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Viewpoints: ASCE Leaders and History

“Every profession has a history, and the degree to which that history is known, remembered, preserved, honored, and used determines to a great extent the degree to which the profession knows and understands itself and is acknowledged and respected as a profession outside the confines of its own practice. The profession of engineering has a long, rich, and important history, but many technically astute engineers are dismissive of that history. They emphasize the state-of-the-art, current trends, and the future of their specialist technology to the exclusion of its history. As a result, the history of engineering has not been especially prominent in most professional discussions or technical meetings. History would seem to have the reputation among many engineers of being frivolous, irrelevant, and distracting from the development of the ever-changing state-of-the-art and the pursuit of the future...The history of engineering, from the details of specialized fields to the sweeping narratives of great projects, provides essential information and caveats about what was once the state of the art and hence what should be recognized as being fundamental rather than irrelevant to the latest state of the art. History is not just a cultural frill, something that engineers might take up as a hobby after they retire from active practice. The history of engineering is a valuable adjunct to the technical tools that an engineer brings to a task, whether that task be the promotion of the profession or the design of a structure…”

“Engineering history provides us with a perspective on our profession so that we can place it properly in the context of the history of civilization and the world. By doing that, we gain a pride in our profession and convey to others that pride in an objective and effective way. In using and appealing to history to gain respect, however, we must always maintain a professional integrity and objectivity about it that does not allow historians to criticize our history as facile, frivolous, or false. We will not gain respect by disrespecting or misrepresenting our history.”

“The value of engineering history also goes beyond its being part of the liberal education of an engineer. Engineering history is useful, if not essential, to understanding the nature of engineering; it also assists in the practice of the profession. We gain perspective across fields of engineering by knowing their various and interrelated histories. A historical perspective assists engineers in identifying failure modes and catching errors in logic and design. Engineering history, in short, is engineering as well as history.”

Henry Petroski, (2001) “The Importance of Engineering History,” International Engineering: History and Heritage, Reston, VA: ASCE.

“Should civil engineers be interested in the history of their profession? The paper affirms this question as it examines different approaches to the history of civil engineering. Biographical or “heroic” studies of famous engineers or artifacts attract young people to the profession. Historical knowledge provides designers or managers with new perspectives on contemporary design problems, or problems within the organization for which they work. Historical case studies instill a sense of professional identity, values, and responsibility in students, as well as broaden their technical experience. Knowledge of history and of methods of historical research also helps the profession deal with its burden of history, old infrastructure.”

Jane Morley, (1994) “The Importance of Being Historical: Civil Engineers and Their History,” J. Prof. Issues Eng. Educ. Pract., 120(4), 419–428.