The word least likely to be spoken by politicians was once a simple one: ”engineer.”
I was reminded of the invisibility of the E-word recently when studying the origins of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous farewell address to the nation, which he delivered 50 years ago this month on 17 January 1961.
The address is well remembered, even famous, for Eisenhower’s warning about the emergence of a ”military-industrial complex,” which might distort government policies in pursuit of profits from the development and sale of weapons. Less famous, but no less significant, was Eisenhower’s other warning: that ”public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” At the same time, Eisenhower warned that scientists could become prisoners of government funding, with contracts becoming, in his words, ”virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”
President Eisenhower complained in this farewell address so vigorously about the potential perils of elite scientists ignoring the popular will—and of themselves, paradoxically, becoming tools of power—that his own science adviser, George Kistiakowsky felt compelled to clarify the president’s remarks in a later interview with Science magazine, the official journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
What’s gone unnoticed until now—what I discovered when reading an early copy of Eisenhower’s farewell speech that had been ignored in the Eisenhower archives until last month—was that the President’s speechwriters, Malcolm Moos and Ralph Williams, wanted Eisenhower to highlight engineers as well as scientists. In a draft of the farewell, penned one month prior to Eisenhower’s speech, Moos and Williams made two references to engineers and engineering, placing both the occupation and the activity on an equal footing with scientists and science.
And yet by the time Eisenhower read his speech in a nationally televised address to the nation, the words ”engineer” and ”engineering” were absent. Instead, Eisenhower talked of research, technology, and science—but not a word about engineering.
To be sure, Eisenhower was merely reflecting a widespread mental habit, common some half-century ago, of subsuming engineering under the larger rubric of science and technology (S&T) or research and development (R&D). But by writing engineers out of the politics of science, the president diminished the public’s understanding of technological change.
The tradition of emphasizing science and scientists at the expense of engineers and engineering continued under later U.S. presidents. In 1980, for instance, under President Carter, the government launched the National Medal of Technology (with no mention of engineers, even though they created most technologies—and though among the first group of recipients, in 1985, was Steve Wozniak, an electrical engineer trained at the University of California, Berkeley). In 2007, President George W. Bush updated the medal, adding ”innovation” to its name, but again refusing to utter the E-word.