Emily was doubting herself. “How can I lose weight quickly?” she thought as she looked first at her design for the concert screen and then at the stacks of now useless parts. Beyoncé started rehearsing her final song “Remember those walls I built…” in the background, Emily felt sick. To be able to lift the screen into place, she would have to use all her engineering skill to lose weight from the structure with only six hours left.
Dan, the construction manager, wasn’t helping. He always thought he knew best, and he just couldn’t bring himself to accept that the crane wasn’t going to start again. He had his eyes closed, phone pressed to his ear and was talking passive aggressively as he rubbed his shaved head “Just try and start the crane engine one more time. We really need this”.
She tried to think of happier things to calm herself down. She thought of Thomas, then her mind wandered to the camping holiday they were planning. Then she had a brainwave.
Guy ropes! The structure wouldn’t need to be so strong and heavy if we stabilised it with guy ropes! She’d seen a drum of wire outside for the lighting rigs that she could use. It wasn’t perfect but if she re-designed it carefully, the wires wouldn’t block people’s views. She crouched down, and flipped her drawings over, sketching the new design in biro on the back, while resting them on her knee. To check that it was strong enough, she did some quick calculations on her phone, while talking softly out loud and jotting things down “1kN/m2… 6mm diameter wire.. cos theta.. tension force.. bending moments.. expected deflection..”. There that should do it. She’d write it up properly later.
Dan was shouting into his phone “Come on, it has to work! Try again! Switch it off and then back on again!” She took the phone out of his hand, and handed him her new design.
“Here you go, all sorted”
Dan looked like Emily had cast a stupefy spell over him.
“No need to thank me, just some VIP tickets for that box over there will do it. I’ll see you in five hours, I need to go and get changed!”
If you’re interested in structural engineering, you may have found that it’s not the easiest profession to learn about. There are a few sources – there are some organisations that are trying to raise its profile, there are a few good books and some youtube videos.
I found the most helpful was talking to a family friend who was a structural engineer about what it was like. He had trained as both an architect and engineer, worked for a famous company, and then was lecturing and inspiring others by teaching creativity and good design.
But for those who don’t know any structural engineers, I think personal blogs are a good place to start. I’ve found blogging to be a lot harder than it looks, so these people are obviously very passionate about what they do to have been so persistent in writing about it. I hope they open up another world for you.
Being Brunel – I heard the author of this blog – Tom Wallace – speak a few years ago and he inspired me to start my own blog. He’s written something every week for 4 years, which is a very impressive achievement in itself; but more than that he’s said lots of interesting things that I’ve never heard of before, like this blog on Conway’s Law. He’s got some great photos that make it real and some helpful tips if you’re interested in starting your own blog.
The Happy Pontist – I love this blog. HP’s infectious enthusiasm is backed up by an incredible depth of knowledge. Structural engineering is designing how things stand up, which could be for anything, but the particular fun with bridges is that the structure is on display (unlike most buildings for example). Very difficult to pick favourites from amongst the 750+ posts but would recommend this one on one of Robert Maillart’s gem’s in Switzerland, and this piece of one of Calatrava’s bridges that broke the mould.
My Passion for Structural Engineering – Waseem Rana writes this popular blog, which mostly focuses on particular technical challenges with engineering. Probably most useful for if you’re in the first few years of working but it does give a flavour of the maths and science aspects of the job. Particular highlights for me were reading about his passion for what he does, and also some signposts to his other favourite structural blogs. I was inspired by the layout he’s used when I was setting up my own blog.
Civil Engineering Gyan – I enjoyed reading this blog, which is co-authored by Rakshita Nagayach an Indian civil engineer by training, and a prolific blogger (this is just one of hers). She writes on a wide range of topics related to engineering but I particularly enjoyed this post about great engineers. It’s nice to hear a few names outside the British and American ones I’ve heard of elsewhere.
Structural Madness – If you’re lucky as an engineer you get to work at the cutting edge of what is possible, I think that is what co-authors Jinal Doshi and Darshan Pala mean by the name of their blog Structural Madness. For example, some people may have considered it madness when the the Burj Khalifa smashed the world record for tallest building by 300m; but it has proven to be a success. This blog, started when they were both in Grad School in the US is the top result when searching for structural engineering blogs. They tackle difficult concepts but use lots of pictures to make this an accessible way to learn about structural engineering.
If history is anything to go by, then if you want to be a President you should first train as a lawyer or in the military or as a farmer (in that order). In fact of the former professions of US Presidents there have only been four that didn’t come from any of those backgrounds.
Warren Harding was a newspaper editor, Lyndon B Johnson was a teacher and Ronald Reagan was an Actor and then one of them was an engineer! But which one was it?
Well it isn’t Obama, although he’s very keen to inspire more engineers. The Bush’s had both been pilots, Clinton a lawyer, Carter a peanut farmer, Kennedy had been in the navy. So maybe things associated with them might provide a clue? Theodore Roosevelt famously had a stuffed toy named after him. Richard Nixon had a Simpson’s character named after him (his middle was Milhous). And then there was the President who’s name was given to a dam.
That’s right it’s Herbert Hoover! Who went from a career as a mining engineer before he entered politics and went on to be the 31st President of the United States, the most powerful person in the world. And this is what he had to say when he was reminiscing about his former career*:
“It is a great profession. There is the fascination of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper. Then it moves to realisation in stone or metal or energy. Then it brings jobs and homes to people. Then it elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer’s high privilege.
The great liability of the engineer compared to those of other professions is that his works are out in the open where all can see them. His acts, step by step, are in hard substance. He cannot bury his mistakes in the grave like doctors. He cannot argue them into thin air or blame the judge like the lawyers. He cannot, like the architects, cover his failures with trees and vines. He cannot, like the politicians, screen his shortcomings by blaming his opponents and hope that people will forget. The engineer simply cannot deny that he did it. If his works do not work, he is damned. That is the phantasmagoria that haunts his nights and dogs his days. He comes from the job at the end of the day resolved to calculate it again. He wakes in the night in a cold sweat and puts something on paper that looks silly in the morning. All day he shivers at the thought of the bugs which will inevitable appear to jolt its smooth consummation.”
*Thanks to Henry Petroski for the quote!