were the greatest engineering accomplishments of the last century?
I recently had the privilege of arguing this question on a committee of
the National Academy of Engineering. More
than one hundred nominations for these achievements had been submitted by
several dozen engineering societies, including the IEEE.
The committee's task was to pick an ordered list of the 20 most
significant achievements from those so nominated.
I had expected this task to be intellectually stimulating and rather fun,
and I was surprised at how argumentative it eventually became.
Regardless, this selection left me with a profound sense of pride in our
engineering profession. Together we
have accomplished such great things, and it is gratifying to stand back and view
these achievements from the perspective of a century of progress.
list we chose is being made public in late February, so as I write this column I
am not able to give you our choices. No
matter, though, because your own list would be just as good as ours.
What does matter is the reflection on the varied and deep ways in which
our technologies have interacted with human society in the last century, and the
wonder about what similar impacts may be awaiting us in this new century.
begin the task, it was explained that the criterion for ordering the
accomplishments should be impact on society.
I knew immediately that I was among fellow engineers when seemingly
endless arguments broke out about the definitions of "impact" and
"society." For example,
does "society" mean the world, or just the United States?
The desired answer was that society had to be defined globally, but the
reality was that the relative impact of technologies had varied a great deal
across nations. As for gauging "impact", what were the dimensions
and metrics of this concept? How
could we make relative judgments among contributions to health, safety,
economics, convenience, etc.?
of argument on such things produced no consensus. Engineers always have a compulsion to be definitive and
quantitative, but sometimes this is impossible. Finally, someone said something to the effect of, "Let's
just do it -- let's just vote on these things anyway."
And so it was.
no particular order, some of the nominated accomplishments that I remember
included: the automobile, telephone, radio, television, computer, Internet,
airplane, air conditioning, highway system, imaging systems, space technology,
home appliances, health technology, nuclear energy, safe drinking water, waste
treatment, electrification, agricultural mechanization, dams and bridges,
skyscrapers, jet engines, lasers and optics, integrated circuit, microprocessor,
and the transistor.
an impressive list it is! Did we
engineers do all that? I peeked
around the conference table at some of the committee members who might claim
personal responsibility for some of these achievements.
However, in most cases the credit is not to an individual, but rather to
our profession as a whole. As an
engineer, I feel proud of these things.
of the first orders of business, and again a controversial one, was the
combining of various similar nominations into a single category.
For example, the transistor, integrated circuit, and microprocessor were
all combined under the term "electronics."
The airplane, jet engine, airports, and air traffic control system --
separate nominations -- were combined under "airplane."
Yet the automobile and highway system were retained as separate
categories. Radio and television
were combined, as were the systems for water supply and sewerage.
Many technologies were included in the larger categories of
"imaging", "home appliances", "space technology",
and so forth. But enough of this --
on to the real arguments!
was more important to society -- the telephone or television?
Well, there are more televisions than telephones in the world.
There are even, so I understand, more televisions than flush toilets.
Television, for better or worse, has promulgated culture and homogenized
the world. It is a broadcast
medium, as opposed to the one-to-one system of telephony.
Then, too, it is pointed out that some 90% of the people in the world
have never made a telephone call (a statistic that is somewhat misleading
because of the large percentage of children).
Maybe the nod here goes to television.
would you choose between the computer and electrification?
What kind of impact has the computer made on everyday life?
What would the world be like if all the computers disappeared tomorrow? It's all well and good to say that we couldn't have airline
reservation systems and that industrial productivity would decline in the
absence of computers, but it is hard to quantify the impact of computers on the
average person. Given the choice of
computers or the electrical power distribution infrastructure, it is pretty
clear what an average person would choose.
about the choice between the automobile and the airplane?
The automobile created the suburbs and became a way of life.
The airplane brought the continents together.
The airplane also has the allure of being one of the magical inventions
of the century. Yet the majority of
the world has never flown on a plane.
would you rate the highway system on this list? Certainly without highways the automobile would be useless,
and in the United States the Interstate Highway System, created in the 1950s by
the Eisenhower administration, has redrawn the geography of the nation.
Yet there is no real spark of invention here.
The Romans had a good road system. Is
this an engineering accomplishment or a political achievement?
significant is the Internet? With a
half billion current users and market caps of related companies totaling
trillions of dollars, with new disruptive business models, and new societal
implications every day, how far up the list should it be?
Yet skeptics say wait and see. Maybe
next century's list will have it at the top.
Or maybe it won't make the cut.
is hard now to imagine what life was like at the beginning of the last century.
My mother was born shortly after 1900 on a farm in Virginia with no
electricity. Radio had just been invented.
Life, as she described it, seemed hard to me. She told me of seeing the first automobile, and of her thrill
in seeing the first airplane to fly over the farm. Yet she lived to see, via television, men walk on the moon.
What a century! As engineers we should all take enormous pride in these
would you have voted?