Sailing Ships, Slide Rules, and the Quality of Engineering

We recently ran a post about engineers being worse, better, or the same than they “used to be” and it got me thinking. Of course “used to be” is in the eyes of the beholders. To me, that’s the 1950s and 1960s. To some of you, my generation is the “used to be” generation. To some of you, I’m past even that.

I’ve often said, there are two things that are simple: something really simple, and something really complex. For example, when a caveman grabbed a log floating down the river and hitched a ride a few miles downstream that was pretty simple. Today, you can go on a well-equipped boat, stab your finger at a map, click go, and the boat will do almost all the work. However, get onboard a sailing vessel from 1850 and you better know what you are doing. What’s more is, some sailors were better than others.

What’s Better or Best?

Were yesterday’s engineers better than today? That’s like asking who is the “best” driver. It depends a lot on what “best” means? Safer? Faster? Most efficient? I would suggest that yesterday’s engineers were better at doing yesterday’s jobs. I own several slide rules and I can use them, but I bet my mentor who finished college in the 1940s was faster. I don’t need to be faster. On the other hand, he might have some trouble doing a good Internet search.

But here’s the problem. Doing basic math is like the caveman on the log (and yes, that begs for a slide rule joke). Asking Wolfram Alpha to solve your set of simultaneous equations is like the modern computer-controlled ship with GPS. You can bet that the sailing master of a barque in 1850 knew a lot more about sailing and winds and ship construction than the average guy on a modern ship. He had to. That gave him extra reasoning tools when faced with a problem.

Slide Rules Do (Most) of the Math

By the same token, using a slide rule is very helpful but–paradoxically–you have to know a little math to be able to use it. In particular, you had to have a rough idea of the magnitude of the answer to get the right answer. If you couldn’t get that concept or do the simple estimate in your head, the slide rule was useless and you probably dropped out of engineering school. Today, you may or may not have that kind of math smarts, and it doesn’t matter.

I’ve know graybeards that keep up with the modern technology. I’ve also known plenty who are stuck in the past, talking about how horrible transistors, or ICs, or software is and how it has ruined everything. Of course, they haven’t.

Lesson Learned

As Gerrit pointed out, we tend to remember the brilliant engineers and projects and forget the bad ones (unless they are really bad). Even in “the golden age” there were good engineers and bad.

So how can you maximize your chances of being one of the good ones when this turns into some kid’s golden age? Two things, I think. Never stop learning the new technology. The hot-shot engineer with the slide rule wouldn’t function as well in today’s world unless he was willing to learn about the new things. But also, learn the fundamentals. You don’t have to know how an engine works to drive a car. But all the race car drivers do know. Having tools to do circuit analysis or solve thorny math equations is a great time saver. But you ought to know how to do it without those tools. The insights you’ll gain will give you more tools at your disposal when faced with a problem.

Engineering is a series of abstractions. Always try to drive down the abstraction layers. Know how to program? How does a CPU work at the logic gate level? Know how that works? Then how do the transistors form those gates? When you understand that, dig into why the transistors work at all. Sure, you probably aren’t going to build a transistor from raw materials. But you’ll gain new insights and those insights will help you solve future problems. Besides, if there’s ever a zombie apocalypse, it might be good to know how to use a slide rule or build a transistor.

37 thoughts on “Sailing Ships, Slide Rules, and the Quality of Engineering

  1. “talking about how horrible transistors, or ICs, or software is and how it has ruined everything”

    These (like all technologies) have only amplified the capabilities of individuals. The problem with giving everyone greater capabilities is that some people will take it for granted and others will abuse it.

  2. To my mind it’s all attitude.

    Do you think you can predict the future? Once you recognize you can’t, you realize that the best strategy is continually learning new things. Especially things related to what you do now.

    A good engineer understands the requirements. the tools and materials available and works to suit. There are lots of things which simply can’t be done with a slide rule and desk calculator.

  3. In summary: don’t be that whiny third grader who asks “Why should I learn math? The calculator does it for me!”, but also don’t be that grumpy old coot who refuses to use a computer “because they break, you know, and then what do you do?”.

