In his book Remarkable Engineers: From Riquet to Shannon, Ioan James gives brief accounts of the lives of 51 engineers. (Well, 50 engineers if you believe, as apparently many do, that Wilbur and Orville Wright were one person.) Each biography is between two and six pages long.
Because the biographies are quite short, a large proportion of these biographies are devoted to the vital facts of the subject’s life: when they were born, who they married, how many children they had, etc. As a result, there isn’t as much space devoted to their engineering careers as one might expect. This is particularly the case with the earliest biographies. Since less is known about these men, the author may have intentionally added more familial details to stretch some of these chapters a bit to keep the chapters a uniform length.
Remarkable Engineers is filled with variety. Some of the engineers, such as George Cayley and Werner von Braun, were born into aristocratic families. Others, such as Andrei Tupolev and Sergei Korolev, spent years as political prisoners inside the Soviet Gulag. Most of the featured engineers were men, though the book includes biographies of Hertha Ayrton and Edith Clarke. The book includes three father-son pairs: Marc and Isambard Brunel, Lazare and Sadi Carnot, George and Robert Stephenson. Some, such as the Wright brothers, never went to college. Others, such as Claude Shannon, were college professors.
Because the boundaries between engineering and other areas are fuzzy, some of the engineers may also be classified as businessmen (Thomas Edison), scientists (William Thomson), or mathematicians (Claude Shannon). In the popular imagination, the distinction between science and engineering is particularly fuzzy; famous engineers, such as Werner von Braun, are often called “scientists” and famous engineering projects, such as the Apollo program or the Manhattan Project, are thought of as scientific achievements. Perhaps books like Ioan James’ Remarkable Engineers and Henry Petroski’s The Essential Engineer will educate the public about the differences between science and engineering and raise the prestige of engineers.
John D. Cook is a research statistician at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and blogs daily at The Endeavour.