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No. 1099:
Robert's Rules of Order

Today, a civil engineer creates order. 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.

You're at a meeting. A motion is on the floor. Someone moves a substitute motion. The group debates it. Another person moves closure on debate. Now the chair has to know whether that motion is legal, whether it demands action, what fraction of the vote is needed to close debate, and what action should follow.

We agree on a code called Robert's Rules of Order to resolve those questions when we meet. Robert's code guides the chair through the thicket. It keeps meetings from descending into chaos. So let's meet Henry Martyn Robert, the man who gave us those rules.

Robert was born in South Carolina in 1837. Engineer/historian Henry Petroski tells how Robert went to West Point and then saw service in Panama. During the Civil War he worked with the North while his brother became a Confederate General. For the rest of his life he worked for the Corps of Engineers on projects all over America.

Here in Texas, we honor Robert for his work on Galveston Island. After 1895 he worked on building jetties on the northern end of Galveston. Those jetties shifted the currents in such a way as to erode the sand bar that was blocking Galveston Bay.

galvestonseawall.jpgRobert retired as a brigadier general the year after the terrible Galveston flood of 1900. Galveston immediately put him on a board charged with creating means to protect the city in the future.

So it was that Henry Robert worked on the huge project of raising the level of Galveston and building a seawall around it. If you live in this area, you've read his name on the Sea Wall plaque.

But Robert's greatest engineering achievement was made much earlier -- in 1876. And it began when he'd attended an out-of-control church meeting in Massachusetts in 1863. He came away vowing he would know parliamentary procedure before he attended another meeting. But he found little written on the subject and no general agreement as to how to run meetings.

A jurist named Cushing had written on parliamentary procedure in 1845, and Jefferson had written rules for the conduct of Congress. Neither book was widely read or easy to use. So Robert went to work. With highly-honed logic and an engineer's appreciation of structure, he created an extremely robust set of procedural rules that would serve every kind of deliberative gathering.

No publisher would touch such a dry subject, so Robert published it himself. He originally had 4000 copies printed, figuring they'd last two years. They were gone in four months. He kept revising and improving the work. By 1914, a half million copies had been sold. The ninth edition came out in 1990.

Here in Texas, we see the raising of Galveston as a great engineering miracle. But few of us know that the same structural genius gave us the set of conventions for doing business in peace -- when passions could so easily destroy the democratic process.

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

(Theme music)

Petroski, H., Henry Martyn Robert. American Scientist, March- April 1996, pp. 106-109.


Click on the thumbnail for a full-size image


Images from Green, N. C., Story of the Galveston Flood (also given as The Story of the Galveston Hurricane) Baltimore: R.H. Woodward. 1900. (A copy of this remarkable book, printed the same year as the Sept. 8th hurricane, was lent to me by Roger Eichhorn, UH Mech. Engr. Dept.