Presidents and Engineers

Herbert Hoover mining in possibly Australia or South Africa, ca. 1900.

America celebrates National Engineering Week each February in the week containing February 22nd, George Washington’s birthday.  Washington, who used engineering skills while surveying land on the frontier, is an apt President on which to hang this celebration of engineering.  Other Presidents who’d merit consideration might include:  Thomas Jefferson, a polymath who designed Monticello and gathered the books which were the foundation of the Library of Congress; Jimmy Carter, who studied nuclear engineering at Georgia Tech; and Herbert Hoover, who studied geology at Stanford [before engineering was a profession] and earned his fortune as a mining engineer.

Of these Presidents, I think that Hoover wrote the most eloquently regarding engineering as a profession.  In his later life, Hoover was often called upon to speak about his profession.  He gave one such speech at Columbia University, November 7, 1951.  He opened by reminding his audience that he was once a visiting lecturer at Columbia: ‘I gave a course of lectures that had all the wit of calculus, the humor of a trilobite, and the joyousness of thermodynamics.’

Hoover goes on to explain the role played by American universities in elevating engineering from a trade learned via apprenticeships and secondary technical schools to a profession demanding rigorous years of university training.  Despite the dignity inherent in the profession, engineering has both joys and sorrows.  Hoover observes:

‘The engineer has the fascination of watching a figment of his imagination emerge with the aid of science to a plan on paper.  Then it moves to realization in cement, metal or energy.  Then it brings new jobs and homes to men.  Then it adds to the security and comfort of those homes.  That is the engineer’s high privilege among professions.

The profession, however, does have woes.  The engineer’s work is out in the open where all men can see it.  If he makes a mistake, he cannot, like the doctor, bury it in a grave.  He cannot, like the architect, obscure it by trees and ivy.  He cannot, like the lawyer, blame it on the judge or jury.  He cannot, like the politician, claim his constituents demanded it.  Nor can he, like the public official change the name of it and hope the voters will forget.  Unlike the clergyman, he cannot blame it on the devil.

Worse still, if his works do not work, he is damned….  But the engineer himself looks back at the unending stream of goodness that flows from his successes with a satisfaction that few other professions can know.’

Nearly poetic words from Hoover on his chosen profession, tinged with humor and pride.

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