The 1800s were known as the “Great Age of the Engineer.”
Engineers were rock stars, feted and admired, their own kind of nobility, one born not of privilege but forged from the Industrial Revolution.
How times have changed!
200 years ago this week, April 9, 1806, Isambard Kingdom, Brunel, possibly the most famous engineer ever, was born. Who? Here in America most people, even most engineers, haven’t heard of this short man who was an intellectual giant. Yet in 2002 he was voted the second greatest Briton of all time, trailing only Winston Churchill.
Brunel reshaped both the landscape and the nature of engineering. Every class of project he touched stretched beyond anything built before. His suspension bridge on the Avon Gorge was over 700 feet long and 245 feet over the water, higher and longer than any such structure before (unhappily he died before it was completed, but it did open in 1864 and is still in use today.)
Brunnel’s 1838 Maiden Railway Bridge is still the widest and flattest such structure in the world, and it, too, is still in use over 150 years later. How many of the projects we build will our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren use?
He and his father Marc built the first tunnel under a navigable body of water – the Thames – which was completed in 1843. The injuries he sustained in a flood while building the tunnel plagued him for the rest of his life, but that structure, too, is still in use by some 14 million railroad passengers every year.
Then there were the ships – great, monsters that stretched the technology of the day. The 1836 Great Western was the first steamship in the transatlantic service. Wood, 236 feet long, it used both sails and paddlewheels.
His 1843 Great Britain was the first iron propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic.
Always looking for a great challenge his next ship was 692 feet long and designed to carry 4,000 passengers from England to Australia. Though technically a competent design, it was never a financial success for a number of reasons, not the least the opening of the Suez Canal that greatly reduced the distance to Oz.
Eventually chartered by Cyrus Field, the Great Eastern laid the first transatlantic cable, a tale very well told in “A Thread Across the Ocean,” by John Steele Gordon. This engineering story is a page-turner one just can’t put down. Or there’s a fictionalized account called Signal & Noise by John Griesemer that uses many facts from history but weaves a fascinating different sort of world around the story.
Unfortunately Brunel died a relatively young (53) man. I can’t help but wonder what his audacity, tenacity and inspiration would have accomplished had he more years to live. While building a 100 mile-long railway he joked that they build it even longer, all the way to New York, via a shipping route (which inspired his first transatlantic ship). One of his directors complained “He’ll have us going to the moon yet,” which surely sounded absurd in the 1830s. But what sort of role would he have played in the space era?
My favorite book on the man is “Isambard Kingdom Brunel,” by L.T.C. Rolt. There’s a web site celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth at http://www.brunel200.com/ .
Alas, if only the rock-stardom of so long ago still applied to our profession!
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 . His website is .
In our current times, I'm not sure we measure a persons' “greatness” by their accomplishments and contributions to society — rather we tend to measure it by their financial and material wealth. Everyone knows of Bill Gates and his company. But tell me this… how many of you know who invented the Integrated Circuit? The Integrated Circuit (IC) is a great contribution to society, yet most engineers and the general public do not know of this person(s). The inventor of the IC and his contribution to society is far greater than that of Bill Gates, yet we all know of Bill Gates. The inventors of the IC are, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce.
– Steve King
History will tell…
Actually; there are a few notable engineers in the recent past, and in our time.
Alfred Nobel, (inventor of dynamite + the namesake on the Nobel award)
Thomas Edison, (most notable for invention of the phonograph and electric light…and that little startup he did ie. the General Electric Company)
and most notably…
Bill Gates, (notable for the computer operating system, DOS, Windows, and another little startup company…Microsoft!).
What is interesting is these engineers have one thing in common…thus attaining the notoriety. And that is…They each made a HUGE ton of money!
– Ken Wada
You made me feel proud to be a Briton. 🙂
– Colin Walls
We don't have engineering heroes anymore, only villians! Often, a media imbalance is to blame.
Software and technology disasters make good headlines – successes rarely feature. With a bitterly ironic twist, modern journalists prepare their copy on a laptop, send it via the internet, call the office on a cell-phone, and watch the computer controlled print press produce the latest “Software Disaster” headline.
How did the newspapers in the 1800's treat their engineers?
– Martin Allen
Another engineer of legendary status (also a Brit) is John Harrison (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Harrison).
In the 1700s he created a mechanical time piece as accurate as a modern digital watch. He represents the epitome of an engineer, since the Royal Navy was ecstatic with the performance of the H1, yet Harrison insisted it was not good enough, and spent and additional 20 years perfecting (shrinking) the design before he would allow it to be tested.
He is so well known that a major hollywood biopic was made of his life starring Michael Gambon as Harrison.
Even some of the most famous rock stars don't get a hollywood biopic!
– Rennie Allen
Re Bill Gates. Not sure if he should be under the list of great engineers. I will agree he is a great entrepeneur and businessman. Not even sure if he thinks of himself as an engineer.
