February 23, 2006

  A world without engineers? Unthinkable.

What do Alfred Nobel and Cindy Crawford have in common- besides the fact that Nobel created dynamite and Crawford happens to be, well, dynamite?

They both studied chemical engineering. And really, these two are shining examples of how engineers can improve the quality of our lives, a focus of this year�s National Engineers Week.

In all seriousness, recognizing the work of engineers is an important task. Historically, the prosperity and technological advancement of our country has depended upon innovation- and much can be attributed to the work of engineers. And yet, many fail to realize their contributions.

The idea of the engineer as an �unsung hero� has existed for decades. Even a copywriter wrote about the dilemma in 1929 in an ad for cast iron pipe:

�When the clock hands meet at midnight he is still at work� dreaming over streets and structures he will never live to see. He toils behind the scenes of great civil enterprises, the unsung prophet of comforts of economics which will bless the lives of generations as yet unborn.�

While the field of engineering was glorified in the early 1900s, the technological innovation that surrounds us- from skyscrapers to bridges- is now taken for granted as a normal aspect of life. It is only when natural disasters happen, such as Hurricane Katrina, that we realize how dependent we are on the work of an engineer.

So in honor of National Engineer�s week, it is worthwhile to take a look at some of the unrecognized or famous innovators who engineered their way into history, and thus improved the quality of our lives.

  • Leonardo da Vinci In addition to creating such artistic masterpieces as the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, da Vinci was employed as a military engineer, and anticipated the design of such modern technology as solar power, hydraulics and optics.
  • Johannes Gutenberg A German metalworker and inventor who created the printing press in 1448, largely considered as the greatest contributions to society.
  • Thomas Edison Inventor of the incandescent light bulb who was quoted as saying, �Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.
  • Frederick Law Olmstead Majoring in agricultural sciences and engineering at Yale, Olmstead went on to design New York City�s Central Park and Niagara Falls Park.
  • Neil Armstrong The first man to walk on the moon, Armstrong received his formal education as an aeronautical engineering.
  • Jimmy Carter 39th President of the United States, who served in the Navy as a submariner and did graduate work in reactor technology and nuclear physics.
  • Sir Henry Bessemer Created the Bessemer Process, which lead to the mass production of steel- vital to the establishment of skyscrapers.
  • Alfred Nobel A chemical engineer who pioneered the use of dynamite, and later established the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Benjamin Wright Considered the father of civil engineering, Wright was the chief engineer for the Erie Canal.
  • John Sununu As a former governor of New Hampshire, as well as former White House Chief of Staff for President George Bush Sr, Sununu also has an extensive background in the academic and business sect of engineering.
  • Grace Murray Hopper A computer engineer and Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy who developed the first computer compiler and computer program language COBOL. She also coined the phrase �bug� after she discovered that a moth had jammed a computer.
  • Alexandre Gustave Eiffel A French engineer who designed the Eiffel tower and the internal structure of the Statue of Liberty.
  • George de Mestral An electrical engineer who created and patented Velcro in 1955.

Other interesting figures in history who studied engineering:

  • Alfred Hitchcock An acclaimed director for psychological thrillers such as �Psycho� and �The Birds,� Hitchcock was trained as an engineer at Saint Ignatius College.
  • Cindy Crawford One of America�s most successful super models, Crawford studied chemical engineering at Northwestern University on scholarship before hitting the runway.
  • Boris Yeltsin A former president of Russia, Yeltsin was once the chief engineer of a construction company.
  • Montell Williams A popular syndicated talk show host who is also a highly decorated Naval engineer.
  • Yasser Arafat Former Palestine Liberation Organization leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Arafat graduated as a civil engineer from the University of Cairo.
  • Tom Landry Former Dallas Cowboy coach who studied industrial engineering.

National Engineering Week lasts from February 19-22. Founded in 1951 by the National Society of Professional Engineers, its goal is �to raise public awareness of engineers� positive contributions to our quality of life.� More than 70 engineering, education, and cultural societies, as well as more than 50 corporations and government agencies are involved in this event this year.

Related link: www.eweek.org

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  February 14, 2006

  A Valentine to the Engineer
There's life outside the lab. (Photo by Sarah Shanley)

I love engineers. I absolutely love them.

Rock stars may be sexy, business people may be savvy, but engineers rock my world. And the fact that more than 70,000 engineers graduate into the work force every year is enough to make my heart burst with glee.

