Engineering Ethics Blog: This Business of Engineering


Early Sunday morning, Aug. 5, 1888, a 39-year-old woman
named Bertha Benz set off for her mother’s house in Pforzheim, some sixty-six
miles (106 km) away from Mannheim, Germany. 
She lived there with her husband Karl and two teenage sons, and she took
her sons along for the ride.  Visiting
her mother was not unusual.  But the way
she planned to get there was. 

For the last several years, Karl had been developing what he
called a Patent-Motorwagen—what we would call today an automobile.  Its one-cylinder engine burned an obscure
solvent called ligroin, obtainable only at pharmacies.  It had wooden brakes and only two gears, low
and high.  Bertha was from a wealthy
family, and she had put a considerable amount of money into her husband’s
invention.  But like many inventors, Karl
was content to make incremental improvements to his machine and treated it
gingerly, never driving it more than a few miles away from home on short test drives.  Besides, there were laws regulating such
machines, and to drive it a long distance legally, he would have had to get
permission from various local authorities along the way.  It was much easier just to tinker with it in
his shop and drive it only around town.

But Bertha had had enough of this.  She knew Karl’s invention was good, but people
had to know what it was capable of.  Without telling her husband, she and her two boys
left Mannheim on the rutted wagon roads leading to Pforzheim.  On steep hills, the boys had to get out and
push the underpowered vehicle uphill.  At
one point the fuel line clogged, and Bertha unplugged it with a hatpin.  A chain broke, and she managed to find a
blacksmith willing to work on Sunday to fix it. 
The brakes proved inadequate, and she stopped at a cobbler’s shop and
had him cut some leather strips to fit onto the brakes, thus inventing the
world’s first brake pads.  A little after
sunset the same day, she and her boys arrived in Pforzheim, no doubt to the
great surprise of her mother.  She telegrammed
her husband of her successful trip, and by the time she drove back several days
later, reports of her exploit were in newspapers all over the country.  Which was exactly what she wanted.  Benz’s invention, and Bertha’s exploit, were
foundational steps in the worldwide automotive industry.

Somehow I had gotten to my present advanced age without
learning about Bertha Benz’s first-ever auto trip.  But this was just the most interesting of
many such anecdotes about engineering and business that I encountered in a new
book by Matt Loos:  The Business of Engineering. 

Loos is a practicing civil engineer in Fort Worth who realized
a few years after being in the working world, that many of the most important
skills he was using every day had little or nothing to do with what he learned
in engineering school. 

This is not to disparage engineering education (which is
what I do for a living) but simply reflects the fact that the technical content
of engineering is so voluminous these days that there isn’t much room in a
nominal four-year curriculum for what are (perhaps unfortunately) called “softer”
subjects such as management techniques, ethical issues, and coping with the
dynamics of rapidly changing technical fields. 

A newly-graduated engineer could do a lot worse than to pick
up The Business of Engineering and read it to find out what the late
radio commentator Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.”

If a person is going to claim to be able to use specialized
technical knowledge to do something of value, they must have mastered
that technical knowledge.  That
fundamental requirement is the reason behind the extensive and challenging technical
content of engineering undergraduate courses. 
But as Loos points out in numerous ways—through anecdotes like Bertha
Benz’s story, through recent statistics and facts drawn from a variety of
technical fields, and from his own personal experience—knowing your technical
stuff by itself will not make you a successful engineer.  And even the definition of success depends on
what sort of business you are in and how your own personal goals fit in with
the directions that the industry is moving. 

I have to say that if I had read and taken to heart what
Loos says in his book when I was, say, twenty-four, my career might have been
very different.  At the time, I had a
very simplistic and immature notion that all an engineer had to do was to come
up with brilliant technical stuff, and the world would beat a path to his
door.  But in thinking that, I was acting
like Karl Benz, happily tinkering away in his shop but afraid to try his pet
invention out in the real world.  The
lesson I needed to learn was that if nobody but you cares about what you’re
doing, nothing much good will come of it. 
Working engineers need to be engaged in the world around them, not only
on a purely technical level, but also at the levels of economics, social
relations, and ethics, to mention only a few.

This is Loos’s first book, and as with most things, one’s
first efforts occasionally lack the polish that long experience can give.  But it is still highly readable, even if you
don’t read it for anything but the stories. 
One of the strengths of the book is that Loos is realistic about how an
engineer’s personal habits can make the difference between success and
something considerably below success: 
things like attention to details, ability to organize one’s time, problem-solving
skills, and so on.  Now and then I come
across a student who has more than adequate brain power to do engineering
problems.  But when he confronts a
problem he’s not familiar with, he will simply sit there and appear to wait for
inspiration.  And if inspiration doesn’t
come, well, it’s just too bad.  The
better way is to follow the advice of G. K. Chesterton (this isn’t in Loos’s
book), who said anything worth doing is worth doing badly.  Even trying something that doesn’t work will
probably tell you something about what will work, and it’s better than just
passively waiting for something to happen. 
Engineers make things happen—not always the best thing, but something
that moves the process along.

Loos’s book is now available on Amazon, and I recommend it
especially to graduating engineers who can benefit from the experience and the
stories that The Business of Engineering collects.

Sources:  The
Business of Engineering
by Matthew K. Loos, P. E. is available on Amazon at

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