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zdas04 (Mechanical) (OP)
13 May 04 0:19
There was recently a thread in another forum from a student asking for opinions on "What is the Greatest Achievement in Engineering" of all time.  The thread in that forum violated several of eng-tips rules and was inappropriate.  But it got me thinking what really was the greatest engineering achievement of all time?  Was it one of the early efforts of developing the wheel or the lever?  Was it the U.S. space program that spun off so many wonderful new technologies?  Was it the computer?  Was it the aqueduct's of Rome?

What is your perspective on the greatest achievement in engineering of all time?  All answers must be justified and defended there is no "right" answer, but I hope there will be many "wrong" answers.

PSE (Industrial)
13 May 04 8:14
Personally, I am not fond of "greatest or worst of all time" statements and would rather use a "greatest or worst to date" type of statement.  Not being omniscient, I could not say what lies in the future.

Historically, the first thing that comes to my mind is the capability of creating fire.  It allowed the expansion of humanity into previously uninhabitable regions of the world, was needed for metallurgy, and was the "candle" that sent mankind into space.

aspearin1 (Chemical)
13 May 04 8:22
I wouldn't call fire an engineering achievement, moreso a "scientific" discovery.  I would consider rocks and clubs to be more of an engineering achievement, and the early developement of tools, those which enable primitive man to take down his first mammoth.   

ChemE, M.E. EIT
"The only constant in life is change." -Bruce Lee

TheTick (Mechanical)
13 May 04 9:13
Perhaps fire was a discovery, but the various means of igniting, controlling and maniulating fire are engineering achievements.

Perhaps the bow drill then, or flint?

Due to illness, the part of The Tick will be played by... The Tick.

ScottyUK (Electrical)
13 May 04 15:13
May I suggest the following candidates to be shot down or defended as you wish:

The clock, without which we would have no measure of the passage of time, and thus no measure of velocity, frequency, and so on.

The wheel, from which so many other devices are descended: the sprocket - or cog to electric lads like myself, ha-ha; the pulley; the paddle wheel; etc.

The turbine, invented by a genius from my hometown, which provides motive power to power plants, ships, aircraft, locomotives, etc.


Never look down any at anybody, unless you are helping them up.

patprimmer (Publican)
13 May 04 17:40
Are we talking about the greatest achievements, like building Pyramids, Aqueducts, Great Walls, or putting a man on the Moon, or most important, like devices to help make fire or the wheel, crank arm, discovery of electricity, gunpowder.

Are we talking about single endeavours like building a particular pyramid, or the evolution of knowledge, like the science of making metals, and the resultant ages of history.

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EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
13 May 04 18:03
In terms of a classic piece of engineering by a small number of individuals, involving research, invention, development and manufacture, I think the Wright brothers' achievements have got to rank right up there. In terms of more recent efforts, I can't make up my mind whether the development of the V2 rocket or the Apollo program was the greater achievement. The former unfortunately depended on slave labor for its rapid progress, but the latter derived in part from the former, and was in some ways primarily an organizational and political triumph - a bit like the modern equivalent of pyramid construction.
GregLocock (Automotive)
13 May 04 20:35
I'm just looking at Akin's Laws of Spacecraft Design.

Rule 1 (Engineering is done with numbers) seems to apply, so inventing fire and the wheel don't really qualify.

I think the Wright brothers were an excellent example of organised engineering research, I'd be interested to see how Brunel went about things, I suspect he was far more ad hoc.


Greg Locock

EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
13 May 04 21:45
Well, if you haven't read it, I can recommend "Isambard Kingdom Brunel" by L.T.C. Rolt. It would make a great movie, if done by some director along the same lines as "Titanic". I don't think it would be fair to call him "ad hoc" on the basis of that book. But you could argue that he was a bit "over the top" and maybe went "a ship too far".
GregLocock (Automotive)
13 May 04 23:11
Read it a long time ago. He definitely went an atmospheric railway too far!

Hmm, I wonder when bridges started to be designed as opposed to copied?

