‘Great engineering is great art’

The quote above came to my mind recently as my wife and I were returning in a relatively leisurely fashion to our home in New England from North Carolina where we had visited with my son’s family.

By Jeff Bairstow

The quote above came to my mind recently as my wife and I were returning in a relatively leisurely fashion to our home in New England from North Carolina where we had visited with my son’s family. Tim is a U.S. Marine Corps Major currently deployed in Iraq, but that’s quite another story. Although Tim is not an engineer, he does share my respect for great engineering. No, the quote popped into my consciousness as my wife and I left the somewhat depressing Camp LeJeune area and drove over one magnificent bridge after another on our 500-mile return trip from Carolina’s famously spectacular Outer Banks. “Great engineering” indeed. And “great art,” too.

On our lengthy automobile trip, I had been reading Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering, by Henry Petroski (Knopf, New York, NY; 2004), a wonderfully well-written paean to the great bridge-builders of the last couple of centuries. Petroski, an eminent professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University (Durham, NC), begins his splendid book with the quotation noted above by the little-known American-born illustrator and writer, Joseph Pennell. This Victorian-era illustrator is probably best known for his detailed engravings of the construction of the Panama Canal and the Hell Gate and Delaware River Bridges.

As Professor Petroski so aptly notes, “[Pennell] felt he was not only rendering a concrete subject but also conveying through his drawings the impression that it made on him.” Just as a beautiful impressionist painting of a Parisian railway station (Gare Saint-Lazare) by Claude Monet can produce strong emotions on the part of the viewer, who can fail to be moved by the soaring beauty of a suspension bridge such as the new Leonard P. Zakim-Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, often described as the “crown jewel” of Boston’s much-maligned Big Dig (Central Artery) project? The Zakim bridge is particularly beautiful when you traverse it at night as we did on our trip.

Petroski begins his personal ode to bridge-builders with the very first bridge to be built from iron, the still-standing and classically beautiful Iron Bridge, designed and built in Coalbrookdale (U.K.) by Abraham Darby III in 1776. He concludes with a description of a list of planned future bridges, many of which are unlikely to be built, in my view, given the tremendous current costs of such major works.

We “uneducated, illiterate and unsophisticated” engineers are often dismissed as basically “Philistines,” who barely know great art and then only if someone points it out to us. Hmmmmn, I wonder what the uber-engineer and mega-artist Leonardo da Vinci would have made of them fighting words. Great art is in the eye of the beholder, as Bishop Berkeley, the famous 17th-century British empiricist is reported to have said. I’m with you, bishop!

Of course, much great engineering cannot readily be seen and yet that does not mean that it is not great art. If you look down a powerful microscope at the apparently smooth surface of a microprocessor chip, you can see the myriad patterns of light and shade that almost make the chip seem to come alive. Indeed, the large-scale lithographic films that microchip designers so proudly produce are often exhibited as art in the otherwise drab minimal cubicles of San Jose.

Likewise, it is possible to appreciate the incredible engineering of the new 57-km rail tunnel under construction in the Swiss Alps even though the multitudes of train passengers who will use the new Gotthard tunnel will never see the engineering advances that are making the tunnel feasible. Incidentally, you can get a close look at this tunnel via three webcams and a fine collection of videos, as the construction moves toward its target completion date of 2014 (go to www.alptransit.ch/pages/e/webcam/index.php). “Great Engineering,” indeed. And you will be looking at great engineering that would never have been possible without exceedingly accurate laser guidance.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor

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