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No. 1010:
Technical Literates

Today, I struggle with an old stereotype. 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.

"I guess it's a fact that engineers can't write," an interviewer said as we talked yesterday. I didn't rise quickly enough to that bit of bait, and it ate at me all night.

Then the penny dropped. I realized that any engineer who writes for public consumption gets redefined. People of my generation read Nevil Shute's work -- On the Beach, A Town Like Alice, The Pied Piper. It's easy to forget that Shute was a prominent aeronautical engineer. We put him in our mental bin for "writers." We forget his grease-stained past.

Who remembers that Henry David Thoreau wrote "Civil Engineer" after his name when he signed documents? He fathered the American pencil industry by inventing the clay binders that made inferior American graphite into a decent pencil lead. Then he manufactured and sold pencils. He also left detailed drawings for his famous cabin by Walden pond. Would-be ascetics have, ever since, made perfect copies of his retreat in Colorado, Arizona -- wherever there's a mountain tarn or stream to contemplate.

And Thoreau's biographer, Henry Petroski? We call him a historian. His latest book on American technology is The Evolution of Useful Things. He teaches Civil Engineering at Duke.

Einstein's name as a physicist was too large to be overwhelmed by all his book and essay writing. But it's easier to forget his doctoral work on meandering streams -- a civil engineering question. It's easy to forget his serious first-class work in the Swiss patent office, or that he received royalties on his own engineering inventions during most of his life.

No one gives us more reason to forget an engineering past than Herbert Hoover: president, humanitarian -- and author. Yet Hoover was the world's reigning mining engineer before WW-I.

Every high-school student knows Tom Paine for the fiery writings that called us to the American Revolution -- Common Sense, The Rights of Man. But did they ever tell you in high school that Tom Paine was an engineer -- that he went to England, not to wage revolution, but to market the revolutionary lightweight iron bridge he'd designed?

I could go on: a Rice University engineering professor who writes and produces fine plays; the quality of written work my own students are giving me this semester. When engineers write, we stop calling them engineers, and I think I know why: engineering is too close to the jugular. Like sex, politics, death, or good poetry, it defines us too intimately. It has the vulgarity of anything that touches us profoundly. Who expects writing from people who deal in things that close to the human heart?

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Additional information is available on the matters referred to in the text above. See Episodes 110 and 112 for material on Nevil Shute. Episode 339 deals with Thoreau's work on developing the lead pencil. For material based on Petroski's work see Episodes 132 and 769. Episode 524 deals with Einstein as an inventor. Episode 382 mentions Thomas Paine's iron bridge.