What Engineers Do
How often are you asked “What do engineer’s do?” when you tell someone you are an engineer? The old joke is that we professional engineers are not the guys who drive trains. This question about engineers is an important question for young people, like my 18-year old daughter, to think about when they are considering what they will study in college. I would guess that many people associate engineers with bridges and that is an important aspect of civil engineering. Every year ASCE publishes a calendar with beautiful photos or graceful bridges constructed throughout the United States. I looked back at the past several months of Civil Engineering magazine and noticed that the magazine has an article on a bridge almost every month. Even though I have never designed a bridge, I know some of you reading NewsLink have, and my hat is off to you!
Every month at our San Diego Section lunch meetings, we give our speakers a copy of a book titled “The Journal of San Diego History – The Legacy of Civil Engineering.” Inside that book, the Executive Director of the San Diego Historical Society wrote an introduction that starts with the following quote:
“They have builded magnificent bridges where the nation’s highways go, o’er perilous mountain ridges and where great rivers flow. There was never a land too distant nor ever a way too wide, but some man’s mind insistent, reached out to the other side”.
I wanted to see if bridges were indeed what people would associate with engineers, so I looked on a website that is likely accessed by many college-bound students, www.StudentScholarships.org , the self-proclaimed largest scholarship database on the Web. I have been deeply involved in scholarship applications over the past few months as my daughter prepares to venture off to college. Sadly for me, she is not interested in a career in engineering, but I can hold out hope for my son! What I found on that website was a detailed list of the various engineering disciplines and some great information for students to know about each engineering specialty. I was pleased to see that the site said “Civil engineers design and supervise the construction of roads, buildings, airports, tunnels, dams, bridges, and water supply and sewage systems.” That seemed like a really good definition to me. How can we make sure more people know what we do?
Every February during the week of George Washington’s birthday, ASCE and many other engineering organizations celebrate National Engineer’s Week. This nation-wide event focuses on sustaining and growing a dynamic engineering profession through outreach, education, and volunteerism to keep the United States a global leader in engineering and engineering education. This is an important way we help people learn about what engineers do. Throughout the history of our nation, engineers have played a pivotal role in making our nation what it is today. I am sure President Washington had something to do with a bridge or two in his career. Engineering is at its core problem-solving, and we engineers are working hard to make our society a better place to live. We should make sure our society understands that.
Even though our nation’s first president was a military engineer and surveyor, would you believe that there are only 13 members of Congress with a degree in engineering? Perhaps all of the engineering disciplines need to focus on the importance of supporting the engineers of today and offering encouragement and guidance to the engineers of tomorrow. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the National Engineer’s Week banquet last week, and I was extremely impressed by the impressive work being done at UCSD by Dr. Todd P. Coleman, Associate Professor of Bioengineering. Dr. Coleman was the winner of the 2014 Outstanding Engineer Award in San Diego and Keynote speaker for the banquet. He discussed the recent efforts by his research group in combining skin-integrated wearable sensors with multi-modal analytics algorithms that can be efficiently implemented in the cloud. Much of the technology of that work is difficult for us civil engineers to understand, but Dr. Coleman discussed it in a way that kept everyone’s attention, describing how the various technologies he uses are like simple paint brushes in the hands of a skilled artist. No wonder Leonardo da Vinci was such a good engineer and inventor! To read more about Dr. Coleman, visit the National Engineer’s Week website page at: http://www.new-sandiego.org/keynotespeakers.html
I hope some of you had the opportunity to visit Grossmont Shopping Center on February 22, 2014, to see all the activities taking place at Engineering Day at the Mall, an annual event organized in San Diego by our own Younger Member Forum group. The YMF is to be congratulated for all of their hard work and effort it took to make that another successful event. My sincere thanks go out to YMF president, Shannon Sales, and Sharon Liu, Chair of the Engineering Day at the Mall Committee, for leading the YMF’s members and for continuing a tradition of outstanding events. I enjoyed seeing all of the young, budding engineers taking part in all of the activities and presentations that were available to teach them multiple aspects of what engineering is all about. My favorite activity organized by the YMF was the “Da Vinci Bridge” display where students were shown how to build a bridge using paint stirring sticks, without the benefit of any type of connections! In keeping with my decision last month to provide the readers of NewsLink with some history lessons, I decided to do a little research on Leonardo da Vinci and his bridge. I discovered some interesting facts about this famous “Renaissance man” who most of us remember for his beautiful art.
The term "Renaissance man" comes from fifteenth-century Italy and is used to convey the idea of a person with knowledge and skills in a number of different areas. One of those individuals who fits that definition was Leonardo da Vinci – an artist, scientist, architect, engineer and inventor. Though he may be most famous for his works as an artist, he actually spent quite a bit more time working on his endeavors in science and technology. His detailed sketches and distinct artistry played a large role in his inventions, and his sketchbooks later provided evidence that da Vinci had envisioned many ideas long before the technology to build them actually existed. Leonardo da Vinci dreamed up inventions and innovations across a variety of fields, designing weapons of war, flying machines, water systems, and work tools. He excelled at looking beyond traditional thinking and dreaming big dreams.
Sometime around 1485-1487, Leonardo Da Vinci devised a method for building a self-supporting arched bridge that is held together by its own weight, and becomes more stable the heavier it gets. It was originally meant to be a bridge to be quickly deployed by armies. All they had to do was bring along the pre-cut pieces and slot them together. Just like I learned at Engineering Day at the Mall, the unique structure of this bridge holds itself together without any fasteners or connectors. This bridge is a fascinating example of early bridge building architecture. It's a combination of arches and shallow trusses - a truly ingenious system of interlocking forms. Each segment supports the two segments adjacent to it in a daisy chain of mutual support, with only the two end segments touching the ground. It's no surprise that Leonardo Da Vinci was the mastermind inventor who engineered this bridge!
If you didn’t have the opportunity to see this bridge at the mall, I found the next best thing for you: a YouTube video! In this video you will see a bridge engineer with Kleinfelder -Simon Wong Engineering named Elizabeth Schroth-Nichols, a YMF member, show you how to build this self-supporting bridge. Perhaps after you visit the following link you will want to try it yourself! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHsdv7aN0tY
As most of you know, ASCE San Diego Section is celebrating its 100th Anniversary in 2015. Our Centennial Committee, chaired by Jeniene Knight, has been busy planning many exciting events for next year, including the National Engineers Week Banquet which ASCE will be hosting. Several other ASSCE Sections who celebrated their Centennials in the past few years have published Civil Engineering History books for their area. In San Diego, we are fortunate that we already have that history book that was developed by several San Diego Section ASCE members, under the leadership of Gordon Lutes, for the 150th Anniversary of ASCE National in Winter 2002. At the end of his introduction to the book about the History of Civil Engineering in San Diego, the Historical Society Director wrote “Alas, there is no article about our magnificent bridges, of which we have at least two: the Cabrillo Bridge into Balboa Park and the San Diego – Coronado Bay Bridge.” I could now add to that list the Goat Canyon Railroad Trestle in the Anza-Borrego desert and the Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge.
Are any of you bridge engineers, retired or otherwise, willing to fill in the missing portion of the history of civil engineering in San Diego? If so, your story on bridges could be the featured chapter in the second edition of this book, which could be re-published for the San Diego Section’s Centennial. I look forward to hearing from you if this is something you would like to do to educate others about the lasting impact of bridges in San Diego for many years to come.
Tim Shell, P.E., M.ASCE
San Diego Section President, 2013-14