A nation of engineers

Our copy chief, Keith Hammond, circulated this in internal Maker Media email. It’s from a piece on Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach’s blog, from back in June.

Advice to graduates: Become an engineer. Design the future. Become someone who knows how to squeeze energy out of seawater or turn sunlight into electricity for pennies on the kilowatt.

Or how to make an American car that people want to buy.

Reading Michael Leahy’s article this morning on GM auto workers — including one who is a natural tinkerer and auto-didact ready to adapt to the next new thing to come along — I thought of a quote from Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” [cited in a Craig Nelson’s book “Rocket Men”]:

“The Yankees, the first mechanics in the world, are engineers — just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians — by right of birth.”

Lots of stereotypes there. But it wouldn’t hurt to believe in ourselves — in our engineering acumen. This has always been a society of tinkerers. But maybe somewhere along the line we took all the engineers for granted. That’s a subtext in Nelson’s book: That we’ve failed to appreciate the marvels of modern engineering.

If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we …

We need more Manhattan Projects. Want a punch list for the country? A one came out last fall from the National Academy of Engineering:

1. Make solar energy economical
2. Provide energy from fusion
3. Develop carbon sequestration methods
4. Manage the nitrogen cycle
5. Provide access to clean water
6. Restore and improve urban infrastructure
7. Advance health informatics
8. Engineer better medicines
9. Reverse-engineer the brain
10. Prevent nuclear terror
11. Secure cyberspace
12. Enhance virtual reality
13. Advance personalized learning
14. Engineer the tools of scientific discovery.

Dang it, I’m going to go build something.

[Does staking tomatoes count as engineering??]

A Nation of Engineers

24 thoughts on “A nation of engineers

  1. Engineer says:

    Become an engineer, become jobless.
    Genius, but jobless.
    But it’s still nice to be a genius!

    1. Gilberti says:

      When I started attending SIUC about two years ago, I was told that I would have job security; that the United States needs both medical nurses and engineers of all disciplines, and while the demand for engineers may not be as dire as nurses, so long as you have some experience from an internship or a lab position before you graduate, you are pretty much guaranteed a job somewhere.

  2. Robert says:

    Become an engineer, sure. But become an engineer with a passion for design & making. If my engineering school was anything near typical, there are plenty of engineers already that have got the education but are missing the passion. None of items on that list will be solved by an engineer who’s in it for the money or because it’s a good profession. We need engineers who have a passion to build & design new things.

    1. Neil says:

      Robert, good points. I would add that we need engineers who can not only think in depth about their area of expertise, but also in breadth. The good ones should and can recognize that good ideas can come from across disciplines, or be based on new ways of thinking about older methods of doing the same thing.

      And of course they should be willing to get their hands dirty, build the idea, debug and get it working. They have to see it through from white board to freight on board (meaning done and shipping).

    2. Jack says:

      That’s really sad. I’ve always had a passion to make things (hence my interest in art and electronics), and I’ve never really understood all my friends who are only interested in making money or playing the latest video games. When I finally get my degree in engineering, I’m going to change the world! (already working on that, though, even without a degree)

  3. matt says:

    As an engineer, I agree with the comments above – we need people in the field who are excited to be engineers. When I went through my engineering school, a large percentage of the people I attended with were intelligent, but only entering engineering because they heard it was a good opportunity to make money.

    As an aside, one of the comments that drives me nuts is this ‘Or how to make an American car that people want to buy’. As an engineer in the automotive world, I’m amazed by this thinking. If you look at General Motors, they (up until the end of last year) were the largest automotive manufacturer in the world, and are still the largest seller of vehicles in the US. Do they have issues? Absolutely, particularly on the management and financial side of the business – but this idea that they don’t know how to make a car that people want to buy – when they’re selling more cars than any other manufacturer out there – that’s just nonsense.

    They are popular to pick on these days though, on account of the financial trouble they got themselves in to…

  4. aaron says:

    robert: yes, that’s typical. although i would add that even with the degree they haven’t got an education – just because you passed enough classes to get a diploma doesnt mean you did well. in general engineering education is not nearly rigorous enough. engineering is not for everyone who wants (or says they want) to be an engineer.

  5. JD says:


    I’m not sure which engineering school you attended, but the one I attended kicked everyone’s butt. Freshmen year to senior year, only 10% were left. When I finally made it into the real world, I realized school was WAY harder than work, both in man-hours and difficulty.

    Choosing a GOOD engineering school is important.

    And I agree. Passion is key (to living in general). Engineering can be a miserable existance, if you don’t like doing it. Which is why you’ll find that most of the people who went to school for engineering, are managers within a few years.

  6. Cap'n Dan says:

    I’m an aero engineer with 30 years experience. Schools can’t teach the passion to create, to build, to make something. It’s something the student arrives with, something the school can kill if it stifles the creativity of the engineering discipline, but it’s not something any school can create. 30 years out of college, it’s very obvious who started with a passion and who came for the money. Those who started with passion mostly still have it, those that never did approach retirement with the feeling of convicts approaching parole.

  7. chizz says:

    As an EE of nearly 30 years mixed experience and no little passion, a couple of points occur to me. Firstly, in europe at least, engineering creativity is stifled by a regulatory regime that means any “fred in the shed” operation is pretty well doomed to failure. Any simple gadget needs to be independently and expensively tested for EMI compliance, RF Interference, Low Voltage Directive, CE mark compliance and a dozen others. You need to spend $50,000 getting through all this bureacratic ***** before you can ship a single unit. This means the big boys can play but the passionate loner cannot.
    On another note, a poster above says that engineers turn into managers in a few years. In my experience that is because that is where the money is. You can’t eat passion, or use it to house and clothe your family.

    just my 2d worth

  8. chris says:

    he babysits pipes all day and once in awhile something goes wrong and he calls the right people, homer simpson job.
    It’s one of the top paying degrees in engineering, starting pay is 65k. there is some math involved….

    He works at Genentech so he makes 80k, his hobbies include protein powder, plasma tvs, and video games….

  9. cranky_EE says:

    The only engineering jobs that cannot be easily exported are those that are restricted to US Citizens due to national security restrictions.

    This is what globalization has wrought.

    If the job doesn’t require this level of clearance, anyone can do it. Unfortunately a lot of foreigners are just as smart as us Yanks. The problem is that our competition is willing to work harder than we are.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

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