And of course there is an argument that the Gothic cathedrals were designed mathmatically, although I think it more likely that a variation on Gaudi's method of weighted strings is more likely.


Greg Locock

EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
14 May 04 0:05
If by design you mean "design using modern scientific principles", I would guess some time during the eighteenth century, when the scientific contributions of the likes of Galileo, Hooke and Young were becoming more widely circulated. But not surprisingly, these early scientifically designed efforts were often not as successful as other contemporary designs by self taught men like Telford.
I personally think that the "greatest achievement" should involve some sort of ratio between the quality of the engineering and the total number of people involved in it. This would probably rule out things like the moon program, but not necessarily the pyramids, since they may have been concepted by a relatively small number of individuals. Of course, it is arguable how much "engineering" in the modern sense was involved in such ancient projects.
patprimmer (Publican)
14 May 04 0:35
I think engineering is engineering, whether or not it uses modern techniques. The quality of the engineering is reflected by the outcome. The Pyramids must rate high, as they not only had to design them, but also erect them, which involved getting very large stones into very difficult positions, like, from the quarry to the peak of the pyramid. All without engines nor electricity.

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EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
14 May 04 1:09
Well, it's amazing what you can do with 20000 slaves, and actually the blocks weren't that big as megaliths go - between 2 and 9 tons each. To me, that's more of a logistics triumph than an engineering one. On the other hand, not far away is the much earlier valley temple, which has some megaliths weighing over 200 tons. Nobody has the slightest idea how these were manoeuvred into position - a real engineering mystery if you ask me.
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
14 May 04 1:26
By the way, don't get me wrong - there is a lot of interesting megalithic engineering in the great pyramid, (see for example, but to me the engineering wonder of it derives from the fact that it was probably the work of relatively few ingenious minds, not the shear scale of the enterprise.
Helpful Member!(2)  25362 (Chemical)
14 May 04 7:03
Yes, I think engineering is a science. A science by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made (directly and indirectly) useful to humans in structures, machines and products.   

In addition to the great enginering feats already mentioned I'll add the making of paper (2000-3000 years ago) and later on printing. These were the vehicles to convey the inherited legacy of knowledge through ages and places.

As for energy, the making of steam, steam machines and steam transportation of goods and people merit a high place in the list of engineering achievements. Steam power eased the production of electricity and electronics, which carried energy, information, ideas, light, and images everywhere.

One is compelled to think about the future, whether mankind would, at last, become the master of its fate, for better or for worse.
GregLocock (Automotive)
14 May 04 7:17
So, who agrees with Akin, ie you have to do mathematical analysis to do engineering?

I guess I'm looking at the early steam engines, which I strongly suspect were designed purely on an ad hoc basis. Later on, people got very good at designing steam engines analytically, but they were dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.

This is where the Wright brothers scored, they cascaded requirements down to each sub system, and recognised the interactions. In contrast, Brunel worked on robust systems where poor performance in one subsystem did not prevent the entire thing from working, usually.


Greg Locock

Helpful Member!  jmw (Industrial)
14 May 04 7:52
we need first to define what we mean by "achievement".
any artificial construct  
any artificial construct that serves a useful purpose
any artificial construct that serves its purpose and advances engineering
and so on.
We might incude the pyramids because they fire our imagination (party because they seem so ambitious a project compared with our perception of the skills available) and the question of the extent to which slaves were employed is debated....some suggest that in a river culture with wealth, and a large permanent population with largely seasonal employment that it is a bit like the CCC in America. But let's not go there.

We might also disqualify projects such as the pyramids and the great wall of China on the grounds that as engineering achievements they failed.... or that they are still here long after their useful purpose was served (unless you count tourism, which surely wasn't in the design specifications). Imagine if 4000 years from now all our engineering achievments are still cluttering up the planet.

So we might consider that we are looking for something that has endured. The wheel surely fits that bill and fire is a discocvery, but while the bow drill might be legitimate, who uses it any more. Actually, since we don't have a planet full of useless bow drills, it might be valid. Fint and steel are certainly still available and used.

