on April 12th, 2018

Dear Colleagues

I must confess I have always imagined engineers and technicians as the rough and tough, Wild West action types (who work out in the field in pioneering conditions), compared to our more dilettante, cultured brothers and sisters in Law, Medicine and the Arts. In a book entitled Does the Engineer Need Culture?,  Prof. John Peck from City College, in New York remarked that engineers were “rough, tough spirits” who took “pride in cultivating construction-camp and bar-room manners rather than the deportment that would grace a drawing room”. Robert Noyce, the co-inventor of the integrated circuit, who himself came from the small town of Grinnell, in Iowa, said: “In a small town, when something breaks down, you don’t wait around for a new part because it’s not coming. “You make it yourself.” Interestingly, many of the founders of Silicon Valley came from small rural towns. In the biography; ‘The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce’ when referring to the moon landing of the Apollo project, the author, Tom Wolfe, says: “It was engineers from the supposedly backward and narrow-minded boondocks who provided not only the genius but also the passion and the daring that won the space race . . .”

There is no doubt, however, that some of my engineering colleagues, some of whom are eminently cultured, would be a little piqued at the idea that they are Wild West types. I remember being mildly surprised, when working on commissioning a power station in the middle of the outback, that the grubbiest and seemingly coarsest technician on site ended up hosting a spectacular black tie wine appreciation night. He was the part owner of a famous vineyard with a magnificent art gallery that had hit hard times and he needed to go out and ply his craft again.

And as Kelvin Kemm so aptly remarked:
“Today, to produce iPods, or jets, or cars, or bridges, or whatever, engineers have to possess great sensitivity to style, human emotions, shape, colour and other interacting pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle. And in communicating our ideas, black and white prose doesn't suffice- we need to use panache and style in getting our rather difficult technical messages across in a simple, enjoyable and easy to understand manner.”

So what we need to do in our engineering designs:
• Always remember that in most cases a human being will be taking ownership of your wonderfully designed widget
• Make the design simple using the KISS principle, but add a dash of style
• Learn from other disciplines when executing your engineering designs, such as interior design, psychology, marketing and art, even though at first they may seem to have little relevance
And perhaps we can hark back to the ‘who gives a damn, Wild West’, when applying style to our engineering designs. As Gore Vidal comments:

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn. “

Thanks to Dr Kelvin Kemm for the inspiration to write this article.

yours in engineering learning


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