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The Story of Creative Engineering

‘Masterworks of Technology: The Story of Creative Engineering, Architecture and Design’ by EE Lewis; Prometheus Books, 2004. 328pp

Reviewed by Austin Williams | 20 September 2004

What a refreshing change, as they say. This is a book that oozes calm intelligence and an ease of imparting knowledge that at once informs and avoids patronising its audience. 

‘Unlike scientists,’ he says, ‘who seek comprehension of the natural universe, or the professions that strive to ameliorate existing problems – restoring clients’ health or adjudicating their conflicts – engineering strives to create technology and to make it work.’ Lewis then embarks on a journey through historical moments: from the Middle Age wheelwrights of England and the monumental flying buttresses of Chartres; to the steam engine and the flying machine. He explores the fact that ‘geometry, by itself, was not very helpful in attacking many of the problems faced by Renaissance engineers’ and that it was the risks taken by ‘more adventurous engineers’ that enabled high pressure steam engines to ‘cut an engine’s dimensions, weight and cost and made steam viable for powering ships and railroad locomotives.’ His chapter on aeroplanes almost convinced me of the logic of how they stay in the air.

Even though he over-eggs the separation of science and engineering and puts the engineer or a bit of a pedestal (as he would as professor at the McCormick School of Engineering, Illinois), at least he celebrates human centred ingenuity and doesn’t have a relativistic notion of ‘progress.’ Highly readable.

What a refreshing change, as they say. This is a book that oozes calm intelligence and an ease of imparting knowledge that at once informs and avoids patronising its audience.

‘Unlike scientists,’ he says, ‘who seek comprehension of the natural universe, or the professions that strive to ameliorate existing problems – restoring clients’ health or adjudicating their conflicts – engineering strives to create technology and to make it work.’ Lewis then embarks on a journey through historical moments: from the Middle Age wheelwrights of England and the monumental flying buttresses of Chartres; to the steam engine and the flying machine. He explores the fact that ‘geometry, by itself, was not very helpful in attacking many of the problems faced by Renaissance engineers’ and that it was the risks taken by ‘more adventurous engineers’ that enabled high pressure steam engines to ‘cut an engine’s dimensions, weight and cost and made steam viable for powering ships and railroad locomotives.’ His chapter on aeroplanes almost convinced me of the logic of how they stay in the air.

Even though he over-eggs the separation of science and engineering and puts the engineer or a bit of a pedestal (as he would as professor at the McCormick School of Engineering, Illinois), at least he celebrates human centred ingenuity and doesn’t have a relativistic notion of ‘progress.’ Highly readable.