Why Engineer? — Chapter 1: What is engineering?

Before I get started on the details, let me just say that I am going to indirectly ignore something that some engineers wind up doing:  operating complicated processes, plants, or facilities.  That does’t mean that what I am about to tell you doesn’t apply under those circumstances.   It does, but in ways that are less obvious.  Another similar category that I am indirectly ignoring is the engineering task of testing, which is also an important occupation of many engineers.  You might like it.  So, keep those job styles in mind if those types of engineering interest you.  What I am going to address directly is the engineering required in defining a product to be manufactured.


Do you like a good mystery?  Well here is one for you.  What is engineering?  Is it a subset of science?  Some think so.  In some cosmic way some may even think that engineering “works” for science.

Nearly everybody can tell you what science is, or at least what they picture it to be.  And no doubt everybody can tell you what mathematics is, at least the parts of it they have seen.  Yet only a few people can tell you what engineering is…and many of those who cannot are engineers!

You learn basic math and science in grade school, but not engineering.  And they only teach you “engineering science” in college.  You don’t really learn engineering anywhere except on the job.  And few there are who learn the lesson well, although they usually learn the job.  That’s why it’s so hard to find out what engineering is.

Let’s start with the dictionary.  And see if we can make any progress.

The first part of the second definition in Merriam-Webster on the Web is:

“the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people”

I like that, but it needs something.   Also, it excludes products that don’t use either energy or matter.   Wait a minute, there is a dictionary on my Mac, and part of it reads:

“skillfully or artfully arrange for (an event or situation) to occur”

That adds something of value, but we’re still missing the target.  Maybe we should look at the etymology of the word (That means the origins of the word.  I promised myself that I would not use strange or seldom used words – just so things would be clear.  I guess I lost it here.)  According to the “Online Etymology Dictionary” (etymoline.com), the origin of “engineer” and words related to it is:

engineer (n.)

early 14c., “constructor of military engines,” from O.Fr. engigneor, from L.L. ingeniare (see engine); general sense of “inventor, designer” is recorded from early 15c.; civil sense, in ref. to public works, is recorded from c.1600. Meaning “locomotive driver” is first attested 1832, Amer.Eng. The verb is attested from 1843; figurative sense of “arrange, contrive” is attested from 1864, originally in a political context. Related: Engineered. Engineering as a field of study is attested from 1792; an earlier word was engineership (1640s). Engineery was attempted in 1793, but it did not stick.”

It’s interesting to note that the term “train engineer” didn’t show up until 1832.  At any rate, as interesting as the etymology may be, it doesn’t add a lot more to the mix.  So, what are we missing?  Could it be something I have already told you?

“An engineer is someone who can do for one dollar what any fool can do for ten dollars.”

Aha!  You didn’t read the Preface.  Can’t blame you.  I usually don’t read prefaces either.

OK, I think we have enough.  Besides, this is getting boring.  Let’s see if I can come up with one good, simple sentence definition that  grabs the full essence of engineering.  Here is one possibility.

“Engineering:  the art of using the right combination of science, mathematics, or whatever to produce a simple, easy to manufacture, easy to inspect, easy to use, and easy to maintain design that is dirt cheap.”

All the way from art to dirt, with a “whatever” in the middle.  Can I convince you  of the truth of this definition?  Alright, here is an example.

Earl was a design engineer at Republic Aviation Corporation, affectionately referred to by the inmates as the “Repulsive Aggravation Corporation.”  When Republic was making their first afterburner[1], they faced a difficult problem – thermal distortion and the stresses that it produces.  Because of the high temperatures involved, this experimental project was administered by the thermodynamics[2] group.  Their first design was named after the manager of that group.  The first test of it was quite short.  In a matter of a few seconds the afterburner  rolled itself up in a ball and exited the engine like a missile.  Less than a second after that, the design was renamed after a lower level engineer.  Then the design was redone to include more parts to allow it to expand as the temperatures rapidly climbed.  Another ball, another missile.  After a final futile trial, the thermodynamics group threw up their hands, walked off the job, and threw the job over the wall to the design group.   At this point the design fell into Earl’s lap.  Now Earl was not a highly educated engineer, in fact, he never finished high school.  Still, he was no slouch.  If anyone knew what a non-thinking machine was actually thinking, Earl did.  His philosophy was that sometimes you had to defy Mother Nature.  So, in defiance of all that was considered rational, he bolted the afterburner in place as solidly as possible, with no allowance for expansion.  No surprise, it worked.

Now you can argue over the practicality of this approach, but there is always that cliché, “nothing succeeds like success.”  Was it art, science, mathematics, or whatever that produced the success?  Well, it wasn’t science or mathematics.  If you wanted that, you should have stuck with the thermodynamics group, but then you would not have had a success.  If this bothers you, go read the preface again.  You don’t find all the answers in a book when it comes to engineering.  Remember —

“An engineer is someone who can do for one dollar what any fool can do for ten dollars.”

If we had to wait for science and mathematics to solve all of our problems, some designs would never come to fruition.  Engineering costs money and time.  The money is not there forever, nor is the time.  Customers move on.  Everyone has their limits.  Whether the primary basis of the design is science, mathematics, or whatever, if it is not leading you down the path to the “one dollar” solution, it will not end in success.

By the way, Earl is not some theoretical guy.  He is not a made up example.  He was born in 1910 and died in 2004.  He was my father.  I will tell you more about him as the book goes on.

So if the new afterburner design was neither scientific nor mathematical, what was it?  This example seems like a case of “whatever”.  Earl had a hunch it would work.  After all, you don’t work with machines nearly all of your life and not get a feel for what works best, what is possible and what isn’t.

Maybe now is a good time to discuss the order of things in my definition of engineering.  When I wrote it, I put “art” first.  Science didn’t show up to be the supreme leader.  Science does not invent things.  However, there is a practical reason for using science.  It is repeatable.  It sets limits.  It reigns in impractical and impossible dreams.  It often brings sanity into the mix of ideas, but not always.

If you want a repeatable, predictable, explainable design you need two things:  a scientific basis that allows a paper analysis of the design, and an ability to test the results in properly simulated situations.  Generally speaking, it is always best to have a scientifically based design.  However, and we can talk about this later, science doesn’t know everything.

Unfortunately, neither science nor mathematics can always get there from here.  As in the example of the afterburner, you may have to depend on a good engineering hunch with no science to back it up – possibly a hunch that defies science.  I list hunches as a subset of “whatever”.

Ultimately though, engineering is an art, not an art whose sole purpose is to produce an aesthetic effect, but rather an art that finds the cheapest way to satisfy a set of requirements.  It is even used to determine the cheapest requirements in the first place.  So, I am going to leave art in first place.  It is the art of knowing which way to go to get to the finish line.

We will go into the details later, but this is probably enough for the first chapter.  You should at least have an idea now that engineering is not a subset of science, and that engineering a one dollar solution to a ten dollar problem is hard work.

[1] An afterburner is a device just ahead of the outlet of a jet engine where extra fuel is burned in order to produce extra thrust.  It is has been used on military airplanes, primarily fighters.  Most jet engines do not have after-burners.

[2] I assume you know what thermodynamics is, but just in case, thermodynamics is sort of the study of energy and how it affects matter – sort of.  I would give you a more exact definition, but it would take too long and not really matter anyway.