The Route to Being an Engineer

As one grows older it is impossible to not occasionally reflect on life and ask, “How did I get here?”  I have been on this earth for a little over 70 years, and, I am convinced that, except for infancy, I have probably been an engineer for my entire life.  I don’t think it is a choice or a discipline but rather a “calling” that, while useful, may also border on being a “curse” in daily life.

One of my first recollections from early childhood is somewhat related to the curiosity of being an engineer.  In those days (late 1940’s) there were electrical cords that had two male ends with unprotected prongs sticking out on both ends.  Some appliances had a female connector as did the wall outlet and the double-ended male cord was used to connect them.  Well, the curious kid that I was somehow got ahold of a double ended male cord and plugged one end into the receptacle on the electric stove.  The other end, now live with electricity, somehow got mixed up with the metal pans in a drawer at the bottom of the stove.  Yup, sparks all over the place!  My mother was horrified and scared and of course passed that on to me.  Although I don’t remember trying that again, the rest of my life has been adventure after adventure of pushing the limits of engineering curiosity.

Among other things, electric trains (we all had them then), erector set(s), yes, more than one and, yes, those metal pieces were sharp and could slice off your finger, working in my grandfather’s workshop making buzzers, motors, switching systems, signaling devices etc. and all, I might add, without supervision.  Yup, even the lathe and radial arm saw by the time I was 8 or 10.  Can you imagine any sane parent allowing that today?  Of course not!  But you learn by doing.  I did and I learned.  By all rights I probably should be dead by now after dissecting the old Crossley television to find out how it worked.  A friend of mine (later my college roommate) and I came across a length of multi-pair telephone cable discarded by the phone company one day – maybe 200 pairs and 20 or 30 feet long.  We stripped off the outer jacket and spliced the lengths of twisted wire together until we had enough to run an intercom between our houses which were several blocks apart.  We asked the phone guy if we could string the wire on his poles.  He said, “sure” and even helped us with our effort (can you see that happening today)?  My friend’s mom wasn’t too pleased when she discovered that we could hear every word she said from my house.

I didn’t grow up with a computer, the internet, a hand held calculator or even a fax or Xerox machine.  My only mathematical tool in college was a slide rule.  Before I graduated, the University of Michigan had a centralized “computer center” where you would submit your deck of punched cards then go back 24 hours later to make sure that 2+2 gave the answer of 4.  It was a different world.  I guess what I am trying to say here is that I firmly believe that engineers are born, not made and we should encourage those who have the talent to hone it early in life.  I know graduate engineers who would have no idea how to fix a toaster but are qualified to design machines that automatically drive around city streets.

The “curse” part – – An engineer never stops being an engineer.  I see engineering around me every day and in every way.  I have learned that if I see something that seems “out of whack” it probably is.  If I see something that might fail because it isn’t strong enough or doesn’t seem to be designed right, it probably will.  I have learned to be proactive when it comes to my observations.  If I see a hose stretched across the lawn, I’ll probably trip over it if I don’t roll it up.  Engineering pervades my life.

Finally, I remember how I chose engineering as a profession.  I had always said that I wanted to be an engineer – but little did anyone other than I know that it was only because I wanted to blow the whistle on the train!

 –  FJF  –

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