Size and age surely aren't sole criteria. Velcro could prove pretty enduring. After all, the principal is an enduring part of nature. (copying from nature is OK by me).

I personally don't think mathematical ability or draftsmanship are necessary qualifications. It is the mind that is the important tool.

We might consider earthquake proof architecture.... in which case the Chinese can lay a claim.

Perhaps we should include a "before their time category" for successful engineering projects. By this I mean those projects that we tend to think of as fitting within a particular technological era. For example, drilling for natural gas... again we give the prize to the Chinese for their gas wells in 970BC (i think, but in this comment on salt production from evaporation we have at least 200BC:


If not I'll put forward my original suggestion temporarily which is the wooden wedge, invaluable in quarrying the marble for the great sculpturers. When driven dry into a crack in the stone and then soaked in water it employs hydraulics and not brute strength for its action.

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aspearin1 (Chemical)
14 May 04 9:56
Why the pyramids?  They are a world wonder and architectural feet... but what purpose do they really serve?  Entomb some old rich guys?  Chart the heavens?  Channel electromagnetic energy to aliens robbing us of our natural resources?  To be an engineering achievement, I think you should have to go beyond that of pure marvel and keep with practicality and pervasiveness of the invention.  Keeping with the spirit of the Wright Brothers, I'm going to go with the bicycle.  From my understanding, the bicycle is still the most efficient form of transportation, turning the human engine into a rolling machine.  What other machine could move 200 lbs. at 25 mph for an hour using only a cheese sandwich and water for fuel?  Emmissions consist of CO2, H2O, heat, and fully biodegradable solids.  And if you think about it, the invention really hasn't changed much.  Sure, there are variations on the theme and advancements in materials, but a bicycle is still as recognizable today as it was yesterday.

As far as math goes, there are many industrial practices that cannot be completely modelled mathematically.  Human comprehension simply cannot grasp all the unknown variables.  But experience, intuition and ad hoc methods have kept these systems going.  

After successfully overcoming a processing obstacle with a co-worker, he asked me, "what does the math look like for this?" I told him, "I don't care what the math does, if it works."  Don't get me wrong.  Lot's of math goes into these things, but it's not the end-all predictor.  It's usually the initial selection criteria (1st law of thermo), but after that comes experimentation (data analysis with math), intuition, and sometimes ad hoc methods.  

ChemE, M.E. EIT
"The only constant in life is change." -Bruce Lee

Helpful Member!(2)  IRstuff (Aerospace)
14 May 04 10:46

Obviously, the greatest engineering achievement is this site; where else would we go to discuss this weighty question?

EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
14 May 04 14:10
The problem I have with the bicycle is that it sort of "evolved", and to me "achievement" tends to imply some major contributions by individuals, although I can't logically justify that position. And it doesn't seem to fit Akin's and GregLocock's "requirement" (if there is one) about mathematical analysis, since the mechanics of the bicycle are quite subtle and were not really fully understood until relatively recently. I'm willing to bet that the Wrights had a better engineering understanding of flight than they did of bicycles, even though that was their main business. I'm not sold on the pyramids either.
JAE (Structural)
14 May 04 19:28
GregLocock (Automotive)
14 May 04 21:06
Hey I'm not 100% convinced by the 'it is only engineering if it is analysed' argument myself.

The Great Wall was just an organisational exercise, I don't think it is essentially any different from building a garden wall in technology. The Pyramids were different (by the way you got their main function wrong, they are markers for the approach to the landing strip for UFOs) because of the difficulty of handling such large blocks of stone.

