A Brief History (3)
The Trickle-Down Theory of Engineering
Although engineers are among the most valuable members of society, they are seldom recognized by the
public. When, eight years ago, we asked random members of the public to name a famous engineer, the only
name most could come up with was Scotty, chief engineer of the Enterprise. Eight years later, some can also
name Dilbert, but it is not clear that this is a change for the better.
The public does not have a very high opinion of engineers. For example, they are generally considered less
intelligent than scientists. Would anyone hesitate if asked whether Scotty is smarter than Science Officer
One of the reasons for these perceptions is that the nature of engineering is widely misunderstood, even by
engineers. For example, if you ask the person in the street what engineering is, you will most likely get some
confused, inarticulate answer, such as
``It is the systematic application of scientific knowledge to the betterment of the human
Now, this answer is misleading, and most importantly, it's insulting to engineers. It's insulting because it
supports the trickledown theory of engineering: according to which engineers are an inferior variety of
scientist, best equipped to present the findings of real scientists to the even humbler intellects of the
technician and the consumer. I am not suggesting that this theory is true -- indeed, one of the objectives of
this course is to refute it -- but I am suggesting that it is widely held, and accounts in part for the relatively
low wages and respect engineers get in our society.
Things haven't always been this way. If you think back about 250 years, we find Dean Swift's Gulliver's
travels; in his third journey, Gulliver travels to the flying island of Laputa, which is inhabited by scientists.
And these scientists are figures of fun -- they are depicted as engaged in projects to extract sunlight from
cucumbers, train spiders to spin cloth, and so on. In the next two centuries, the industrial revolution took
place -- but its heroes were engineers, not scientists, and the names we remember from that period are the
names of engineers -- Watt, Stevenson, Treviathan. Even if we look at the fiction of that age, its heroes are
engineers. H.G. Wells's hero in `Food of the Gods' is an engineer, Jules Verne's Captain Nemo takes pride in
pointing out that the Nautilus draws on no new science, only the engineering application of what is already
known. Then, in 1945, the scientists did something that got everyone's attention.
In 1945 it became clear that science could do something really useful: it could win wars. From now on, any
nation that neglects its scientists can expect defeat, sooner or later, at the hands of more scientific nations.
Scientists therefore take on a radically new importance. Wehrner von Braun, brought over from Nazi