"The New Epoch" and the 21st Century Imperative for Engineering History

author: David P. Billington, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Princeton University
published: Jan. 4, 2011,   recorded: May 2008,   views: 4637

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Great civil engineers finds an aesthetic appropriate for their building’s material and structure, asserts David Billington, whose life work has been the study of some of the world’s most stunning engineering feats.

He reviews his own intellectual journey, first honoring some of his forebears, including Elting Morison, industrial historian and a founder of MIT's Program in Science, Technology and Society, and R. G. Collingwood, philosopher/historian. Billington describes a momentous turn in his career at Princeton, when architecture students in one of his courses rebuked him: “They told me, we hate what you’re teaching us. ... You’re teaching us stick diagrams and formulas. That’s how you teach structural engineering. Why can’t we study beautiful structures?”

They showed him a picture of the Salginatobel Bridge, built by “an obscure Swiss engineer, Robert Maillart,” about whom there was little published in English. This led to a major stretch of research by Billington, and opened up his lifelong interest in how great engineers delve deep into the nature of their building material, such as Maillart’s reinforced concrete, and discover how to make it beautiful.

In studying the work of Maillart and other European engineers, Billington learned that “truly great bridges are extremely interesting aesthetically.” They often result from competitions, satisfying criteria of structural art while wasting neither material nor money. Says Billington, the engineers “get elegance out of discipline -- they find play within discipline.” While most of Billington’s admired bridges were built in the 20th century (by men born in the 19th), he also pays tribute to Christian Menn, designer of Boston’s Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, completed in 2002 -- an asymmetrical cable stayed bridge that has become a regional landmark.

“Basic form and structure comes from the engineer’s imagination,” says Billington, which puts engineers “far ahead of us academics, who often think we make innovations and explain them to practitioners.” Menn and his peers are “out there doing art,” and Billington’s mission is to teach it. He gives his students a sense of how the engineer’s mind works, by assigning students to build small-scale versions of structurally significant bridges. These models show up in art exhibits, and Billington shows many slides of such work during his talk.

In a footnote, Billington discusses the dismal state of U.S. infrastructure, including the catastrophic failure of the Minneapolis bridge in 2007. This steel truss bridge, like so many in the U.S., was the product of an anonymous design process, says Billington, where bridges are copied decade after decade, in an “unthinking acceptance of designs that are already flawed.”

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