How about:


Feedback circuits


The Otto engine

Watt's steam engine


Greg Locock

EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
14 May 04 22:04
GregLocock: Well, yes, it is difficult to handle large blocks of stone, but that "enabling technology" (whatever it was) seems already to have been in place before they started building pyramids, since the (reputedly) much earlier "valley temple" near the sphinx has even larger (200 ton) blocks than any in the pyramids. It's a bit like crediting the moon program with all the rocket technology which had actually already been developed. One of the things I find interesting about the pyramids is that they got better and better, peeking with the great pyramid, and then gradually deteriorated in technology - the final ones were just mud brick. That is so reminiscent of many other products we make today.
zdas04 (Mechanical) (OP)
14 May 04 23:29
OK, we get back to Newton's "One is only great when he stands on the shoulders of Giants".  I think we need to find a revolutionary (as opposed to evolutionary) step.  James Burke's "Connections" PBS series was really big on showing how everything we see today had logical connections back to the stone axe or some such.  Is there anything anyone can think of that represents an "AHA!" in engineering like Galleleo had in clestial mechanics?

ScottyUK (Electrical)
15 May 04 6:13
Radio, perhaps? It was a quite amazing achievement to discover and demonstrate that a funny-shaped wire could transmit a signal to another funny-shaped wire some distance away without any direct connection.

Does this discussion extend to include physicists as well as engineers? For example, the work of Newton, Einstein, and Maxwell to name just a few. Not strictly 'engineering' achievements, but they laid the foundations for engineers to build upon.


"Never look down any at anybody, unless you are helping them up."

Jesse jackson.

patprimmer (Publican)
15 May 04 9:03
Getting back to Newton.

His development of calculus gave engineers the basic mathematical tool to do complex calculations.

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EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
15 May 04 11:19
Regarding Newton, I think the revisionists are now of the opinion that Liebnitz was as much, if not more, responsible for giving us calculus in the form we know it today. If one were to go back in a time machine and kill both of them at birth, I suspect that calculus books today would look pretty much the same if you killed Newton, but not if you killed Liebnitz.
But this is mathematics, which some have defined as "the science of patterns". If one defines engineering, as most do, to be applied  science, not science itself, how can you define any mathematical development to be an "engineering achievement"? As with most things, one has to agree on definitions first, before they can really be discussed logically.
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
15 May 04 11:58
How about "The Atomic Bomb"? Most people would regard this as a "scientific" achievement, but I contend that it was largely engineering, and there has always been a deep connection between weapons of war and engineering in any case. The late Richard Feynman once said that almost everything they did at Los Alamos was in fact engineering, not science. Of course, the engineering was being carried out mostly by eminent scientists, not engineers. But most of what the majority of scientists spend their time doing is actually engineering anyway.
desertfox (Mechanical)
15 May 04 15:11
Hi zdas04

I think the construction of Stonenge in Wiltshire is a fantastic engineering feat, try this link:-

regards desertfox
25362 (Chemical)
16 May 04 1:43
Whether Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (e goes before i) or Newton were the fathers of calculus is, to my grasping, immaterial; both made major contributions, and the bitter dispute of so long on who preceded whom shouldn't worry us.

I think EnglishMuffin is right on the subject of definitions, engineering is a science, and science involves the application of mathematical reasoning and data analysis to natural phenomena. Science is "per se" applied although it doesn't always seem so.

On the other hand, mathematics, the study of shape, quantity and dependence, can be applied or pure. The former arises from the study of physical phenomena, the latter from the intrinsic study of mathematical structures.

Am I right ?
jmw (Industrial)
16 May 04 8:25
We might also reflect that mathematics is not absolute and has a rather more philosophical view of itself.

One of the earliest Greek philosophers refused to countenance any real world use of his philosophies (the educated among you will remind me who). Engineers who so thoroughly use mathematics are using math as a tool and are free from the philosophical considerations.

We might also consider Pythagoras Theorem, even though it is actual a proof for which he is famous. The "theorem" existed long before that, and was a vital engineering tool.

This tells us that while mathematicians are obsessed with proofs that define the limits or extent to which a theorem is true, engineers are concerned with the usefulness in everyday circumstances.

We can reflect that mathematicians are not without the human touch. Fermat’s last Theorem has now been converted into a proof; but no-one seems to comment on Fermat’s claim to have had a proof, perhaps in deference to the esteem in which he is held: the proof has required extensive use of "new" mathematics unavailable to Fermat.

