Where Are Today’s Engineering Heroes?

By failing to celebrate its finest contributors, the profession risks far more than mere obscurity

8 min read
Where Are Today’s Engineering Heroes?
Illustration: Tavis Coburn

Some 25 years ago, I set out to write a biography of one of the most notable electrical engineers in American history. A professor at MIT, he designed the most powerful analog computers of the 1930s, and he cofounded Raytheon. An advisor to two U.S. presidents, he initiated the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bombs, and he directed the research that led to the mass production of penicillin. In 1945, he conceived of the U.S. National Science Foundation, which continues to support groundbreaking research and has become the model for research funding in many countries. And he wrote a provocative magazine article that later was credited with accurately describing the personal computer and the Internet—decades before either came into being. I would argue that within the engineering pantheon, only Benjamin Franklin had as great an influence in as many spheres.

If by now you've identified my subject as Vannevar Bush, congratulations! If you haven't, don't feel bad. The most frequent question that I, his sole biographer, receive about him is whether he is related to the first and the second presidents Bush. (He is not.)

Writing the book got me thinking about engineering heroes, or rather the lack of them. Over the years that thought has turned into something of a personal obsession. And now with the help of this magazine and its readers, I'm making it a public crusade: Engineering needs more heroes.

Celebrating heroes is a good way to inspire young people and inform the public, of course. But it's not just a luxury or diversion that the profession can do without. The hero deficit is in fact bad for engineering because it diminishes the enterprise in the eyes of the public, and it constricts the flow of talent into the field. We live in a hero-worshipping society, where the pursuit of celebrity sometimes seems to border on the fanatical. In such a society, serious fields that lack serious heroes are seriously disadvantaged.

Hold on, you're thinking, I can name lots of engineering heroes. There's Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Hewlett and Packard. There's, hmm, Steve Jobs, and uh, Bill Gates, and um…. At this point, you whip out your smartphone and google “engineering heroes." But that's cheating. (And by the way, can you name any of the engineers who worked on the iPhone? Or on NTT Docomo's earlier, ingenious smartphones? I didn't think so.)

Now let's take a look at that list. Edison, no question. Tesla, sure. But Hewlett, Packard, Jobs, and Gates are celebrated chiefly, I would argue, because they built up big corporations and big fortunes through the technological accomplishments of others.

The bottom line is that these days, the engineers who make the most money get the widest acclaim. In other words, to be a hero, you must first achieve stupendous financial success.

There's no crime in profiting from your ideas (or even the ideas of others). But in my view, it shouldn't be the sole or even the main marker for heroism. So where else are we to look for exemplary engineers?

That's a surprisingly tough question to answer. For one thing, engineering may very well be bereft of heroes because nobody really understands the work of engineers anymore. When Edison invented the phonograph, for instance, everybody could relate to that. But when Intel engineers design a microprocessor with 2 billion transistors rather than, say, 1.5 billion, a layperson has no real clue what that means or why it's important. To be sure, increasing abstraction and complexity also dogs modern physics, chemistry, and many other fields, with the unsurprising result that there are no physicist heroes, chemist heroes, and so on. Pursuits like sports, movies, and music, meanwhile, are intuitively comprehensible, so it's no wonder that those fields are chock-full of heroes.

Engineering also faces a sort of structural impediment—namely, there is no Nobel Prize for engineering, nor is there an engineering award with similar global status and prestige. While it's true that a few engineers have received Nobels in other fields, without a Nobel of their own, engineers can't routinely anoint their heroes in quite the same way that physicists, economists, and novelists can. Critics of the Nobel may deride it for, among other things, obscuring the complexity of modern research, but they can't dispute that nothing can confer instant superstardom quite like a Nobel.

The Engineering Pantheon

Engineering has no shortage of achievers worthy of our respect and admiration. Here are just a few—some of them you'll know, others you should know better.

teslaNikola Tesla Creator of the AC induction motor, pop culture icon

bushVannevar Bush Conceived the U.S. National Science Foundation

EdisonThomas Edison Invented the incandescent bulb, among many things

PouzinLouis Pouzin Computer-networking visionary

HaugThomas Haug Cellular telephone pioneer, made text messaging happen

HopperGrace Hopper Pathbreaking computer programmer

Sure, engineering has the Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology, the Charles Stark Draper Prize of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, and the IEEE's own Medal of Honor. Outside of certain circles, though, none of these prizes is widely known. And inadvertently or otherwise, these prizes underscore the abiding stereotype that engineers are brainy males of formidable nerdiness. Only one of the 34 recipients of the Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology and one of the 47 recipients of the Draper prize has been a woman. And of the 95 people who received the IEEE Medal of Honor, zero have been women.

This gender bias in engineering heroes isn't easily remedied—unless you adopt the definition that Ruth Schwartz Cowan, an eminent historian of technology, suggested to me in an e-mail. Every woman engineer is essentially heroic, she wrote, “because they are double stereotype breakers. Most people do not break any stereotypes. Some are brave enough to break one. Women engineers break two: the stereotype for a 'good woman' and the stereotype for a 'good engineer.' I'd like to salute the people who sustain stereotype breaking, day in and day out." Now, you may agree or disagree with Cowan's reasoning, but she's getting at some essential truths. Our engineering heroes should look more like the society they come from, not reflect just one small segment of that society. And in even seemingly slight or everyday acts, we are each capable of feats of heroism.

Cowan's remarks also raise a bigger question: What exactly does it take to be an engineering hero? I would argue that overcoming adversity—whether personal, institutional, or technological—is a valid criterion for heroism. Computer scientist Grace Hopper, who developed the first compiler, broke ground in all three respects: She not only indelibly shaped the course of computer programming, she succeeded in a male-dominated field and a male-dominated institution, eventually rising to the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.