– Mark Walter
I think that Dean Kamen put it best in his keynote speech at the Embedded Systems Conference. “Our culture is one that celebrates athletes and entertainers,” and I would add massive wealth – which is the only reason most folks know Bill Gates. His goal of changing the culture to celebrate engineers is a laudable one, but lamentably hard. It is one that we should all participate in.
Another view on this that I heard recently (but unfortunately I cannot recall the source) is that “In India Bill Gates is [has the celebrity of] Madonna. The problem with America is that here Madonna is Madonna.”
– Russ Klein
Forget not, those were the days when the world was less polarised, there was no Internet and no media hype. They were (are) all natural heroes.
– Srikanth Varma
I enjoyed your latest column, as usual. I had never heard of Isambard Kingdom Brunel but I found his accomplishments intriguing.
You lament that the rock-stardom no longer applies to our profession. Yeah, it would be nice to be feted for our accomplishments, but I can't say I find it surprising that we are not.
Who are the really “great” professional athletes? People always have their favorites, usually tied closely to their favorite teams… but I think there is that sense that somehow the early sports heroes were the real greats. Some of it is rose-colored glasses looking at the past, some of it is today's muck-raking discussion of whether people are “cheating…” but I think that mostly it is just that as time goes by the gains are less dramatic and impressive. Incremental improvements are hard to get excited about, because all the gains that preceded them have led us to expect them.
In the world of desktop PCs, I can remember being impressed by a speed boost only once. That was when I replaced by 80286-10 system with an 80386-16 system. Man, that was one fast machine! Sure, today I'm running a desktop system at something like 2GHz (although I don't actually recall the speed unless I check, which itself tells me something), but at no other point along the line did I feel like I was getting a dramatic improvement. Each was a nice step but not that exciting. (Of course this may be a bad example, because we keep loading bigger and slower software on our PCs. For certain that 2GHz desktop running Microsoft Word 2000 is not as responsive as my old Morrow MD-11 (4MHz Z80) running WordStar. But that's an application of Niklaus Wirth's observation that software gets slower faster than hardware gets faster.)
So we work in a world where great engineering has made many things possible and people get to enjoy the fruits without thinking about them. I consider the DVD, as one example, to be an appallingly complex technology. But we can buy a player for $40, and the least tech-savvy members of my extended family can manage to watch a movie on DVD, so there is no wonder left there. In the environment of ever-raising expectations, the ability to leap forward dramatically and amaze people dwindles.
It's hard to impress people with incremental progress. It can also be hard to justify our pride in taking next steps. I'm reminded instead of a line from Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park:
“You know what's wrong with scientific power?” Malcolm said. “It's a form of inherited wealth. And you know what assholes congenitally rich people are. It never fails.”
He was referring to the arrogance that readily comes to those of us who are able to build upon the work of previous giants, and he's right. But it applies equally to the expectations of those who use the products we created. The people who use the bridges, tunnels, ships, transatlantic cables and so on created by Brunel are no longer amazed by those accomplishments or their successors.
Sorry, but that means no rock star status.
– Mark Bereit
If I had to name the most revolutionary invention in the past 100 years, it would have to be flight, and any child knows the inventors who made that possible.
If I had to name the most revolutionary invention in the past 10 years, I would have to say the Internet. Not since Television, has something changed our daily lives by so much. My life will never be the same.
Yet I cannot name the forefathers of the Internet. All I know is that it came from DARPA in the 1970s, and I'm certain it cannot be attributable to any one engineer.
One might argue those who invented the Web Browser or foundation of the WWW require a higher pedestal since they brought the technology down to the average user. Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, but much more important, he invented a way to bring it to the masses.
As technology gets more complex, it also seems the days of attributing the greatest modern day accomplishments to any one particular person are long gone.
– Joseph Sallmen
Yeah, well, a lot of it is own own fault. I mean there are the Grammys and the Oscars and the Nobels (at a more rarefied level) but where are the Engees? The actors and musicians have their own academies to promote their work and honor their members, what do we do? We sit around on our jaded duffs and complain that no one notices us. We could take something of a lesson from Dean Kaman who promoted his Segway on national TV shows etc. A little self promotion would go a long way. IEEE, SAE, ASME and all the others should get together to sponsor an annual awards night, using good looking celebrities to give away little techie looking trophies (each with an attached pecuniary reward easily donated to your favorite charity), get some help from popular entertainers and make a party of it. We could probably license the Academy Awards venue so we at least would't have to reinvent the show. There must be at least one satelite tv channel it could be broadcast on. Just don't make it too much like a science fair and a lot like what the lay person can relate to and maybe you'll have a hit. Commercial sponsors could even promote new tech goodies and high light their design teams. Done well, it might even inspire young folks to give engineering a try. Categories could include things like Best New Engine Design, Best New Medical Device, Best new Cellphone Accessory, Best Supporting Design Team and so on. And before the show all the candidates and their significant others could get a makeover and some nice formal wear (and advice on how to look good in it for those of us who might not know). As J.T.Kirk said in one of the Star Trek movies, “Sounds like Fun!”
– Don McCallum