    1. If someone is asking for an actual answer rather than a witty quip to avoid homework “Why should I learn math” is a perfectly reasonable question.
      It also reflects that the teaching method isn’t engaging enough. Any math teacher should be able to work in real-world problems to help. “Why should I learn math” should be an easy to answer question, certainly by any math teacher.

        1. They don’t have to be good.
          They just have to have some idea of what they’re talking about. If they’re teaching pre-calc or algebra, surely they must have some idea of what these things are used for. One of my HS teachers had a poster that was a whole table of math subjects & what professions used them.
          Supposing the teach is completely ignorant of the outside world, I’m sure some curriculum wholesaler or teachers workshop could provide canned answers to these individuals.

          1. The poster you mentioned sounds great, but something should be geared to elementary school students. By the time one is in HS often it’s too late to change course successfully. Assuming the kid recognizes the need to change course.

          2. A kid that is quick with math will thrive under any sort of teaching – but most students are not naturally good with this subject and it needs someone that is capable of engaging them. The attitude seems to be, one of treating math like music: some will be good, the rest will benefit from the sidelines. But unlike music, a solid grasp of mathematics, and structured reasoning of the sort that studying math develops, is needed in all walks of life. Much of the public confusion that we witness daily on a number of subjects from health to general economics from an inability of many to grasp basic quantitative thinking, basic statistics and probability, and basic logic. While these folks will never be expected to design a bridge, they are expected to vote.

      1. Grade school (in the US) doesn’t have math teachers. Students have a primary teachers who teaches the same students for the year. It would be nice if the teachers all had deep understanding of both the fundamentals of arithmetic and the needs of their particular grade. But that is a rarity.

        1. Lower grades may not have dedicated math teachers but most states require that they be certified/endorsed in teaching all of the subjects appropriate for those grades. If you can’t think up real world addition subtraction, multiplication & division problems, I question how you function as an adult.
          Upper grades do have dedicated or at least specialized (math/science, english/history, &c) subject teachers. Definitely by high school there are specialized math teachers who by virtue of their schooling should have some idea of what types of jobs, if not specific examples, of real world problems solved by higher math.

          I place at least as much blame on the curriculum and text the district follows. Obviously not every teacher has the spare time to hunt down real world examples but the district as a whole certainly does have the time and money to find a few canned answers or intriguing problems.

          1. Yes, secondary school requires a certification, or the administration can provide an emergency cert if you are in a related field. I have them for AP physics, chemistry and math. I got them after I was 50 and had worked in Silicon Valley and done R&D instrumentation for Intel and some other places and I found practical and physical problems to be crucial.

            The current math curriculum is both free form in that it is student directed group cooperative activities and also very structured with many many pages of bullet-point lists for lesson planning. The ‘spiral curriculum” and most of the others in math are truly moronic. Only the youngest straight-from-ed school teachers can enjoy it because they don’t know any better. And even understanding how to teach it is difficult as it skips around from matrix multiplication to linear programming to quadratic equations … and then starts over a little deeper. And that is in the 9th or 10th grade. There is never any real depth or an expectation of understanding. The theory is that the kids will discover it on their own. They are expected to discover – with as little direction from the teacher as possible – the last 5000 years of mathematics. A ludicrous waste of time, money, and lives. This is the general approach in the US now. The social group problem solving skill is placed highest in regard. It works so poorly that some districts are returning to a lecture + examples + homework old-school style but with a new name, “directed learning” or something like that. The group cooperative thing is obviously about building particular social skills that the professional ed community thinks are important. It goes back to Dewey. And yes, the Socialist/Communist Dewey people still dominate the schools of education. Some of the school districts around the country have finally realized they have been played yet again, after having ruined another couple of generations of students.

          2. I have a Master’s in EE, however I would not be allowed to teach elementary or high school in the US. Instead, schools must hire someone who can barely add, but has taken all the fluff courses to get a certification. It’s the fault of the teacher’s unions who are only out to protect their jobs.

