Today, a look at two very different faces of
engineering. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
In 1906 Loren Plummer, a
construction engineer with Lackawanna Steel in
Buffalo, bought this 18th edition of Trautwine's
Civil Engineering Pocket-Book. Now the binding is
flaking, and the gilt-edged pages are falling out.
Plummer used this book heavily. A McDonalds-like
note in front says they've sold 80,000 copies since
the 1st edition in 1875. The preface says there's
no errata list because there are no errors to
I started out in engineering 43 years after this
book was printed, and that's already 47 years ago.
When I was a student, I was closer in time to this
book than I was to our life today -- closer to a
vastly different engineering world.
Let's look through this window into the past.
"Comparatively few engineers are good
mathematicians," the preface begins.
And it is fortunate that such is the case; for
nature rarely combines high mathematical talent,
with that practical tact, and observation of
outward things, so essential [for an] engineer.
Mathematics is a big part of the book's 1100 pages.
But here mathematics means tools for calculation --
logarithms, trig functions, tables of interest,
square roots, and chords of circles. No tables of
integrals -- nothing at all on calculus.
For the rest, we read about dams and weirs, beams,
water pipes, and route surveying. Where would you
go today to learn how to lay railroad track! But
there it is.
It ends with a section of blank lined paper. After
all, any really useful handbook must be partly
handmade. It should include odd items that only the
owner needs. Plummer doesn't disappoint us. He
fills those pages with beautifully rendered notes,
drawings and calculations -- of beams, earthworks,
Now and then, in my class this semester, I wandered
away from all the math and analysis that is modern
engineering, and I talked about locomotives,
valves, and refrigerators. Each time I did, the
students showed an almost guilty fascination. It is
as though the brakes, cables, and bearings in this
old handbook have become forbidden fruit.
That tension -- right in my own classroom --
reminds me that we build everything in two places.
We build in the mind, and we build in the world. In
the last century we talked only about building in
the world. Now we talk about mathematics and
analysis -- about building in the mind. But my
students see the onesidedness. They know what their
Pause a moment, they tell me. Tell us a little
about the other world -- the world this forgotten
engineer, this Loren Plummer, once lived in -- this
world of stone, iron, and external beauty.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds