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What engineers have given us

An encyclopedia of human innovation

Created date

November 20th, 2012

You’ll find them everywhere you go. They’re in the roads you travel, the bridges you cross, the buildings in which you live and work. 

They’re in your radios, televisions, movie theaters; your planes, trains, and automobiles. Nearly every invention that we associate with civilization started in the mind of an engineer.

Science writer Adam Hart-Davis explores the 3,000-year history of human ingenuity in Engineers: From the Great Pyramids to the Pioneers of Space Travel (DK Publishing, 2012). 

This 360-page book gives readers a sweeping survey of structural and technological innovation, as well as biographies of the men who made it possible. From the Egyptian engineer Imhotep, who designed the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, to 20th-century rocket man Wernher von Braun and the Apollo space program, Hart-Davis shows how ideas were born and shaped. 

“Engineers are responsible for [much] of what we use, and most people simply don’t realize this,” says Hart-Davis. “They assume the world was already full of roads and bridges and houses and chairs and tables, not to mention bicycles and automobiles.”

Necessity the mother of invention

As Hart-Davis’s book demonstrates, the engineering marvels that we use day to day, along with some of their less visible counterparts, were not always there when man most needed them. They were, in fact, the answers to problems that preceded them.

Consider, for instance, the toilets in your home. Did you ever stop to think about where your business goes after you flush?

In 19th century London, it poured right into the main stretch of the Thames River, causing massive outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and by the 1850s, a stench so foul that it defined an era known to Londoners as The Great Stink. 

The solution came thanks to civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette, who designed a network of sewers and pumping stations that moved pollution away from the city. Bazalgette’s system significantly reduced the number of cholera cases and, in the 1870s, served as a model for similar sanitation improvements in American cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York. 

Bazalgette’s contribution, while hugely important, is but a speck in the grand historical scheme of things. To be sure, the challenge that Hart-Davis faced in producing this book was deciding which of the world’s innumerable engineers to include.

Innovators of note

“Choosing the engineers was difficult,” he recalls. “First, we had to determine what it was that made a person an engineer and decided that we would select only those who had designed and built a structure or implement of note.”

Ultimately, Hart-Davis whittled the final roster to roughly 200 innovators, showcased in compact, beautifully illustrated articles, which, together, chart the evolution of structures and technologies that play a central role in our lives. 

Take transportation, for example. The modern high-speed railways that have turned long journeys into short commutes started hundreds of years ago with the contributions of several men: Abraham Darby’s 1709 discovery of how to smelt iron using coke; Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine in 1712; Richard Trevithick’s development of the steam locomotive in 1804; and a host of others who have carried us into the 21st century.

The same goes for communications. Smart phones, despite their dazzling sophistication, had humble beginnings.

There was Samuel Morse’s electrical telegraph in 1837; Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in 1876; and Nikola Tesla’s and Guglielmo Marconi’s development of radio technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Hart-Davis presents these stories in an encyclopedic format, which, combined with his careful selection of material, takes the highly technical subject of science and engineering and makes it understandable to the lay reader. 

“We wanted to create a book that readers could open at random and see glorious pictures and self-contained articles—something that they could use as a historical guide to the progress of engineering throughout the centuries,” he says.

But most of all, Hart-Davis hopes his readers will gain a full appreciation for just how indebted they are to the talents and visions of engineers. What we have today, we have because of them. 

Albert Einstein echoed this sentiment when he observed that: “Scientists investigate that which already is; engineers create that which has never been.”