Petroski 2014Breaking Into Popular Culture

Engineering has yet to become part of general knowledge and everyday conversation.

By Henry Petroski

The New York Times crossword puzzle is widely acknowledged to be the gold standard of the popular pastime. Like the content of the newspaper of record itself, puzzle clues and answers range across broad spectra from ancient history to current events, from fine arts to pop culture, from science to silliness.

It is not uncommon to encounter in a single puzzle clues like 55 Across, “First of the Minor Prophets” (Answer: HOSEA); 6 Down, “Bambi’s aunt” (ENA); 28 Across, “Approx. time it takes for light to travel one foot” (NSEC); 11 Down, “Night light?” (FIREFLY).

But the one subject I have seldom found even alluded to in a crossword is engineering. It was thus a pleasant surprise to encounter in a recent puzzle the clue to 8 Across reading, “___ Kappa Nu, engineering honor society.” The answer is, of course, “ETA”, to complete the name of the electrical engineering organization.

The reason such an occurrence is remarkable is that engineers and engineering are simply not considered part of general knowledge or popular culture. As such, neither allusions nor direct references to them spring to the mind of a typical crossword puzzle creator or solver. In contrast, references to medical doctors, lawyers, and their associations appear regularly.

Engineering educators as a group cannot be blamed for this sorry state of affairs. Except in some rare cases it is not we who are responsible for introducing non-engineering majors to the specialized technical knowledge or the social and technical appurtenances of our profession. And we certainly are not expected to prepare students for the occasional engineering clue in a general interest crossword puzzle.

But why isn’t the topic of engineering a more integral part of everyday conversation? After all, it is engineering that is essential to providing the underlying infrastructure of civilization, and engineers who are the linchpins between ideas and reality.

With a few notable exceptions—such as in the Virginia public schools—engineering is absent from the general curriculum throughout the K-12 experience, where students learn the rudiments of civilization and culture. This separation prevails into college and continues into the “real world” of jobs and family and recreation, including doing crossword puzzles.

The STEM movement may change that, bringing as it does an increased awareness of the presence of the acronym’s so-called silent E. And there is more reason to be optimistic. In another recent puzzle I found this 19 Across clue: “Non-humanities acronym,” for a four-letter word starting with S and ending with M.

Perhaps one bellwether that engineering is truly integrated into STEM and the general culture will be when we find appearing regularly among the morning’s crossword puzzle clues like 9 Across, “Engineer of St. Louis bridge” (EADS); 21 Down, “Engineering org. serving nation” (NAE); 43 Across, “Creative activity of engineers” (DESIGN).

When engineering references appear equally with those representing everything from classical literature to popular culture, we can confidently say that the subject is an integral part of people’s everyday thinking and consciousness. Then, it will be not just a subject that nerds and geeks study in college classrooms remote from the center of campus. Engineering will be, like economics, history, and chemistry, just another major among majors.

The same puzzle that contained the clue about the engineering honor society also contained 37 Down, “Target of a 1917 uprising” (TSAR) and 18 Across, “Prominent feature of Bert on Sesame Street” (UNIBROW). Even if we do not remember our history or childhood television stars well enough to come up with those answers without some letters from intersecting words, we recognize them as correct when we see them.

That is what we should hope will be the reaction when some future 34 Across clue reads “Bedrock of civilization” and puzzle solvers converge on the answer, ENGINEERING. “Of course!” they should say.


Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke. His most recent book is The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure.

Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski.