From the Editor: Witnessing Engineering’s Evolution from the 1970s to the 2020s
It’s the beginning of a new decade, which is a good time to look back and ahead.
I had the opportunity to visit with some friends recently; colleagues I worked with at the Indiana Department of Highways back in the 1970s. All of us are retired now and are moving on to other meaningful responsibilities such as raising chickens and working with wood on a lathe. We all agreed, however, that the work we did was important and made a difference to the greater community, while, at the same time, we were having a lot of fun.
First, we talked about our work environment: open concept to the maximum. There were no cubicles, just rows and rows of drafting tables and stools. There were radios playing (the music was great), people smoking (not so great) and the occasional throwing of paper wads just to keep your coworker on his or her toes. We decorated Christmas trees with scales, triangles, pencils and erasers. We took breaks together down in the cafeteria, and we played cards at lunch.
One of my friends felt we collaborated a lot more in that big open room than we ever did in cubicles. He noted there was much design done on paper rather than computer, which required a better understanding of the problem and expected outcome right off the bat. While there are good, creative and resourceful engineers, the risk is to let the computing power do all the work.
Good Times, Bad Times
We also talked about the work we were doing. The Interstate Highway System was being completed, and we were moving to rehabilitate the remainder of the state highways that needed attention. New safety features were being developed, such as better guardrail and barrier treatments as well as pavement surface options. New design methods were coming into practice that allowed for more economical designs. We were repairing, widening and replacing bridges across the state. Everyone was busy, and everyone was learning.
The last part of our conversation is what I remember strongly: there was so much to learn. We moved from working stress design to ultimate stress design. The transition began from calculating everything by hand to using computers to perform some of that work. We were writing computer programs that would sort out the load combinations for bridge piers. Every six months, another few of our friends would pass the exam and become registered as professional engineers, which was a big deal then and included a ceremony at the State Capitol with a presentation of certificates by various state officials.
Most importantly, our bosses (mentors) were some of the best teachers I’ve ever worked with. For some of us, it takes the passage of time to realize the degree of influence your mentors had on a career.
Often when thinking back, the good times are remembered more clearly than the bad times. The 1970s included both, of course. During that decade, our group of friends and coworkers were playing softball, getting married, growing families and contributing to the greater community. At the same time, the United States was at war, and there were demonstrations and riots. We were experiencing an oil and energy crisis, and a president was facing impeachment charges. As they say: “history repeats itself.”
How will engineers respond to alternative energy sources, global warming, dwindling water supplies, deteriorating infrastructure and any number of future demands? What will we as engineers do in this next decade that will make a positive impact on our way of life and environment?
It seems every decade has provided challenges, but perhaps this next decade will give us opportunities that will require new ideas, new standards, and new methods of design and construction that will create an increasing need for education and development of the engineering profession.
Schools of all levels need to enlighten students on the issues our society faces and the role each of them can play in addressing them. Some will become scientists or lawmakers or social workers and other professions. Surely some will become engineers.
The upcoming challenges will be for everyone, and our world needs great professionals now to create a better environment. Our world needs great students to be creative and develop new ideas for our future. And we, as experienced professionals, are called to be great mentors and enablers to help create an environment for these people to thrive.