The Need For Engineering Heroes

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Recently IEEE writer, G. Pascal Zachary, wrote an article, Where are Today’s Engineering Heroes?  This article describes the lack of engineering heroes in today’s society.  Not only is celebrating heroes a good way to inspire young people and inform the public it is also necessary.  The lack of heroes negatively affects engineering because it diminishes the enterprise in the public eye and constricts the flow of talent into the field.  In a society that hero-worships rock stars and movie stars, serious fields are lacking serious heroes.

While many would argue that there are plenty of engineering heroes in today’s society: Hewlett and Packard, Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, those individuals are celebrated mostly for building huge corporations based on the technology created and developed by many.  Basically, the engineers who earn the most fame make the most money.  So, that would lead others to believe that in order to be a hero you must first amass a fortune.  While Zachary states there is nothing wrong with profiting from your ideas, it shouldn’t be the sole marker for a hero in the industry.

Zachary believes that engineering may be lacking heroes because many truly do not understand the work of engineers anymore.  When Edison created the phonograph in 1877 everybody could relate to the invention.  However, today when an engineer designs a microprocessor with 2 billion transistors instead of 1.5 billion, your average individual does not understand the significance.  Zachary also believes that engineers face a structural impediment since there is no Nobel Prize for engineering, nor is there an engineering award with similar global status and prestige.  While a few engineers have received the Nobel Prize in other fields, without a Nobel of their own, engineers cannot anoint their heroes in the same way physicists, economists, or authors can.  While engineering does have the Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology, the Charles Stark Draper Prize of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, and the IEEE Medal of Honor, none of these awards have the same prestige or are as well-known as the Nobel Prize.  Zachary also believes these awards underscore the abiding stereotype that engineers are solely male.  Only one of the 34 recipients of the Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology and one of the 47 recipients of the Draper prize has been a woman.  Also, of the 95 people that have received the IEEE Medal of Honor award, non-have been women.

Zachary questions what it takes to become an engineering hero.  He believes that overcoming adversity – whether personal, institutional, or technological – is a valid criterion.  For example, computer scientist Grace Hopper, developer of the first compiler, beat all three.  She succeeded in a male dominated field and institution while shaping the course of computer programming and reaching the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.  Contribution to the social and cultural well-being of humanity is another criterion for engineering heroism in Zachary’s eyes.  However, throughout engineering history, people have sought to solve technological issues because they were there, not necessarily because they were considering the greater good.  However, many of these inventions did results in benefits for humanity.  For example, mechanical engineer Jacob Perkins created the first refrigerator.  While his invention was far from the refrigerators we know today, it is because of his work that countless lives were saved.  Before the refrigerator foodborne illness and death were a common headline.  If Jacob Perkins isn’t an engineering hero than I don’t know what is.

Zachary then continues by tackling the question: Can heroism be taught, or is it innate?  He strongly believes that heroes are made, not born.  They learn from their experiences, react to opportunities and setbacks, and when others stay in the safe zone, they reach into the grey area searching for something more.  By reaching into the grey area, engineering heroes achieve “charismatic authority”, or the ability to influence, inspire, and lead others, a phrase coined by German sociologist Max Weber.  Charismatic authority does not just apply to those who gain outsize status through media acclaim.  Charismatic engineers can also work on an intimate level by influencing their peers behind the scenes or by challenging the norm through their inventions or designs.  “The history of engineering is replete with examples of unheralded engineers who refused to accept designs that compromised the public welfare, no matter how profitable they were,” said historian Matthew Hersch. “Inventions like the safety match and the safety bicycle not only worked better than their predecessors, but more ethically. To me, the creators of these technologies are the real heroes.”

The most accomplished engineers have tried and failed many times in their careers.  While many know who Cerf and Kahn are, most have not heard of Louis Pouzin.  Pouzin, the creator of an early packet-switching network called Cyclades, envisioned the democratizing potential of computer networking.  In 1975, Pouzin and Cerf led a group that attempted to get a packet-switching standard adopted by the International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee.  Pouzin publicly criticized the telecom industry’s conservatism and shortly thereafter saw his funding and career opportunities diminish.  Cerf and Kahn utilized aspects of Pouzins’ ideas into the TCP/IP design for the Internet.  Decades later, Pouzin is finally receiving some recognition for his contribution.  None of these engineers worked alone, and their accomplishments occurred in parallel with the efforts of others.

While the engineering community values modesty and suspects that promotion conceals distortion or even fraud, Zachary truly believes that heroes and heroism are essential for engineers to gain respect and acknowledgement for their activities and technological developments.



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