of “Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design” and a dozen other books on engineering and design. He chairs the History and Heritage Committee of the American Society of Civil Engineers.