Contributing to the social and cultural well-being of humanity is another criterion for engineering heroism. And yet throughout the history of engineering, people have tackled important problems simply because they were there and without considering the greater good. Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, for instance, are justly celebrated for their formative work in computer networking, and they also have a rightful claim to having benefited humanity. The same can be said for Norwegian electrical engineer Thomas Haug. He's a seminal figure in the emergence of mobile phones, the worldwide adoption of which has led to many social and cultural advances. Yet the quests for computer networks and mobile telephony weren't motivated chiefly by good intentions. So is virtue in fact a prerequisite for engineering heroism?

Of course, talk of virtue—or any other human value—inevitably leads to disagreement. No doubt that's why engineering-prize committees tend to stick with “objective" technological achievements when doling out their accolades. Yet only a certain subset of young people are drawn to engineering purely out of a desire to tackle tough technological challenges. Many students are motivated by wanting to make the world a better place. If they don't see engineering as a means to that end, they won't consider it as a career option.

Nurturing aspirations for what engineering can accomplish on behalf of humanity is another way of saying that individuals matter in the course of technological history. Instinctively, engineers themselves embrace this notion. The careers of Tesla and Edison attest to the fact that a single person—even a misfit or a dreamer—can profoundly influence the trajectory of a technology. In retrospect at least, maybe their achievements seemed inevitable—someone had to invent the AC induction motor. But progress isn't preordained, nor are aspirations irrelevant. If they were, then engineers, even great ones, would be mere robotic servants of a mathematical dance in which their personalities and values don't count. When we judge the quality of engineering, our hopes and dreams have to matter.

I'm not suggesting that a hero's character need be spotless. Fields like sports and entertainment have a host of heroes with conspicuously troubling attributes. Perhaps that's how you know you have enough heroes: Your field has so many that there's room for antiheroes. Even in the world of engineering and technology, which many people tend to regard as relatively “clean" and orderly, William Shockley and Wernher von Braun, among others, led lives that were less than exemplary. Ultimately, each of us decides who our heroes are.

Which raises the stubborn question: Can heroism be taught, or is it innate? I firmly believe that heroes are made, not born. They learn from their experiences, they react to opportunities and crises, and when others around them stick to the safe middle ground, they reach for something higher, or at least more on the fringe. And through the pressure cooker of technoscientific experiences, the engineering hero achieves, in a phrase coined by the German sociologist Max Weber, “charismatic authority": the ability to influence, inspire, and lead others.

As Weber defined it, such charisma doesn't just refer to those who gain outsize status through media acclaim. Charismatic engineers can also work their magic on an intimate, unsung level, by persuading peers behind the scenes or by challenging the status quo through their designs or their testimony.

“The history of engineering is replete with examples of unheralded engineers who refused to accept designs that compromised the public welfare, no matter how profitable they were," historian Matthew Hersch told me. “Inventions like the safety match and the safety bicycle not only worked better than their predecessors, but more ethically. To me, the creators of these technologies are the real heroes." I can't argue with Hersch's logic. So who were these engineering heroes, and why does nobody know their names?

Heroes try, but they also fail. Indeed, the most accomplished engineers notched striking failures in their careers. You probably know who Cerf and Kahn are, but have you ever heard of Louis Pouzin? The creator of an early packet-switching network called Cyclades, Pouzin envisioned the democratizing potential of computer networking. In 1975, he and Cerf led a group who tried but failed to get a packet-switching standard adopted by the International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee. After publicly criticizing the telecom industry's conservatism, Pouzin then saw his research funding drain away, along with his career prospects. Meanwhile, Cerf and Kahn incorporated aspects of Pouzin's ideas into the TCP/IP design for the Internet. These days Pouzin is finally getting some of the recognition he richly deserves.

Pouzin, Cerf, and Kahn didn't work alone; their accomplishments always occurred in parallel with the efforts of others. That's the nature of engineering. And even though the lone inventor is a staple of heroic narratives in the history of engineering, that version of events slights those heroes who are part of teams. Engineering heroism, I would argue, can arise through devotion to an organization and through the management of the complex technological systems that underpin our daily lives.

Consider James Webb, the NASA chief who oversaw Project Apollo in its glory days, which delivered astronauts to the moon and brought them back alive—repeatedly. Or Robert Taylor, the legendary program manager of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, who commissioned research that produced the ARPANET as well as many of the building blocks of the personal computer. Webb and Taylor were visionary leaders of engineering enterprises, and their heroism arose from their undeniable talent at coaxing results from mercurial geeks.

All this talk of heroes may make you uncomfortable. The culture of engineering values modesty and suspects that promotion, especially self-promotion, conceals distortion or possibly even fraud. In today's societies, where image often trumps genuine achievement, engineers justly admire their own penchant for humility and obscurity. But, as I hope I've made clear, heroes and heroism are essential if engineers are to win the respect their activities and passions deserve.

Here, then, is the challenge: Find the unsung engineering heroes of our own times. They may have fought back against impossible odds; they may have elegantly untied a seemingly hopeless knot; they may have inspired others to greater heights and bigger breakthroughs; they may have challenged an unsafe practice or system, at great personal risk, and carried the day. And the world is a far better place because of them.

About the Author

G. Pascal Zachary is a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and a professor at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. His 1997 biography Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (MIT Press) won the IEEE-USA Literary Award and was described as “deeply informed and insightful" by the New York Times. Zachary has the good fortune of living with one of his own heroes: his wife, Chizo Okon. “She's overcome adversity, she's courageous, and she accepts that people are imperfect," he says.

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