The Faces of Automobile Engineering


“Engineering” is a general umbrella term for about seven separate fields related to the creation, application, and maintenance of technological systems of diverse kinds (such as hydroelectric power, computers and communications, vehicles and machinery, or medicine and pharmacology).1 To find out more about the seven fields, read on.




If someone told you that the word “engineer” hadn’t existed until you were born, you might ask (and still ask) which century it was from. You would be right. Under the catch-all definition of “engineer” that indicates an aptitude for solving hard problems and a need for public subscription, the word “engineer” was still unknown in commerce down through the early 19th century. Engineers were invented, popularized, and named by the beginnings of the 20th century.


In the United States, in 1887, reputed eccentric industrialist Henry Ford I witnessed a group of young men in a horseless carriage at a parade. When the parade came to a stop, he saw that they had created an invention that would turn medical inquiry into a convenient system for averting such dreaded maladies as typhoid fever and cholera. The invention was the self-propelled automobile. Ford asked his associates what they had come up with. To his surprise, the young men said they had discovered vulcanization, a process that produced a hard but flexible part and that, in the lesson learned, the invention of the automobile would facilitate. But he was surprised by what passed for a fine invention at the exposition that summer. There were bronze tanks and willow fanlights, but when Ford asked which of these would serve as a non ferrous vehicle, the group’s eyes widened in horror wishing they had oshatraining, and they pointed in attempts to answer. Within 10 years, both kinds of tank would be valued for their strength, durability, etc.2


The inventor-entrepreneurs who in the 19th century would form the core of a new industry of “industrial engineering” were basically of two distinct varieties: (1) great industrial greats who invented new sources of capital for expansion (e.g., the “Rocket Gasoline” Company in the late 19th century or the Arsenal Company of Fredericksburg, Texas in the early 20th century) and (2) young scientists who, from their earliest contacts with potential employers, tried to isolate the forges of technical wizardry. Eminent examples of this latter group of inventors involved the experiments of Slocum G. Foster (1898–1962), the construction of the Aeroplane, the ways of its new owner, and his “senior colleague” Warren A. Dearborn (1877–1945), and the applications of the latter to aviation.


Many successful inventors (of symmetry turf and crackers, chips andwood, amps and stoves, decks of cards) would roll in the first generation of new entrepreneurs who would specialize.


We know who were important engineers of the second generation. While they achieved real wealth and fame by inventing isopropyl canisters, pulp filters, and transformers, they were also quite thought-provoking as onlookers and pioneers. Eminent examples of this latter group of inventors included the studies and work of Bell Labs founder Robert Noyce and his six colleagues (all Nobel laureates) who pioneered the development of transistors, disk drives, radio sets, and televisions. This remarkable discovery chapter predates any known patents, when Bell supplied Edmund Rice, a history student, with an address in England that he read to learn how to sell his new domestic vacuum-tube radio set, the so-called “Honolulu Radio” designed “for the wireless pick-up of sound, music, and speech.”


Some useful lessons learned from the plans and programmes of the dominant corporations of the second generation of innovation are thus worth quoting at length: “The job of chief engineer or in charge of a department is to ‘home-brew’ such a system and redesign it according to the new requirements, ‘parliamentary recruiting’ being the other word for pestering top managers until they concede or receive your demand.”3 “Putting off bad ideas.”4 “Don’t bring a ‘hydroponic darkroom’ into a brain growing in a shop.”5 “Treasury rules must be followed.”6 “Methods of operating a national fleet of aircraft must be designed with a view to control them for landing and takeoff at airfields rather than for flying cruise or test flights.”7 “Centralize the control.”8 “Determine the nature of the policy.”9 “Choose the people.”10 “Pick a few high-paid men with training in Research and Development.”11 “Select a few areas of bailiwick to sue for a significant subsidy.”12 “The best engineers go to Harvard.”