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Engineering LibreTexts

11: Historical case studies in Engineering

  • Page ID
    43041
  • In order to understand engineering it is helpful to follow some historical case studies. These are NOT complete studies, that is for historians. This is a study specifically oriented to a moral of the story approach when it comes to engineering. It is for the student to fill in details.

    This course will look at three case studies out of literally thousands of case studies that could be written. The cases studies presented here should not be viewed as the end of a students look at engineering in a historical context rather as a beginning. To further those ends after the studies presented here the student might wish to look at the books by engineer and author Henry Petroski. He has written a number of books that looks into the history of engineering and design. A list of his books can be instructive on what is engineering is about. His books are very interesting and fun to read, but you do not have to limit yourself to those books; you can do your own research and see engineering design from your own point of view. A quick look at the list of books below clearly indicates that he is a civil engineer. Even so there are lessons for all engineers in books from different engineering disciplines.

    This is a selection of his books, it is not complete, but essentially captures the overall themes of all his books:

    • The Pencil: The history of design and circumstances
      • This book is actually about the pencil - the whole book!
      • How long? 448 pages long!
      • This is engineering, you need to design it to not break, etc.
      • Materials matter
    • The Toothpick: Technology and Culture
      • This book is actually about the toothpick - the whole book!
      • How long? 464 pages long!
      • Fascinating? Yes!
      • Are there trade secrets in the toothpick industry? Yes, really!
      • Toothpicks have to be strong but flexible and NOT damage the teeth
        • This is engineering, you need to design for this
        • Materials matter
    • The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts - From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers - Came to be as they are
    • Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America
    • Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering
    • Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering
      • This has a chapter on Washington DC's Wilson bridge (the original span which is now demolished)
    • To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design
      • Disasters teach us how to build better
      • Most disasters are not intentional but a missing fact about design
      • Engineers need to take lessons from this

    What is interesting in this selection of his books is the idea that design (engineering) is part of the seemingly simplest of things: the pencil, the toothpick, the paper clip, and more.

    Engineering is about the great and small designs, it is about success and failure, it is about science and art, it is about exact mathematics and approximations,...

    The histories in the following sections talk about the great designs, mainly dispel misconceptions, rather than the small design but the student is certainly encouraged to read about the small designs.

    • 11.1: First Flight
      This is a history of flight in regards to the heavier than air powered airplane. The lesson is picked because of the inaccuracies surrounding this story especially with regards to how invention and design really work. It is NOT a complete history, it is designed to teach a lesson...NOT to teach history. Please refer to the many books on the subject some of which I refer to below.
    • 11.2: The pyramids of Egypt
      This is a history of the only surviving ancient wonder of the world, the great pyramids (and all the other pyramids of ancient Egypt: Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia). The lesson is picked because of the inaccuracies surrounding this story especially with regards to how invention and design really work. It is NOT a complete history, it is designed to teach a lesson...NOT to teach history. Please refer to the many books on the subject some of which I refer to below.
    • 11.3: Trains, trains, trains
      This is a history of the trains. The lesson pretty much for fun...who doesn't like a train. It is NOT a complete history, it is designed to teach a lesson...NOT to teach history. This particular history is a work in progress as this goes into the modern times.  Plus the pictures are by the author of this LibreTexts course.
    • 11.4: What are the lessons learned?
      READ THIS AFTER THE "HISTORY" LESSONS.