Engineering as a Profession and the Value of an Engineering Education

The Journal of the Society of Automotive Engineers,
May, 1921
By Henry M. Crane

The profession of engineering in some of its branches is one of the oldest recorded in history. This statement which is a rather sweeping one requires some explanation. Engineering can well be divided into two general classes based on certain broad principles rather than into the many divisions commonly used in which the classification is on a purely industrial basis. There are two broad divisions of engineering which cover practically all forms of engineering activity. These are research engineering and constructive or creative engineering. In the former division are included the work of the scientist, the work of the investigator and the work of the inventor; in the latter the work of those whose task it is to assemble the knowledge gained in research during all time and to use such knowledge in the creation of things of value to all the people, such as the simple telephone receiver or the complicated telephone plant of a great city, or in planning for the production of the articles in question.

Research engineering is the foundation upon which the great fabric of constructive engineering must rest; it is the work of the research engineer that was recorded many hundreds of years ago. On the other hand, constructive or creative engineering has grown to its present clearly defined position during the last 100 years. Its development has followed closely the lines of industrial evolution for reasons that are plain. In the earliest days industry was purely personal, as in the making of stone implements or of armor. It was entirely natural that the maker should also design his product. Later on such activities as the building of ships required a community of effort which had appeared from time to time theretofore in the construction of buildings or bridges. In almost every case, however, the director of the work was likewise the one who determined its form.

The Development Of Industry

Until about 100 years ago industry was still relatively in an undeveloped condition, largely on account of the absence of any great prime-mover. It is true that wind and waterpower were both used in a small way in various operations, but the coming of the steam engine was needed to start the growth that has resulted in the highly organized industrial world of today. The steam engine by itself could meet only in a limited way the requirements of a great industrial expansion. Coupled with the necessary steam boiler it could not be operated economically except in units of moderate size, owing to the lack of suitable means for distributing the power produced. Electric transmission finally solved this problem not only for the steam engine but for the immense available waterpower previously going almost entirely to waste. The discovery of petroleum and the subsequent development of the internal-combustion engine capable of being operated by anyone of average intelligence and of furnishing power economically in units of the smallest size broadened still further the field of industrial possibilities.

The effect of industrial growth and concentration was an increasing specialization not only in the duties of the directing minds. Under this pressure there came finally an almost complete separation between the work of planning for and the work of directing the production. The work of planning for production, either in designing the article to be produced or in laying out the method of production, has now become the province of the constructive or creative engineer. In the smaller shops the duties of planning for and of directing production are still sometimes combined with those of actual production or operation, but such cases represent a minor proportion of the total. The reason for this condition is fairly obvious; the work of designing or planning requires special training, a broad understanding of the results of world-wide and age-long research in the field to be covered and a constant study of current research. This knowledge cannot be obtained and properly assimilated except under conditions permitting almost undivided attention to the subject in hand and excluding the necessity of giving attention to the multifarious questions arising in the executive management of production or operation.

It is certainly easy to recognize the effect that this development has had on the opportunities for the trained engineer. One hundred years ago a few laboratories or an occasional observatory presented themselves as possible places of employment. Today there is not a single industry that does not make use of the services of the engineer in some way. Even the farmer is finally succumbing to the mechanical operation of the farm. In most industries the engineer has to do not only with the original design of apparatus but also with the methods of production and subsequently with the operation in service.

The Engineer's Place In Industry

Furthermore, the engineer is only beginning to come into his own. Originally he was more or less of an assistant to the operating head and was looked upon accordingly. He was considered to be impractical and not to be depended upon in the daily routine. This was perhaps more or less natural in view of the lack of understanding regarding the two very distinct engineering functions described at the beginning of this paper. In the early days almost the only men called engineers were those having research training and the research point of view. It is not surprising that these men were not successful in carrying any great responsibility in creative engineering work. Engineering ability of the creative kind is nothing but trained common-sense coupled with a certain fund of ready knowledge and the more important understanding of where to go to get any particular information required at any given time. That men having this ability are capable of successfully carrying out most important tasks has been amply demonstrated in recent years.

In any industry of the manufacturing type there are three main divisions outside of the general executive and financial supervision; these are engineering, production and selling. These functions must all be carried out with equal ability for the greatest possible general success of the whole undertaking. In many cases the engineering has been given the least weight of the three. While this has often been caused by some weakness in the engineering personnel, it has at other times been the result of some of the engineering functions having been taken over by one or both of the other divisions, with a consequent weakening of the responsibility of the engineering division and a very natural loss in efficiency.

The assumption sometimes made by the production department that the engineer cannot be expected to design with ease of production in mind is an invitation to the engineering department to disregard this very important feature of design entirely. Here is demonstrated one of the worst faults of the modern industrial system when organization and specialization are carried to extremes. It is only when the engineer in designing any piece of apparatus keeps constantly in mind the necessity of production and studies the methods of production almost as carefully as the general functioning of the design and the production department conscientiously endeavors to carry out the ideas of the engineer as closely as possible in actual production that there can be any real approach to the efficiency of the old one-man system in which the design and production were controlled by the same directing head. It is equally necessary that for a design to be commercially successful it be attractive to the public, both in its operation and in the price at which it can be sold at a profit. This is where the opinion of the engineer ought to be of great value on questions that are often decided by the sales division. The engineer with a proper training and a correct point of view should be the best judge of what can be produced to meet most nearly the public demand in any particular field.

Leadership In The Conservation Movement

This very brief study of what engineering has done, what it frequently is and what it can be, has been introduced to make clear the tremendous opportunities that in my opinion will be open in the future to the men having a thoroughly sound engineering training. There is another phase of this question that deserves consideration. In the industrial history of this rapidly growing country there is every evidence that the great pressure of haste has caused the doing of many things in inefficient and uneconomical ways. Whether or not the wasteful methods of the past have been always justifiable, there can be no question that the time has come when everything possible must be done to conserve what remains of our originally tremendous natural resources. It is only necessary to mention timber, coal and petroleum to emphasize this point. The trained engineer is better qualified than anyone to take the lead in this important work.

What has been said previously regarding the great future for the profession of engineering shows also the value of a proper engineering education. Such an education is not only of value to those expecting to engage in engineering occupations but also to those intending to take part in general productive or operating activities. The underlying idea in the best engineering schools is to teach the habit of concentration and to encourage clear and logical thinking, the actual knowledge gained during the years of study being considered a valuable incidental but not the main object of the work. It is hardly believable that this mental training will not prove to be a fine preparation for many of the difficult tasks that are daily to be met with in the industrial world of today, whether these tasks are of an engineering nature or more directly concerned with problems of direction or of management.

It is recorded of President Lincoln that after he had grown to manhood he made a most thorough study of Euclid because he believed that this would help him in formulating his ideas and in presenting them clearly to others. His conclusion was that the most complicated proposition could be put in such simple form as to be demonstrated to and understood by the least intelligent. What more convincing argument could there be as to the general value of this kind of training than that it was made use of by our great president in developing a truly remarkable ability for meeting the many difficult situations arising during his presidency and promptly reducing to the simplest terms the problems presented to him?