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Knowing History Gets the Nod

As noted in an earlier Newsletter J. A. L. Waddell wrote a paper in 1903 for the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education on the topic “The Advisability of Instructing Engineering Students In The History Of The Engineering Profession.” Several of his colleagues discussed the paper in which he promoted the addition of a course in the curriculum and the preparation of a book to be used in that course. Some of their comments are as follows:

W. H. Bixby - I feel that such a compilation and publication is exceedingly desirable by some responsible party or parties, and I would gladly see it done if possible by the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education.

Charles Puryear -The chief benefit of such a course of instruction would, in my opinion, be derived from the fact that it would enable the engineering student to view his intended profession in true perspective and give him a definite idea of the relation of the engineer to society. I believe the plan proposed for bringing out the history is, on the whole, a good one; but I think there would be lacking the unity which should characterize a book; and that the result would be not a book in the best sense, but a cyclopedia of engineering history.

It would, in all probability, be too bulky to admit of its being given a place in the already crowded curricula of engineering schools. But the material once gathered and published in a form acceptable to practicing engineers, it would be an easy matter to prepare a text giving the essentials of the subject in condensed form; this might well be given a place in the schools.

S. N. Williams - I wish to express my hearty approval of the new and admirable thought of Professor Waddell. The wonderful achievements of engineering skill have not been properly appreciated by humanity as compared with like productions in other professional lines, while the known modesty of engineers has caused an unwillingness to press their claims for recognition on the public which has been surfeited with histories of all kinds and persons excepting those who have in an engineering way contributed so materially and quietly to human welfare.

The time has fully come for this neglect to be remedied, and as the justice of Professor Waddell’s statements will immediately commend itself to the members of our Society, I trust steps will at once be taken to prepare such a history along the lines he recommends.

L. S. Randolph - The writer is heartily in accord with Mr. Waddell on his ideas, and believes that such a history as he advocates will be extremely valuable. One of the great values of history and the study thereof is that it gives a man more definite conception than he will otherwise get, and there is no doubt in the writer’s mind that definite conception in regard to what constitutes an engineer and what an engineer should be are not only badly needed among the people generally but also among those whose duty it is to train and teach engineers.

E. L. Corthell - If the profession could have a history of itself such as Mr. Samuel Smiles wrote years ago in his ‘Lives of the Engineers’ it would be of great value to the young men who are coming forward in our profession, but it should be written in an attractive style such as Mr. Smiles’ was, and by someone, or by those who are capable of writing in a popular manner. I am in hearty accord with the project.

Walter G. Berg - I consider Mr. J. A. L. Waddell’s suggestion for the compilation and publication of a ‘History of Civil Engineering’ as a very valuable one. The advance in civil engineering, like in most professions, has been by a process of evolution and experience gained not only in experimental work but in actual new construction works, built on new ideas and conceptions. Hence the history of the profession, if written not just as a record of names and facts, but as an analytical treatise of the principles and important steps in the evolution of the art, will be of great value. In addition, it might be truly said that we to-day owe it to the pioneers in our profession to record their work and to give due credit for their achievements accomplished at a time when the auxiliaries of the profession, such as technical literature, accurate instruments, records of results of others in similar fields, were practically nil.

F. P. Spalding - Mr. Waddell’s paper introduces a very important subject. There can be no question as to the desirability of instructing our students in the history of the profession. Probably, nearly every teacher of engineering does a little in this direction, by teaching certain subjects through tracing the gradual development of present practices and theories from their beginnings. Some subjects are most effectively handled in this manner, and little digressions into biographical sketches, or notes of related events, may often add interest and charm to the subject. Probably the detailed history of the development of a particular field of work would be best given in connection with the treatment of the subject of which it is the history, but a connected discussion of the history of engineering as a whole, with some account of the lives of the men who stand out most prominently, would be of immense value, through the aid it would give in eliminating the mere business idea and inspiring the young men with the love and reverence they should feel for the dignity and traditions of their profession.

J. L. Harrington. - The paper entitled ‘The Advisability of Instructing Engineering Students in the History of the Engineering Profession,’ introduces a subject which is now almost universally ignored in the technical schools, and which, while seemingly non-essential to instruction in current practice and the theory upon which it is based, is fundamental in the broad scheme of engineering education.

The study of the history of engineering, be it ever so brief and incomplete, will lead to the investigation of the work of other engineers and often, in consequence, to the avoidance of error into which others have fallen, and to a great saving of labor in duplicating what has already been well done. Often, too, there will be discovered an excellent foundation for successful work.

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