“As a people, our strength has lain in practical application of scientific principles, rather than in original discoveries. In the past, our country has made less than its proportionate contribution to the progress of basic science.” So reported in 1947 the president´s Scientific Research Board in its Science and public Policy. The board went on to say, “Instead, we have imported ourtheory from abroad and concentrated on its application to concrete and immediate problems. This was true even in the case of the atomic bomb.” This quotation is accurate in saying that the United States “has made less than its proportionate contribution to the progress of basic science” but is misleading in so far as it implies that Americans have made a large proportion of the primary applicationsof pure science to engineering. During the last hundred years, Europeans have made the majority of the fundamental engineering advances. Even in the case of applying pure science for development of the atomic bomb, as Henry DeW. Smyth pointed out in his Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, “the early efforts both at restricting publication and at getting government support were stimulated largelyby a small group of foreignborn physicists …” Since engineering is an important factor in national security and welfare, it is of the utmost importance in the formulation of national policies for the citizen to know the extent to which a nation is dependent on others for engineering advances. The best way to gain this perspective is from history.
Broadly speaking, there are two values whichaccrue from the study of the history of engineering one pragmatic, the other general. In addition to providing a comprehension of what is necessary for national development, the study of the history of engineering teaches what it is to be an engineer. To the general reader such can give an understanding of the lessons of engineering experience, helping him to a knowledge of the complex environment manhas created for himself. It increases reverence for the past by making clear that engineers can accomplish much today because they are standing on the shoulders of men who have gone before them. As George Sarton has put it, “Reverence without progressiveness may be stupid; progressiveness without reverence is wicked and foolish” Finally, as does any study undertaken for its own sake, it widens thehuman horizon and liberates from narrow ideas.
The purpose of any historical work is to interpret the development and activity of man. The history of engineering is but one segment of the great historical narrative, but unlike some other histories it records a human activity which is cumulative and progressive. “Progressive” in this sense does not connote any judgment of values but merelyindicates advances built upon and including previously existing knowledge. The history of engineering depicts a section of that central theme of history which reveals the development of civilization.
Engineering has not been defined satisfactorily in a single sentence. In 1828 the British architect Thomas Tredgold, probably the first to make the attempt, called it “the art of directing the greatsources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man.” It was so defined in the charter of the Institution of Civil Engineers of which Thomas Telford was the first president. Tredgold´s simple and concise definition may have been measurably satisfactory for his generation when steam transportation was a not too successful novelty and when only a few scientists vaguely sensed the possibilitiesinherent in the mysterious electric current. The profession has, however, expanded so rapidly through the decades since that the dozens of definitions which have been framed by lexicographers, even by engineering organizations beginning in the 18805, no longer seem adequate.
The authors of this book, apologetically and tentatively, submit that midway in this twentieth century civilian...