I cannot explain my fascination. But there's something so practical--yet sexy--about graph paper, calculators and organized backpacks. Behind those carefully sketched math problems are powerful brains at work--so detailed, so complex and so enigmatic.

The engineer harnesses the power of the universe into practical use--like electricity, automobiles and flush toilets. Without them, we'd have no telephones, no airplanes, no infrastructure and no one to manufacture high heels.

Part of my fixation is because I grew up around engineers all my life. Most of my family members, many of my close friends and all my serious relationships have consisted of engineers.I’ve always been drawn to their personalities--mainly because I’m mystified by their ability to do such things as design buildings and write software, and then have an intelligent conversation about jazz or current events over beer in the same day. I never caught onto their field, but it's poetic justice that I now write about their industry.

So it breaks my heart when I hear of lonely engineers, wandering from work, to labs, or to their creative havens at home, neglected and underappreciated by the opposite sex. How can we not be grateful for all the calculus, circuit theory and heat transfer education they must endure so that we can turn on a computer? Such dedication warrants a little admiration.

I am not alone in my thinking. My Aunt Susie, who married my Uncle Larry, an electrical engineer who graduated from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, firmly believes that engineers make the best husbands.

"Most guys are boring,� she said. "But engineers have very active minds and a lot of neat ideas. You don't have to worry that they'll become couch potatoes. Their higher energy drive makes the sex better and the romance more interesting.�

And they're incredibly useful; whatever you break, they'll find some way to fix, she said. This work ethic has its benefits in relationships as well.

"They don't run away from problems,� said Allison Jantos, a graphic designer in Central California who is engaged to marry a materials engineer this spring."They need to fix them- that's their job.�

Engineers also seem to arrange very creative dates, Jantos said. While in college, Jantos' fiance gave her a distorted piece of metal wire and instructed her to put it in a boiling pot of water. Once it reached a higher temperature, she was delighted to see that the metal wire (which was shape memory alloy) turned into a big heart.

Engineers love to improve the world and they also love to improve their girlfriends or boyfriends by giving them practical gifts.

Jennifer Robbins, who has been dating an aeronautical engineer for six years, once received a pair of socks and tennis shoes for her birthday. "In its own way, it's more special than diamond earrings,� Robbins said. "The thought really counts. He took time to think about what I really needed.�

But perhaps the engineer's most appealing quality is the unusual commitment to one's significant other, Aunt Susie said.

"They're more dedicated,� she said. "You don't have to worry that they'll oogle over someone else.�

At hearing this, Uncle Larry piped in with a nerdy grin: "That's true, we're very good at cross-beneficial analysis,� he said. "The quickest way to become poor is to become divorced.�

Their uncanny wit alone is enough to earn engineers some much deserved love on V-day.

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  February 7, 2006

  Old and Young Should Connect

The blog entry, "Coping with the Office Age Gap,� posted on Jan. 10 seemed to have triggered some much needed discussion about the social dynamic between the younger and older generations in the office. Most responses gave helpful suggestions to those 20-somethings on how to adapt to an office environment where the vast majority consists of older workers, and how to meet other young people outside of work. Other replies argued that the younger crowd does not respect the experience and wisdom of their elders.

And they might be right. Hubris of the young is an ageless dilemma.

But "old timers� can learn a thing or two from generation X. Many young people starting out their careers today have passion, fresh ideas and an astounding ability to talk fast, listen fast and understand new technology. Channeling this energy into a constructive form is important to the future of any industry, especially in fields that demand innovation, so cultivating healthy and respectful relationships between age groups is imperative.

In fact, 53-year-old Bob Brody wrote about this in the Jan. 16, 2006, Issue of Newsweek.

"I've realized that being an older employee has a larger meaning, an underlying purpose, special responsibilities: to pass along lessons learned, to influence and inspire,� wrote Brody, who works for a public-relations firm in New York. "�And thanks to these kids teaching me how, I've finally emerged as a real team player.�

This isn't to say that younger workers know it all- because they certainly don't. Many times rookie employees appear to run short of respect for their accomplished co-workers because they lack experience, and thus, perspective.

Rather, it points out that a respectful and understanding working environment- where personal and social struggles in the office are acknowledged and mentorships are encouraged- makes for a stronger work force.

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By Carrie McGourty