Knowing, and How We Do So
Recalling an aeronautical engineer-historian who confirmed the importance and raised the stature of engineering.
By Henry Petroski
This year marks the centennial of the birth of one of the 20th century’s softest-spoken but deepest-thinking engineers, Walter G. Vincenti.
Vincenti was born on April 20, 1917 in Baltimore and grew up in Pasadena, Calif., just three blocks from Caltech. Not wanting to go to college so close to home, he followed in his older brothers’ footsteps and attended Stanford, where the study of aeronautics was an option in the mechanical engineering curriculum.
As he related in a NASA oral history many decades later, he was predisposed to the field because of an experience he had as a 10-year-old attending a Saturday children’s movie matinee. It was customary at the time to accompany the show with newsreels of important events. Charles Lindbergh’s landing his Spirit of St. Louis in Paris fell into that category and, as Vincenti related it, the children “all stood up and cheered” at the news on the screen. He began to make model airplanes, cementing his attraction to the field.
He also recalled being at a football game between Southern Cal and Stanford when, at halftime, a dirigible housed at nearby Moffett Field hovered over the stadium and dramatically launched from a “trapeze” a biplane it carried aboard. This cinched Vincenti’s lifelong fascination with aeronautics.
Aeronautical engineers born in an earlier time might have told of being captivated by the achievements of the Wright Brothers. For so many American engineers born later, it was the shocking surprise of the Soviets sprinting ahead in the space race by putting the artificial satellite Sputnik into orbit. Still later, the adventures of the astronauts, culminating in the moon landing, motivated students to go into engineering.
Mutatis mutandis, Vincenti’s reasons for studying the field of engineering that he chose were typical. Yet his 50-year career of making significant contributions to the development of high-speed aeronautics was atypical in that he started out working at the new Ames Research Center of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA, and eventually became a professor of aeronautical engineering at Stanford.
What also made Vincenti more than a typical engineer—in addition to his being elected to the National Academy of Engineering—was his drive to understand what he called the “intellectual content of engineering” and “engineering knowledge,” terms he used in his reflective and highly influential book, What Engineers Know and How They Know It: Analytical Studies from Aeronautical History.
First published in 1990 in the Johns Hopkins University Press series, Studies in the History of Technology, this rigorous study in intellectual history made an immediate impact on the fields of both engineering and history. The book put forth an incontrovertible argument that engineering was indeed a distinct intellectual endeavor, and not just some activity that fell into the category of “applied science.”
Although Vincenti’s arguments are buttressed by case studies from aeronautics—that is, from his direct experience in his field of specialization—the lessons he draws from them are general and relevant to all fields of engineering design and development. His is a book that provides insights into the unqualified practice of engineering.
What Engineers Know has raised the stature of engineering in the minds of historians and confirmed to engineers who think about it the special importance of what they know and how they do so. It is a book that should be widely known and read, especially among engineers and engineering students. And there could be no more fitting time to be reminded to do so than on the occasion of the author’s 100th birthday.
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