    1. Not to diminish the “value engineering” that certainly happens, but in part, things were “engineered” to be robust historically because that was easy. Look at residential building construction for example. Evolution from carpenters piecing together rough-cut beams in ways that “looked right” and /or were proven with time, to standard lumber (2x4s that were actually 2″ x 4″), again with fairly conservative design, to 2x4s that weren’t actually 2″ x 4″, to “engineered lumber” made of wood chips and glue and boards, and “engineered” roof trusses. Each stage uses material more efficiently, and is easier and cheaper to produce. The end result is houses that only give you a couple minutes to escape in a fire, but that’s not the variable that was being optimized. The point is, that’s merely a side effect. Nobody in 1816 was doing FEA on the roof structure or calculating wind loading on the walls of a house, they just put the walls up with 8″ square columns because “that looks like it’ll hold pretty good.” Turns out that wood is generally pretty strong, so you can engineer away a lot of it, leaving you with a structure that’s “just strong enough” instead of “really really strong”.

      That said, on the value engineering front, a couple friends and I have mused about it before, and come to the conclusion that we wish we could buy products that cost 10% more where the last 10% of value engineering had never been done.

      1. I had to do it!

        I met my old math teatcher and said “remember when you told me that I wouldnt be carrying a calculator with me everywhere I went” and then I whipped up my smartphone…

        With that said, I do most of my calculating and guesstimates in my head, and thats still an important thing to learn.

  4. There is also the fact that there are now 10 (*X) times as many engineers so it is possible to collect enough evidence to demonstrate whatever bias you like to make your deceptive point look valid when the over all proportions have not necessarily changed. This is the same phenomena as we see in the media where 24/7 reporting of global news makes many people feel as if the world is an increasingly dangerous place to live in when a rational analysis based on statistics shows the reverse is true,

  5. Having survived a land navigation training that depended on your ability to use a compass and know how many steps it took to travel 100 meters, I can say that, in the jungle, at night, a good gps is worth at least three Cutty Sarks.

    1. All you needed was two people and 50 m of rope, the first person walks until the rope is tight then the second person walks to him and on until the rope is tight again, they will then be 100 m from where they started.

        1. I have. They taught basic surveying skills in the army as a means to pinpoint yourself on the map without a GPS, and it involves pulling the idiot rope through the bushes from a known point to your unknown point to aim your artillery. An error in your assumed position results in an error in the target position, which can be eliminated by subsequent firing corrections – assuming the error is small and you can actually see where the grenades land.

          But it does involve a team. Two guys running the rope, one guy walking back and taking angle and inclination measurements, or at least trying to. On the first try we were off by 400m after 8 km through the forest, which incidentally put our assumed position right on the company mess hall – so the next time we had a picnic lunch 400 meters outside of it.

          You pick the longest clear view you have, like to the branch or trunk of a tree in the distance and send one guy up there to shake that branch or hold up a canteen on a stick, or blink a flashlight or anything. You take your bearing to it and send the rope team on their way, and pace yourself as well to double check, and then have a good old guess.

  6. The original 7 liberal arts, the classics and such so you learn how to think.
    See “A Thomas Jefferson Education”.
    Grammar, Geometry, Arithmetic, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Astronomy, Music.
    I don’t advocate STEM for high school, I advocate a classical education homeschooled. There are plenty online. Read any of the 8th grade textbooks from 1870. Most college students couldn’t get through them.

    Even if you aren’t for a well rounded education, you still need to keep your curiosity, learn how to learn, to question everything (especially ANY current dogma like climate change and evolution – pick it apart and see if it holds up).

    Keep questioning, checking your premises.

    A good source is freedomainradio.com where Stefan Molyneux – a philosopher – has evolved on many issues. The problem is many will reject his positions but he meticulously has reasoned through them.

    And it is ok, and even good to disagree – if you can identify the reasons you disagree, something which if testable it can be found who is right, or if it is unknown because we don’t know how to answer it, we can at least agree that both sides are perfectly honest about it.

    That is the greatest tragedy today – too many places are far more dogmatic than the Inquisition and do purges (e.g. Brendan Eich at Mozilla). Tolerance is gone. Discussion is gone. We virtually burn heretics. But heretics are expressing a different view – we don’t consider it our fault for not providing convincing arguments, only that they are hateful, dangerous, horrid people and must be destroyed.

