Penn Engineering Sesquicentennial: 150 Years of SEAS

"Caressing the Divine Details"
Eduardo D. Glandt, Dean
School of Engineering and Applied Science

Today we understand why it made so much sense for Philadelphia and Penn to be the birthplaces of one of the country’s first Schools of Engineering.  Today we celebrate the 150 years of history that followed that birth.  But on this important day we also celebrate something else.  We celebrate Engineering and we celebrate engineers.

Engineering is as old as Mankind, even older.  The first ape who fashioned the first tool, or fueled the first fire, became a man and by the same act became an engineer.  This evolutionary milestone was captured very well at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001.”  An ape throws his staff into the air and through a sudden jump in time the staff becomes a space ship.  I hope you remember the scene because it was such a compelling image.

I travel a lot these days and I talk to our graduates.  Many of them work as engineers; others have gone on to careers in Management, or Medicine, or Law.   Yet, whatever they do all of them invariably point out how their backgrounds in Engineering colored their careers and marked them for life.  They talk about problem solving and about quantitative thinking, two traits that inhabit the soul of every engineer.  With quantitative thinking comes clarity and the ability to tell what is right from what is wrong.  This trait must be genetic, from a gene that we probably share with our cousins, the scientists.

Yes, we are close relatives of the scientists. And yet we are different.  They and we have a division of labor.  As has been said, "Scientists build complicated devices in order to study the laws of nature, while engineers, study the laws of nature in order to build complicated devices."  Scientists seek to understand Nature.  We engineers, seek a fuller form of knowledge, one that enables us to corral our insights and put them to use.   Engineers are driven to build things, to design and to create.

At Penn we teach our students to be creative, and we also insist that they be rigorous.  Because, quoting Nabokov, engineers “caress the divine details."  Caressing the divine details!  That phrase perfectly captures both the nature of engineering and the faith that society places in our work.

For our students I often draw an analogy between engineering and art.  Just as an artist offers a painting for sale an engineer offers a reliable calculation, an original design, a robust system or an efficient code.

Sadly, the Luddites never grasped the natural affinities between Engineering and Art.  They viewed technology, and thus engineers, as enemies of the Arts.   The Bauhaus thought that we should be friends and tried to synthesize the two.   There is a clear affinity, but also an intrinsic difference.    Engineers may be viewed as artists but the colors in our palette are not those in the light spectrum.  They are the laws of science, with which we create objects of great beauty to improve the texture of the world.  If is it not painted with the scientific brush, it is not Engineering!

Also, the “Joys of Engineering” do not come from making a one-of-a-kind thing, something very elegant to keep in the living room.  Engineering work is done to benefit others.  It has to be made available, disseminated, made part of a larger enterprise and the foundation for more and better engineering.  If it does not change the fabric of the world in service of others, it is not Engineering!

Engineering is almost always the result of teamwork.  Every bit of it is a palpable part of human progress.  We shape the way the world learns, works, communicates, travels, socializes, fixes things and heals people.  Our profession is quintessentially American.  It has frequently been the choice of first-generation college students and thus has promoted social advancement in our democracy.  How appropriate that our School was founded just a few blocks away from where American democracy was born!

I have my own personal experiences that have spoken to me with the voice of Engineering.  I will never forget a trip to Washington at the time of the Bicentennial in 1976 to see a recreation of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876.  It was a trip back to the peak of the Industrial Revolution.  The stands had beautiful Victorian enameled signs and I remember lingering for a long time near a machine that made pins for ladies’ hats. 

The names of the engineers who built it were lost, but their machine lived on.  It was a contraption with many axles and gears and pulleys and so much ingenuity and such Rube Goldberg complexity and such mechanical beauty  that I just could not tear myself away.  What I actually wanted was to touch it.  After all, I, too, needed to “caress the divine details!”

But my most precious personal epiphany took place during a visit to a plant in Everett, Washington where Boeing makes 747s.  If you have toured it, you probably experienced the same awe I felt.   If you are an engineer, I bet you felt the same chills down your spine. 

There one sees an operation that draws hungrily from every field of Engineering.  There is a building that reaches to the sky and a production line at the end of which emerge these incredibly huge birds.  One cannot believe that such enormous and beautiful things are made by humans.  It is an Engineering feat like the building of the pyramids or the gothic cathedrals of Europe.  Only these pyramids soon take off and soar above the ground.  And the soul of every engineer in the place soars with them!

But one does not need to cross the country to see Engineering miracles.  They are made every day, everywhere, by our own graduates, the inventors of the liquid crystal display on your watch, the plastic soda bottle in your refrigerator, the cruise control system in your car.  If Ben Franklin could see us now, he would be very proud.  And I, too, could not be more proud to be part of this school at this time. 

Earlier I referred to the early humans from the beginning of the movie “2001.”   And of course you know what eventually happened to them.  Those little bipeds managed to put one of their own on the Moon!   And they succeeded precisely because among them there was a tribe, a special tribe, my own tribe, the engineers who made it possible.