Systems engineering: Challenging complexity
Systems engineering: Challenging complexity

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2 What is engineering?

2.1 The development of engineering

Engineering is one important component of systems engineering. In this topic I will examine the development of engineering before presenting a modern view of the subject. Section 3 will then pick up and discuss the idea of systems engineering.

William Shipley, a drawing master from Northampton, was instrumental in founding ‘the Society Instituted at London for the promotion of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’ in 1754. This later became the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and moved to splendid Adams brothers-designed quarters at the Adelphi in London's Strand. The society was to become the inspiration for a number of intellectual bodies based in Britain's fast-growing provincial towns and cities.

Foremost amongst these was the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a group established by 14 prominent local businessmen and others interested in discussing science and technology. Of this society Schofield (1963) states:

More than any other single group, the Lunar Society of Birmingham represented the forces of changes in late eighteenth century England, for the Lunar Society was a brilliant microcosm of that scattered community of provincial manufacturers and professional men who found England a rural society with an agricultural economy and left it urban and industrial. […] Together they comprised a clearing-house for the ideas which transformed their country materially, socially, and culturally within a generation. They were men of broad interests and their discussions ranged widely, but their major mutual interest was the sciences, pure and applied – particularly as applied to the problems of industry.

This characteristic of the group – its intellectual eclecticism – was typical of the pioneers of the industrial revolution and persisted well into the middle of the nineteenth century. For example, Isambard Kingdom Brunei was responsible for the design of bridges, the Great Western and numerous other railways, locomotives and rolling stock, stations, and the steamships the SS Great Eastern and Great Britain (Rolt, 1970).

However, the development of scientific and technological knowledge during the nineteenth century meant that, increasingly, it became impossible for one person realistically to pursue an interest in all subjects. This trend was accentuated by the formation of specialist institutes for each discipline, which provided an increasing array of pigeonholes into which engineers could fit themselves. Of particular significance was the separation of science from engineering and technology. The way that this bifurcation occurred is described in Box 4.

Box 4 The separation of science and technology

It was largely due to the reforming zeal of revolutionary and Napoleonic France that the sciences were first organized into their present, tolerably coherent, disciplines. But there is no question that during the nineteenth century the German universities acquired – and deserved – enormous prestige as the world's leading schools for science teaching and research. The ideal of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), perhaps the main architect of the success of the German university system in the nineteenth century, was that a university should advance pure learning and that students should acquire a love of disinterested learning – research – by carrying it out for themselves under a master who was an acknowledged scholar. Practical or vocational studies, that were suggested to require no more than the memorizing of facts, must be excluded. This was an educational creed that went back to Plato and Aristotle and was congenial to the governing elements of all European nations. But von Humboldt's ideal could never be fully realized. As the century wore on, specialization and the educational requirements – the need for more and more school teachers, lawyers, doctors, civil servants and administrators – of a rapidly developing nation state entailed that the Humboldtian programme was progressively diluted. Nevertheless the university ideal of disinterested learning remained and is strongly upheld today. In this was the notion of ‘pure science’ born. But in practice the ‘pure science’ was defined administratively; it was the science pursued in universities and not in technical colleges. The model of pure science was imported into America, Britain and other countries by the many students who, having studied at German universities, returned home understandably enthusiastic about German science, research and education. The German technical colleges (Technische Hochschulen) and later technical universities could emphasize the importance of free research but they could hardly stress ‘pure’ learning. They, almost certainly, had far less influence on foreign opinion.

This is not, in any way, a criticism of the admirable system of higher education in Germany. The point is this: a large part of the history and philosophy of science, at least until recently, has been formed in the height of German university practice, a practice substantially followed in the rest of the civilized world. In other words, the history of science reveals the effects of external bureaucratic agencies. To some extent, then, the exclusion of technology from the history of science is a consequence of the exclusion of technology from the German universities.

Source: Cardwell (1994, pp. 8–9)

One result of the process described in Box 4 has been that scientists and philosophers of science have been much more active than technologists and engineers, and philosophers of technology. Philosophers of science, from Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and René Descartes (1596–1650) onwards, have always given prominence to the justification of method, and the claims of various approaches to the accumulation of scientific knowledge have been fiercely debated. In contrast, discussion of engineering method has been a relatively recent phenomenon, having arisen largely in the twentieth century and within the context of systems engineering. Philosophers concerned with technology have been content to examine the broad sweep of development rather than examining methodological development at the level of the project (Basalla, 1988), have examined technology within a social context (Kranzberg and Davenport, 1972) or have adopted an overtly polemical approach (Winner, 1977) in a tradition going back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Shelley, 1992 [1818]).

Definitions of engineering are often revealing. Thus R.E. Doherty, President of the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) stated: ‘Engineering is the art, based primarily upon training in mathematical and physical sciences, of utilizing economically the forces and materials of nature for the benefit of man’ (Rae, 1960).

Question 3

What does Doherty's definition of engineering reveal about its status?


This is a definition that does engineering no favours since it is couched almost entirely in terms of other subjects. First, engineering is not a subject in its own right but is an ‘art’. Second, training (notice, not education) for becoming an engineer is mathematics and the physical sciences. Thus engineering is relegated to the status of being about the application of mathematics and the physical sciences to the benefit of humans.

Doherty's definition is typical of many ‘conventional definitions of engineering that suggest that it is the application of scientific principles to the optimal conversion of natural resources into products and systems for the benefit of mankind’ (Sage, 2000). There are two major problems with definitions of this type. The first is that engineering denned as ‘the application of science’ fails to recognise that in many instances a technology has been developed and implemented without any scientific foundation. Second, there are four major resource areas or sources of capital that need to be considered:

  • natural resources, or natural capital

  • human resources, or human capital

  • financial resources, or financial capital

  • information and knowledge resources, or information and knowledge capital.

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