How Is an Engineer Like a Historian? or How I Spent My Summer Vacation

A Portuguese Minotaur from Roman Times. Photo by Manuel Anastácio.

The interval between this posting of “Engineering the Industrial Revolutions” and the previous posting is noticeably longer than the current target of about three weeks. There is a reason: in the interim, I went seeking the Industrial Revolution in an intriguing intellectual maze. So here is the traditional back-to-school essay, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”.

Every summer comes with a reading list. I started mine with a visit to my “must read when I have time” shelf, where a 1955 McGraw-Hill paperback, Carl G. Gustavson’s A Preface to History was beckoning insistently. I had never found the time to read this slim volume, originally cream-colored but now rather mottled and timeworn, but this year was different. I was beginning to wonder if, as a non-historian, I was inadvertently ignoring basic tools and customs of good historical work? Could attention to Prof. Gustavson’s words prevent those sophomoric blunders which are the all-too-common fate of experts who stray too far from their own fields?

A Preface to History is nearly 60 years old, so some of the examples and prognostications are dated, but it is still being used and referenced today. Professor Gustavson wrote the book for beginning history students, to explain the difference between actually learning, using, and doing history and the more common student experience of memorizing dates, names, and events in order to pass a class. His book encourages students to acquire fundamental attitudes, processes, and concepts of “historical-mindedness”, which he defines as “a form of reasoning [for use] when dealing with historical materials and present-day problems”. The historical-minded investigator will not look at history as merely an entertaining story but will be curious about events, past and present, and their underlying causes. Historical-mindedness means considering the evolution of events and societies in terms of the dynamic social forces and the unique circumstances in which theses forces interact. Historians should be open-minded and base their conclusions on rigorous, logical reasoning, using all the verified evidence available. The historical-minded scholar “must approach his subject in a spirit of humility, prepared to recognize the tenacious reality rather than what he wishes to find.” Historical-mindedness acknowledges the interconnectedness of the historical landscape but recognizes the uniqueness of situations and events, notwithstanding superficial similarities. In the words attributed to Mark Twain, “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

This approach seems reassuringly familiar; “historical-mindedness” sounds similar to good, old methodical “systems engineering”. There are differences, of course, but there are also striking similarities.

Engineers, like historians, want to know “how”, “why”, and “why not”, and consider different forces and constraints to answer these questions within their engineering contexts. Gustavson’s catalog of significant historical forces reads: “economic, institutional (mainly political), religious, technological, ideological, and military”. Whether planning a new interstate highway, a new production process, or a new drug delivery system, a systems engineer will consider physical, chemical, and environmental forces, as well as economic, legal, social, ergonomic, and practical constraints. Engineers do not unnecessarily re-invent the wheel every time they start a project; just as historians build on the work of previous scholars, engineers rely on existing technologies, or “prior art”,  as they invent and innovate to solve unique new problems by building on successful solutions to related problems. In other words, “Engineering problems do not repeat themselves, but they often rhyme.”

Both engineers and historians need a framework before engaging in meaningful original work in their discipline. For historians, a minimal framework is the timeline of important dates, names, and events; for engineers, the framework is built of concepts from calculus, computational methods, theory of equations, physics, chemistry, and biology. The true intellectual fun and productivity in each discipline comes from applying the reasoning tools, like historical-mindedness or systems engineering, to answering interesting and significant new questions with evidence-based investigations, once both the reasoning tools and the fundamental frameworks  are developed sufficiently to do such questions justice.

Although verification methods may differ, the rigor and evidence-based logic are similar in both historical-mindedness and systems engineering. The engineer may use more sophisticated mathematics than the historian for analysis and design, as well as more physical, tangible protocols, like experimentation, prototyping, and failure testing, to validate the proposed solutions. The systems engineer, like the historian, must have the “spirit of humility” to be “prepared to recognize the tenacious reality rather than what he wishes to find”, and the integrity (and sometimes the courage) to revise conclusions and projects according to that tenacious reality, even in advanced stages of design and production.

After reading A Preface to History, I felt confident that, if I continued to flesh out my framework of knowledge about the Industrial Revolution, I could do a credible job on the historical part of my investigations, at least by the standards of 1955. But 1955 is not quite state-of-the art any more, so I perused some more recent books (latest, 2012) at the local university library. The nomenclature has changed, so “theory and methods” may be called “craft and tools” in modern parlance. Real changes have developed in the way we gather information, so updated books include additional topics such as finding reliable sources on the internet, explanations of applying new analytical techniques, like DNA matching and spectroscopy, as well as the value of applying new geographic tools, like GIS. I did not find “historical-mindedness” mentioned, per se, in the latest works, but the prescribed basics have not changed. Doing good history still requires the intellectual curiosity, the rigorous investigations, the verified evidence, the honesty and humility to accept the results, no matter how unanticipated, and the responsibility of weaving the results of evidence-based reasoning, no matter how surprising, into the cloth of existing knowledge that becomes the accepted framework. Just like good systems engineering.

I am still meandering through this intriguing intellectual maze. It has not yet produced fairy treasures or Minotaurs. Nonetheless, there have been many surprising twists and turns in the pathways linking engineering, education, and industrial revolutions. So far, Hanoverian art, geometric paper-folding, patent infringements, and filter paper have emerged from the shadows in the bends. Reports on these encounters are forthcoming.

Longleat Maze, England.