We also should consider that mathematics has its own "king’s new suit of clothes". All proofs are based on previous proofs. “And so ad infinitum?” No, at the heart of mathematics are some axioms. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points etc. Sadly, when it was decided to look at these axioms and see if they too were not capable of being proved, it was found that they could not be. A bit like Schrödinger’s cat? Except that they did open the box and possibly wished they hadn't since they don't know, and now know they can't know, if the cat is alive or dead. This, it seems to me, reduces the whole of mathematics to a great big theoretical structure.

This definition of axioms is a hard one to swallow:

I think it was Russel (; who was involved in this work (still looking).

Euclids work ( suggests that modern math is founded on 2000year old “presumptions”.

So engineers use mathematics as a tool in the practical world. The results are tangible and viable. The mathematics behind them may not be quite so sound? I wonder if we are ever going to see a “Non-euclidian” branch of mathematics, much as we have Newtonian and Non Newtonian.
We already have Null A (non-Aristotelian) thought and this is probably more useful to us as engineers along with Edward De Bono's works on letaral thinking, as a means of "thinking outside of the box".

This, then, bears on the argument that a "greatest" invention or discovery would be something not evolved out of existing thought. That is going to be hard since many "discoveries" or "inventions" appear, with hindsite, almost inevitable once their time has come. Witness the counter claims about Leibnitz and Newton, about who invented TV or the electric light.

Is there an invention that goes beyond conventional mathematics, beyond the current development paths in the accepted diciplines?

Any ideas?

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25362 (Chemical)
16 May 04 11:18
I'd venture that Chemistry has introduced over the ages some inventions that weren't the direct result of using mathematics. Do you agree ?
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
16 May 04 12:59
25362 : Well, I may be right, but I am NOT saying that engineering is a science. The subject is highly controversial, since the whole issue of what constitutes engineering versus science, or even science itself, is partly a matter of lexicography and partly a philosophical issue. There have even been eminent scientists who had the audacity to claim that only physics was a science, and that subjects like biology were really just "reverse engineering'. In the face of what appears in some cases to be intellectual snobbery, it is doubtful that any consensus can be achieved on the subject.
The following includes an interesting discussion of the origin of the term "engineering". Be patient - it takes a long time to come up.
IRstuff (Aerospace)
16 May 04 19:22
This whole question is rather nebulous and will never come to a reasonable conclusion, ala Animal Farm.  

Consider the human body and the person.  Is the heart more important or more monumental than the brain?  The whole point of standing on the shoulders of giants is that the sum is greater than the parts.  

The greatest achievement is that we got to this point without, yet, catastrophically damaging ourselves or our world.


GregLocock (Automotive)
16 May 04 20:57
"We can reflect that mathematicians are not without the human touch. Fermat’s last Theorem has now been converted into a proof; but no-one seems to comment on Fermat’s claim to have had a proof, perhaps in deference to the esteem in which he is held: the proof has required extensive use of "new" mathematics unavailable to Fermat."


Not true. The proof that has been offered is rather ugly and involved. There has been a lot of discussion about whether Fermat had a better approach, or if he had made a mistake.

Now that they know it is true there is a fair amount of effort going into reverse-engineering Fermat's possible solution.


Greg Locock

EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
16 May 04 23:06
Quite agree. Even if his proof was not rigorous, he must have had some brilliant insight in order to propose such an "off the wall" conjecture, which probably nobody would have even thought of trying to prove had he not proposed it. Just knowing what that insight was would be fascinating. Even we non-mathematicians might be able to understand it, although Sir Andrew Wiles probably disapproves (I think I heard him say once that Fermat could not possibly have proved it in his time). But I don't see how any of this can be a "great achievement in engineering", since at best it qualifies as science. I personally think science and mathematics have to be off limits for this particular accolade.
 The problem is, even science textbooks are full of inventions which in their day were unquestionably the work of engineers. Does one categorize lasers, say, or transistors, as engineering or science ? Certainly lasers could have been created by engineers using the known physics principles of the time, even if the inventors were actually both physicists. For most people, that fact puts it squarely in the field of physics. But as far as I am aware, lasers don't exist in the natural world (although I expect someone will correct me with an obscure example), so that ought to qualify their invention as an engineering achievement. The triode vacuum tube on the other hand was invented by an engineer, and seems to be generally thought of as an engineering creation. One might note that Lee de Forest was sneered at a little by physicists because they said it was a lucky accident and he really didn't understand it properly. So it's all a very controversial and ego-laden subject indeed.
JAE (Structural)
16 May 04 23:46
I would say that a good definition of engineering, is the USE of math, science, chemistry, statistics, etc. to create something real, tangible, and beneficial to the world.  Sort of using the "general" sciences for something specific that I can touch or see.

