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  • Dan Connors

How engineers make everything

The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans

Where did microwave ovens come from? How can architects be confident that buildings won't flood or get toppled over by winds? Why is the bicycle one of the most perfect machines ever invented? What's the REAL story behind the invention of the light bulb?

We take for granted so many things that make our lives easier. We assume that some brilliant scientist or inventor came up with an invention and right away it worked like it was supposed to. But there are many invisible steps that can take decades of painstaking trial and error before a breakthrough happens. How can we use knowledge of these hidden steps to make our own lives and the future better?

These questions and more are tackled by Engineer Guy and writer Bill Hammack in his book The Things We Make. If you've always been curious about how technologies and discoveries emerge, this is a fascinating look at what the author calls the Engineering Method.

The scientific method is a mostly theoretical exercise in building universal principles and theories from empirical observations and experiments. But the engineering method is much different- it is a real-world experiment using past knowledge and trial and error to solve pressing problems. Some call it applied science, but Hammack thinks of it as more as an art form.

Engineers tackle problems where there are many unknowns. The main tools at their disposal are rules of thumb that have been passed down for generations like how tall you can build a structure before it collapses, how to make porcelain in a kiln, or how to boil water to generate electricity. Hammack describes the engineering process as "using rules of thumb to solve problems with incomplete information".

Incomplete information means there will be lots of mistakes, but it also means that engineers are at the forefront of knowledge, and the first step of the process, trial and error, can eventually bear fruit. The second step, building on past knowledge, allows them to learn from the mistakes of those trials and improve them into things that work better and better. And the third and final step is the most crucial one- embracing trade-offs. In any endeavor of the real world, there are trade-offs. Things work better when more time and money are spent on them, but at some point time and money run out, and engineers have to figure out what the optimal or "good enough" level is. Creation is thus game of balance, and the more aware we are of the trade-offs (price versus working conditions, efficiency vs environmental damage), the better we can make choices that make sense.

Everybody knows that Thomas Edison was credited with the invention of the light bulb. But the reality was that the process of producing sustainable light was a long process that involved 20 prototypes by other inventors before Edison came along. The glowing thread that makes a light bulb work, its filament, took many years of experimentation with hundreds of materials before one could be found that burned long and bright. Edison borrowed from the work of others in finding this filament, and relied on others to perfect it so that his invention could be mass produced. Focusing on one man and his "genius" invention gives short shrift to the many others who helped engineer the incandescent bulb and loses the story of the engineering method and how it worked here like it does in most other cases.

Hammack closes with the story of the microwave oven, and how its invention was a fluke when someone noticed his candy bar melting when getting close to a microwave device. The real story starts in World War II and involves the use of these shorter waves to be used in radar devices called magnetrons. Magnetrons were top secret and used extensively by the British to detect Nazi aircraft to great effect. After the war ended, their side benefit of producing heat was explored by engineers at Raytheon to create large commercial ovens that heated up meals quickly. It took many years and many trials and errors to finally come up with the household necessity we all use today- the personal microwave oven. In addition the heating discovery ended up having many industrial uses that few are aware of.

Engineers have to consider real-world problems and real-world restraints, sometimes in urgent situations to produce workable solutions. They have to consider climate, labor supply, existing knowledge, energy sources, raw material availability, and time in order to come up with products that will actually perform as desired. It reminds me of politics, known as the art of the possible, where politicians and bureaucrats try to design real-world programs that work for large, diverse groups of people. You can see the engineering method almost everywhere- in parents using trial and error to raise their children, in professional sporting teams experimenting with player positions and chemistry, or with doctors trying different drugs on patients and juggling the trade-offs between benefits and side-effects.

Here are some of my "aha" moments from the book.

1- Enzymes can be engineered through something called directed evolution to produce a multitude of benefits including improved pharmaceuticals, green energy sources, and environmentally friendly chemicals. Chemical engineer Frances Arnold won the Nobel Prize doing just that.

2- Tall buildings are expected to sway with the wind. They are engineered to withstand 100 year winds, a mathematical concept that is a statistically derived guess, and might become obsolete in an era of climate change.

3- Most of the electricity that we enjoy come from steam turbines and rely on the simple process of boiling water to work. Coal, oil, and nuclear all involve heating the water so it can do its thing.

4- The engineering of technology can be seen as a battle between techno-utopians, who think any and every new things is ultimately a good thing, and techno-pessimists, who worry that by opening Pandora's box we are creating more bad than good. Knowing the trade-offs is essential to keep things from getting out of control (see artificial intelligence for example)

This is an informative and interesting book, and full of interesting stories from history that made me think.

Here is Hammack's most popular video on You Tube, where he hosts a channel on how things are made. Apparently beer and soda cans are shaped that way for a reason.

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