    That isn’t what happened even between Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams that completely disagreed on a lot of details and specifics, but thought everyone had the right to think and speak.

    Think deeply and freely. Explore. Understand.

    1. You had me up to homeschooled, though your larger point is accurate (I’m not familiar with the person you reference, so I can’t comment on him or his methods, etc…). I used to work closely with homeschooled students and their parents as an educational consultant (it was a short-ish stint between engineering gigs… interesting work, but not my cup of tea). Believe me when I say that it’s not the method (homeschool vs private school vs remote public school vs in-person public school vs whatever), it’s the instructors.

      Maybe two parents in ten are even capable of successfully homeschooling their kid(s), and that’s just on a bare-minimum basis. A classical education with rhetoric and logic can be had in a private school setting (secular or religious) with a much higher likelihood of success than in a homeschool setting. Homeschooling is fraught with disadvantages for most students and most parents in most scenarios.

      Worse still, homeschool parents are in near-complete denial about their own inadequacy as instructors… and that was what ultimately drove me back to the structures and systems of engineering. Facts don’t lie, but optimistic naivete can spin a hell of a self-congratulatory yarn.

      Odds are good that any parents smart enough to recognize the need for a classical education are capable of somehow affording a classical education in a classroom setting, in most scenarios. The classroom setting is a hugely vital element of the success of a classical model and shouldn’t be discounted. Unless you’re in the middle of the plains and the closest school is 50+ miles away, you really shouldn’t be giving serious consideration to homeschooling.

      Modern homeschool parents are vastly under-equipped, though they don’t realize it. They are *not* the homeschool-like parents of the past (long before it was called homeschooling), especially when it comes to classical education… which ties back into the larger topic here, sort of.

      But yes, a classical education is a rare and valuable gem, and it lends itself toward great success for the recipients thereof, especially in the big-picture sense of the sciences that we’re discussing here.

      In the absence of exceptional educational good fortune, another great advantage for success in the sciences (or the arts) in one’s formative years is mentorship. The more mentors the better. Good mentors will atone for a great number of educational disadvantages, and they’re widely available for the earnest asking.

      1. I saw a comic once who said something like: “I loved high school. I was class president and head cheerleader and homecoming queen and voted most likely to succeed. I was home schooled.”

      2. I largely agree, Rob, but homeschooling today is often not necessitated by life out on the prairie but rather that the local public school is at least inadequate or at worst downright dangerous. It is very possible to be a dedicated parent and acquire a curriculum from a legitimate institution that improves the odds of success. I would agree to caution against jumping into it without a clear idea of what it takes. Parental obligations aside, to replace a decent faculty and provide a supportive social environment with a few spare hours a day is difficult. Not like sailing across the Atlantic by faith that you generally head West and you’ll hit land.

    2. Also, your claims of climate change and evolution being “current dogma” betray a larger agenda… Throwing such inflammatory language around doesn’t help your case or endear you to your audience.

  7. Nope it is not a rant, It is the best advice for any kid (or pro) who ventures into just about anything. Thank you Al Williams. Title should be Technology and You. Great perspective.

  8. Even though a zombie apocalypse is pure fantasy something like a Carrington class CME,or high altitude nuclear detonation is a very real possibility so it might be a good idea to keep some of those old skills alive.

    1. Carrington event, yea; but an extra-atmospheric EMP initiator requires a nuclear great power nation state economy with the ability to not only design and build a working megaton class h-bomb but also the rocket tech and miniaturization to get it to altitude. An advanced nuke program means you can get it into space with a small or crude rocket, but unless they get the blueprints from China there is no way that North Korea is going to be building a rocket worthy EMP initiating h-bomb anytime soon, even boosted fission is just not enough particles and energy to get a useful weaponized EMP burst.

  9. When I took the mandatory freshman quantum mechanics course at Caltech about 15 years ago, the professors had to decide what to do about the prolific use we students made of Mathematica to navigate the calculus involved in solving wave functions. They had many discussions with the students to decide what to do.

