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RE: A Farewell to Structural Engineering

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Good luck. And keep us informed about engineering history. History is

Samuel Smiles writing in the 1800's was already complaining about patents
stifling invention and production, which is seemingly contrary to
Petrovsky's view, but not the free software foundations view. Louis Napoleon
cited as saying: "New inventions have to remain dormant until the common
intellect rises to comprehend them".

History provides the raw materials and building blocks for the future, and
also obstacles to moving forward. Last years engineer is this years
technician. When Telford, Navier and Roebling were designing and
constructing bridges they were at the frontiers of science and technology.
It is now established technology with an established science for its
assessment: making the mistakes of the past is no longer acceptable. Yet we
do not train the technicians required because most want the prestige of the
title engineer, whilst not possessing the igenuity to operate at the

Also clearly once something has been designed it can be constructed many
millions of times. So that the design side requires far fewer people than
the production side. Engineering at its very heart is maximising the benefit
from the available but otherwise limited resources. We are currently mid way
through the second international year of water: and no new technology
appears to be on the horizon, and the application of old technologies
doesn't appear to be progressing too far. Political and social history are
there to obstruct the implmentation of technologies which ignore such
history. It is strange that the education of architects seems to cover
history and culture, whilst the education of so called engineers does not.
Quality robust design requires knowledge of history and culture. Functional
design, or rather functional analysis and assessment of fitness-for-function
with respect to mechanics does not require knowledge of the greater society
and its development: but its not real design nor engineering either.

The original engineers designed, built, maintained, operated and tamed their
igenious contrivances: they had no choice they were at the frontiers of
technology: who else understood the technology. With the progress of time
division of labour transformed into multiple job functions performed by
isolated individuals. The designer in an office has no more right to the
title engineer than the train driver: for neither can do what their
ancestors did. 

Historically went to the likes of Telford to build a bridge not draw a
pretty picture or fill pages full of silly numbers. We have some what moved
from supplying to the demands, to demanding people buy what we have to
supply. Some what the way it has to be in industrial society because history
has placed us far from the resources directly necessary to support life.

>From a manufacturing perspective cannot design a product using certain
technologies unless the local society has developed the necessary
infrastructure: for example cannot weld if have no welders. But our culture
pushes people to favour a university education, and become some form of
paper shuffler: whilst otherwise complaining about real production moving
off-shore. It appears that we are well on the path towards becoming H.G
Wells, Eloi.

There is a theory of organsational change based on the tempering of steel.
Basically the idea is to energise the organisation so as to break down and
free up the historical structures, modify then freeze and lock in place new
structures. But similar needs to take place outside the organisation, not
just inside. The very activity of a business changes the environment in
which it operates, and therefore the business needs to adapt accordingly:
but most businesses do not operate as dynamic adaptive systems. A history of
success creates inertia resisting change: until catastrophe strikes. This
does not just apply to the business but also individuals within the business
and those who form the markets.

It is not so important to be an engineer, lawyer, architect, accountant, or
other form of professional. The important issue is what an individual does
with their available resources especially their knowledge. That it assists
their survival, and preferably in away that makes them happy. Growing up I
always thought the question: "what do you want to be when you grow up?" : to
be the dumbest question ever. What world do these people live in? You do
what ever is necessary to survive in a dynamic world. Clearly the people who
asked this question had no knowledge of history, and had a comfortable and
relative static world compared to their ancestors, and had some crazy notion
that all was going to be constant into the future, or simply get better: big
mistake. The world is dynamic: it gets different, and we need to adapt to
that change.

I keep contemplating expanding into building, to eliminate problems
encountered with builder clients. But I know the building industry is
dominated by subcontractors and small operators. Most of the problem clients
quit working for their employers and set up in business competing against
them: but they don't have the appropraite knowledge, get into trouble and
need someone to bail them out. So I know I will have problems building a
labour force and keeping it. So have to tackle the problems some other way.
They clearly want information that they can put immediately to use rather
than spend extensive time at technical school. Life is short, they don't
want to spend it learning, they want to spend it doing. They don't want
pictures or numbers, they want something which allows them to take immediate

Every minute spent on design is one minute too long. Given that historically
we simply went from the imagination to implementation, we want to get back
there, by removing the design time that has been imposed. Every product as a
life cycle and engineers are just as much a product of industrial society as
cars and computers: and as with all products the demand for the product
grows and than declines and tapers out of existence.

We are at a time where the concept of engineers and engineering is changing
and has to change, if industrial society is to be sustained into the future.

I am saying that the down turn in engineering jobs is not simply a matter of
economic ups and downs, it is set in history. Sure the IEAust says we have a
shortage of engineers. But I contend they are confused. History has removed
the progressive training from tracer, through drafter, designer to engineer.
The result is that the modern engineer having moved from school, through
university, straight into employment as engineer, has no understanding what
so ever of the capabilities of: technicians, engineering associates,
technologists, industrial designers, and applied scientists. They thus tend
to quote the need for some one with a B.Eng, when some one with a 2 year
associate degree could do the job far better: better because they are
trained directly for the task at hand. It is also part of organisational
history: don't want to be replaced by someone with a lower academic
education. But as I said last years engineer is this years technician. We
don't need to find the design-solution, we have it, we just need to adapt
and implement.

We can have a vision of great things. But there are a multitude of obstacles
which reduce everything to the mundane, and prevent achievement of great
things: like the common intellect cannot comprehend the vision and is
unwilling to take the risk to follow it. Yet we are in an era where it has
been observed that we could have to change our careers every 5 years. The
education systems are definitely not in tune with what is required, and
neither is the population.

History is important and useful. Go for it, and have fun! But be prepared
for the need to change direction again, at some future date. This can do, by
building on own history, and observing history in the making around you: you
then move according to plan rather than because circumstance provide no

Conrad Harrison
B.Tech (mfg & mech), MIIE, gradTIEAust
South Australia

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