High School Engineering/Historical Themes

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In this chapter, four themes emerge repeatedly; they have been repeated throughout the history of engineering. Each is related to one of the chapter learning objectives and will be illustrated several times in this chapter. We briefly introduce these themes before beginning the history.

Engineering requires creativity and judgment in applying math and science to solve problems. You will recognize this theme in almost all of the engineering developments discussed in this chapter. Specific examples of this include development of the steam engine and the electrical light system; in both cases, an understanding of the basic scientific principles associated with steam power and electricity was established before engineers used these principles to develop technology. However, understanding alone did not lead to immediate implementation of the technology; significant effort was often required to make things work.

Complex engineering problems are usually solved by teams working within the broader societal structures. For example, most of history's large construction projects such as the pyramids in ancient Egypt, the great cathedrals in Medieval Europe, or the large dams in the western United States required extensive materials, labor, and other resources. These resources were provided by governments, corporations, churches, or other organizations. Also, large projects require the organization of large numbers of people. All of this was done within a social structure.

Government is one societal structure that constantly influences engineering advances. Governments have often provided resources for engineering projects, and have spurred development of new technologies, including accurate clocks for measuring longitude, early computers, military aircraft, and rockets and technology for space travel. In addition to providing resources, governments have influenced technology through laws and policies. Some laws may be implemented to protect public safety; for example, explosions of boilers in steam engines in the late 1800s led to government regulation and safety standards. Patents represent another way in which governments use laws to influence technology; a patent gives its holder legal rights to stop others from using a particular technique or design.

As technology has progressed, it has grown more complex. Thus, many early engineering achievements can be attributed to single individuals or small groups. However, most recent engineering achievements have been made by multidisciplinary teams of engineers.

Engineering progress provides new human capabilities, which in turn increase engineering capabilities. Many technological advancements provide a foundation for further technological advancements. For example, the development of affordable printing methods (including movable type and the mechanical printing press) led to wider availability of books and promoted literacy; this in turn led to wide dissemination of scientific knowledge which formed the foundation of the Industrial Revolution. As another example, the development of computers enabled the subsequent development of computer-aided design software, which is now used to create even more powerful computers.

Engineering produces both intended and desirable consequences as well as unintended and undesirable consequences. For example, the development of trucks and cars has allowed people and goods to travel widely. However, these vehicles are a major source of air pollution, particularly in developing nations, and these vehicles have made urban sprawl a major issue in most major American metropolises. In today’s world, engineered systems have become incredibly complex, and no one individual can understand all of the ramifications of a complex technical system; this complexity generates uncertainty, which can lead to problems and even disasters, particularly when circumstances or consequences cannot be foreseen by the engineers developing a system.

As you read this chapter, see if you can identify examples of each of these themes.


History of Engineering · Engineering in Ancient Civilizations