Monday, August 26, 2019

This Business of Engineering

Early Sunday morning, Aug. 5, 1888, a 39-year-old woman named Bertha Benz set off for her mother's house in Pforzheim, some sixty-six miles (106 km) away from Mannheim, Germany.  She lived there with her husband Karl and two teenage sons, and she took her sons along for the ride.  Visiting her mother was not unusual.  But the way she planned to get there was. 

For the last several years, Karl had been developing what he called a Patent-Motorwagen—what we would call today an automobile.  Its one-cylinder engine burned an obscure solvent called ligroin, obtainable only at pharmacies.  It had wooden brakes and only two gears, low and high.  Bertha was from a wealthy family, and she had put a considerable amount of money into her husband's invention.  But like many inventors, Karl was content to make incremental improvements to his machine and treated it gingerly, never driving it more than a few miles away from home on short test drives.  Besides, there were laws regulating such machines, and to drive it a long distance legally, he would have had to get permission from various local authorities along the way.  It was much easier just to tinker with it in his shop and drive it only around town.

But Bertha had had enough of this.  She knew Karl's invention was good, but people had to know what it was capable of.  Without telling her husband, she and her two boys left Mannheim on the rutted wagon roads leading to Pforzheim.  On steep hills, the boys had to get out and push the underpowered vehicle uphill.  At one point the fuel line clogged, and Bertha unplugged it with a hatpin.  A chain broke, and she managed to find a blacksmith willing to work on Sunday to fix it.  The brakes proved inadequate, and she stopped at a cobbler's shop and had him cut some leather strips to fit onto the brakes, thus inventing the world's first brake pads.  A little after sunset the same day, she and her boys arrived in Pforzheim, no doubt to the great surprise of her mother.  She telegrammed her husband of her successful trip, and by the time she drove back several days later, reports of her exploit were in newspapers all over the country.  Which was exactly what she wanted.  Benz's invention, and Bertha's exploit, were foundational steps in the worldwide automotive industry.

Somehow I had gotten to my present advanced age without learning about Bertha Benz's first-ever auto trip.  But this was just the most interesting of many such anecdotes about engineering and business that I encountered in a new book by Matt Loos:  The Business of Engineering. 

Loos is a practicing civil engineer in Fort Worth who realized a few years after being in the working world, that many of the most important skills he was using every day had little or nothing to do with what he learned in engineering school. 

This is not to disparage engineering education (which is what I do for a living) but simply reflects the fact that the technical content of engineering is so voluminous these days that there isn't much room in a nominal four-year curriculum for what are (perhaps unfortunately) called "softer" subjects such as management techniques, ethical issues, and coping with the dynamics of rapidly changing technical fields. 

A newly-graduated engineer could do a lot worse than to pick up The Business of Engineering and read it to find out what the late radio commentator Paul Harvey called "the rest of the story."

If a person is going to claim to be able to use specialized technical knowledge to do something of value, they must have mastered that technical knowledge.  That fundamental requirement is the reason behind the extensive and challenging technical content of engineering undergraduate courses.  But as Loos points out in numerous ways—through anecdotes like Bertha Benz's story, through recent statistics and facts drawn from a variety of technical fields, and from his own personal experience—knowing your technical stuff by itself will not make you a successful engineer.  And even the definition of success depends on what sort of business you are in and how your own personal goals fit in with the directions that the industry is moving. 

I have to say that if I had read and taken to heart what Loos says in his book when I was, say, twenty-four, my career might have been very different.  At the time, I had a very simplistic and immature notion that all an engineer had to do was to come up with brilliant technical stuff, and the world would beat a path to his door.  But in thinking that, I was acting like Karl Benz, happily tinkering away in his shop but afraid to try his pet invention out in the real world.  The lesson I needed to learn was that if nobody but you cares about what you're doing, nothing much good will come of it.  Working engineers need to be engaged in the world around them, not only on a purely technical level, but also at the levels of economics, social relations, and ethics, to mention only a few.

This is Loos's first book, and as with most things, one's first efforts occasionally lack the polish that long experience can give.  But it is still highly readable, even if you don't read it for anything but the stories.  One of the strengths of the book is that Loos is realistic about how an engineer's personal habits can make the difference between success and something considerably below success:  things like attention to details, ability to organize one's time, problem-solving skills, and so on.  Now and then I come across a student who has more than adequate brain power to do engineering problems.  But when he confronts a problem he's not familiar with, he will simply sit there and appear to wait for inspiration.  And if inspiration doesn't come, well, it's just too bad.  The better way is to follow the advice of G. K. Chesterton (this isn't in Loos's book), who said anything worth doing is worth doing badly.  Even trying something that doesn't work will probably tell you something about what will work, and it's better than just passively waiting for something to happen.  Engineers make things happen—not always the best thing, but something that moves the process along.

Loos's book is now available on Amazon, and I recommend it especially to graduating engineers who can benefit from the experience and the stories that The Business of Engineering collects.

Sources:  The Business of Engineering by Matthew K. Loos, P. E. is available on Amazon at  Mr. Loos kindly provided me with a free review copy.  I enhanced the Bertha Benz story with some details from the Wikipedia page on her.

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