    To their credit, the professors opted to allow us to use this new tool. But they also increased the difficulty of the problem sets. Now, instead of solving 4-hour sets by hand, we had to solve 4-hour sets with the aid of Mathematica to augment our speed. Some still did it by hand (there were several literal geniuses in our class). But for the rest of us, we HAD to use the computer’s capabilities to keep up with everyone else.

    1. I should say, it wasn’t that the volume of work had increased, it was that the difficulty was higher. Many of the problems had to be broken down into sub-problems that the computer could actually solve. This required a more advanced understanding of mathematics on our part than you might think.

  10. I don’t believe engineers from the past were objectively better (or worse) than today’s.

    Living beings are great at adapting. A given species of plants might thrive in a range of different climates, some animals will adapt to different food sources. Human beings are the most adaptable, because we can not only use our tools to adapt better to the environment, but also use our tools to adapt the circumstances to us.
    Evolution gave us all these tools: technology, knowledge, ubiquitous and broadband access to knowledge. We use these tools to be able to do more in less time, and to better conform to different scenarios. That’s just natural.

    You can find a very good doctor, specialist in finicky brain surgery, who would be pretty much useless if you take away from him all his fancy surgery tools and assistants. Or if you send him to Africa and he has to remove a brain tumor using only a dull kitchen knife and stitch using dental floss. It doesn’t mean he’s bad, it just means that his skills were honed in a way he’s more productive in other conditions, with the proper resources. Given enough time, he’ll eventually adapt and learn new ways to do his stuff even with constrained resources. And those two last sentence holds true for any of us.

    A building made ages ago might require a handful of engineers to do all the drawings and calculations. Cad and simulation tools currently allow a single engineer to do all that work in much less time and with more reliable results (because computers are less prone to a miscalculation than humans). This doesn’t mean that this single engineer wouldn’t be capable of doing it the old fashioned way, it just means that he has more efficient means to do so (and he’s doing it that way mainly do it cheaper, which is how our economy model pushes the industry). The flexibility such tools provide is responsible for much of the convenience and technological evolution of our society, which allows engineers to focus on specializing deeper while offloading much of the “dumb” work (drawing, calculating, etc) to more powerful and precise tools – such as computers, CNC cutters, laser soldering robots, etc. It doesn’t mean the engineer *can’t* learn and do things in the old fashioned way, it just means there are better means to do so, and these means are reliable enough that this guy can depend on them for pretty much his entire career. And new tools are bound to appear, prompting him to keep improving his skill set – so we’re not only adapting ourselves to the new circumstances, but also changing these circumstances as evolution happens, at an increasingly fast pace.

    We could still be using combinational logic to do our digital circuits. I learnt how to do such circuits at uni, it’s good to know it can be done that way, and it can even be eye-opening to learn how it’s done. But frankly speaking, it’s mostly useless. Most engineers who graduated with me (or later) have never done a combinational logic circuit after they were done with uni, because it’s so much quicker, easier, cheaper and flexible to do it all in a MCU or FPGA.

    If there’s an engineer who knows everything about triodes and pentodes and whatever else they used prior to transistors, is his knowledge useless? Certainly not. He could repair expensive vintage equipment, he could work for hi-fi audio manufacturers. But outdated tech is niche by definition, so it doesn’t make sense to demand knowledge about pentodes from a recently graduated EE. On the present day, that guy who just graduated is much more likely to have a better return of his learning efforts if he’s dedicating his time to become a better programmer, or if he’s memorizing the architecture and registers of the latest arm mcu. He probably would be screwed in an hypothetical apocalyptic scenario where the jack-of-all-trades know-it-all old engineer would fare much better, simply because the young guy didn’t had to adapt so much about the lack of resources as the old engineer – but these resources/tools are the very thing that makes him able to do tricks that the old guy can’t.
    None of these scenarios make neither of the engineers better (or worse) than the other one. It all just comes to show that their skill set lets them adapt better to different scenarios. Given the current society provides a very non-apocalyptic scenario most of the time, it just makes sense to adapt better to this scenario and be the most productive we can with the tools we have available. If I want a job today, I’d certainly rather be good with MCUs instead of pentodes. And if the apocalypse ever comes, I’ll make sure to keep that old guy around so I can learn something from him.

    (Excuse any mistakes, English is not my main language)

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