Greatest Engineering Accomplishments

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan. 2000

What 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.

The 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.

To 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.?

Hours 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.

In 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.

What 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.

One 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!

Which 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.

Which 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.

What 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.

How 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?

How 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.

It 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 achievements.

How would you have voted?


Robert W. Lucky