The Uncelebrated Engineer

January 11, 2010

JackGanssle-January 11, 2010

The crash of American Airlines 331 in Jamaica at the tale end of 2009 was horrific " the plane was destroyed and some 40 people were injured.

But none seriously.

The fuselage broke into two pieces. Engines came loose.

And no one was seriously injured.

The main landing gear sheared off. The nose was crushed.

And no one was seriously injured.

We who travel a lot get frustrated with delays, crummy food and cramped cabins. It's hard not to be grumpy when setting out on yet another trip. But think about the experience: the East Coast to Europe in a mere seven hours! We're doing 600 knots at 40,000 feet, the outside air temperature is -70, and turbines are spinning at 12,000 RPM. Half a million pounds of complex gear hurtling through near-space (the air pressure is around 3 PSI) simply must work correctly. And it nearly always does. Yet it seems amazing that the thing could work at all.

I salute the entire aviation industry, and in particular the engineers who designed an aircraft that even in its own destruction saved 154 people. But in no press account I've read has any reporter or pundit commended the engineers whose efforts meant so much to so many.

We live in an engineered world. Every second of each day is mediated by some product created by a team of engineers. Your clothes are made on machines that are astonishing to watch in action. A humming infrastructure feeds power, water, and data into our homes.

No matter what sort of transportation we use, from the bicycle to spaceship, it is the product of an obscure group of engineers. This Christmas season electronics " embedded systems " flew off the shelves. How many teenagers ever stop to think about the design efforts poured into that iPod or Wii?

With the start of 2010 we enter another decade (at least numerically speaking) which will see the birth of all kinds of new and cool products, each the result of engineers quietly going about their work. By and large the public doesn't really understand what engineering is all about; too many conflate it with science.

My hat is off to you, dear readers, the creators of a wonderful world of opportunities for so many, and the inventors of tomorrow.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.

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