This is an email from RE: Engineering, a newsletter by Eiffel’s Paris — an Engineer’s Guide.

The Art of the Engineer

“Engineering is the the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man.” — from the charter of the Institution of Civil Engineers

The Eddystone lighthouse built by John Smeaton in 1759. (source)

In September 1888, Sir Frederick Bramwell addressed the British Association for the Advancement of Science on the topic of the value of engineering to science. Bramwell introduced this topic with the definition for the art of the engineer that is quoted above. Bramwell was a well-known engineer. This was his inaugural speech as newly-elected president of the association.

The practice of engineering is often described as applied science, and for this reason, Bramwell argued, that engineering is essential to the advancement of science. Science, as a practice, advances toward new knowledge through the steps of hypothesis and then testing, by experiment or by observation — the scientific method. However, science as a field of human endeavor advances only when the knowledge it produces is put to use to the benefit of humankind. This is the practice of the engineer.

Bramwell also argued that engineering benefits science by expanding the scope of scientific enquiry. On this point he offered the example of James Watt’s invention of a successful steam engine in 1776. Watt did not invent the steam engine; the Newcomen atmospheric steam engine pre-dated his by about 65 years. Rather, Watt made a number of improvements that vastly increased the amount of mechanical energy that could be produced from the heat produced by burning a pound of coal.

Watt was guided by his prescient understanding of how the machine worked — prescient because Watt’s understanding was literally pre-science. A scientific understanding of the nature of heat, mechanical energy, and the conversion of one to the other would not emerge for another 50 years. The entire scientific discipline of thermodynamics owes its existence to engineers working to increase the benefits obtainable from the steam engine.

Bramwell rounds out his discourse on the value of engineering with this sidenote on how engineering sometimes more closely resembles art than science. Bramwell’s tale might have been taken from the building of the famous Eddystone lighthouse along the south coast of England.

Consider this rock, never visible above the surface of the tide, but making its presence known by the waves which rise around it. It has been the cause of destruction to many a noble vessel, which had completed in safety its thousands of leagues of journey and was within a few score miles of port, then dashed to pieces upon it.

Here is this rock. On it build a lighthouse. Lay your foundations through the water in the midst of the turmoil of the sea. Make your preparations. Appear to be attaining success, and find the elements are against you. And, that the whole of your preliminary works are ruined or destroyed in one night.

But, again commence. And then go on, and go on; until at last you conquer. Your works rise above ordinary tide level. Then upon these safe foundations, obtained it may be after years of toil, erect a fair shaft graceful as a palm and sturdy as an oak.

Surmount it with a light, itself the product of the highest application of science. Direct that light by the built up lens, again involving the highest application of science. Apply mechanism so arranged that the lighthouse shall from minute to minute reveal to the anxious mariner its exact name and its position on the coast.

When you have done all this, will you not be entitled to say to yourself, “It is I who have forever rendered innocuous this rock, which has been hitherto a dread source of peril?” Is there no feeling, do you think, of a poetical nature excited in the breast of the engineer who has successfully grappled with a problem such as this?

Frederick Bramwell’s 1888 Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science can be found online here.

Read more about the creative force behind the 19th century revolution in science and engineering in my article The Brotherhood of the Tower — Why did Gustave Eiffel Inscribe 72 Names on His Tower?

RE: Engineering publishes occasional notes and comment on what it means to be an engineer in a world created by science and technology. To view other issues of the newsletter and/or sign up to receive future issues via email, go here.

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