NSPE some years ago had a slogan for E-week:

"Engineers - Turning Ideas into Reality".
25362 (Chemical)
17 May 04 6:51
To JAE, there are exceptions to all rules; sometimes creation of something real and tangible such as an atomic bomb is indeed an engineering feat but no so beneficial to the world or to civilization.
Maui (Materials)
17 May 04 10:08
Mother nature provided the world with the ultimate engineering accomplishment when the first living cells were created billions of years ago. And the rest, as they say, is history.

EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
17 May 04 13:29
25362: The contention that the atomic bomb has not been beneficial, at least in the short term, is controversial. If you draw a graph of the number of people killed in combat versus time, it rises exponentially, but with a precipitous drop after 1946. In my view, the jury is still out on whether familiarity, nuclear proliferation and terrorism will eventually prove that phenomenon to be an ephemeral anomaly.
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
17 May 04 15:15
Maui : Personally, I don't think the definition of "engineering accomplishment" should extend to trial and error approaches, such as the development of Edison's electric lamp filament, and the appearance of living cells. Of course, that assumes that one accepts that the appearance of living cells at least on Earth  was a random chance event, of which I am not totally convinced, even though I am a confirmed non-theist.
JAE (Structural)
17 May 04 19:00
EnglishMuffin - I would agree with you.  In fact, I thought of two responses to 25362.   First, the term beneficial is a subjective term in that what is beneficial to one person may be a detraction for another.  Hitler's panzers were beneficial to the Nazis.  They were not for the French and Belgians.

Second, I agree that the A-bomb is a topic that many many people jump to unfounded conclusions based on a lack of thinking.  Yes, it is a horrible weapon but you can argue with facts that it has saved lives.
jmw (Industrial)
17 May 04 20:12
The atom bomb just illustrates again that there is a time when some things are inevitable. As we know, the race for the atom bomb was only narrowly won by the allies. ANd both sides had jet fighters at the end (I liked the ME262a, a great looking aircraft then and now)

Developing the atom bomb in the 15th century would be astounding, in the 20th century, less so.

The arguments put forward that we should consider something that is a great leap of inspiration and not born out of its times means we are looking for something anachronistic. A contender for this might be Leonardo Da Vinci, (who else?) some of whose designs seem to satsify this criteria (there are some who have suggested he might have been a time traveller!) but taken by todays standards, well what did he invent that we could consider great in its own right?

Frankly, this is going to be a "no clear winner" we are going to be setting ourselves a target for something that doesn't exist.

Some people are going to object to any approach we make to defining the terms of reference for this choice. I guess that means we should all just put forward our favourite inventions, the reasons why and accept that it won't be the worlds greatest invention. Otherwise we will have more "greatest inventions" than World Boxing Championship titles.

So is say, put up your favourites, say why and we can all hope that we can learn something.

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EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
17 May 04 20:54
I wondered when somebody would mention Leonardo da Vinci. Like Edison, he was a self taught and incredibly brilliant and prolific inventor. But neither of them impress me as outstanding engineers. I think Tesla (Edison's employee) was a superior engineer, and in the case of da Vinci there is no convincing record that many of his inventions were ever made and debugged. Today, he would probably be one of those annoying people who have hundreds of patents and make money from intellectual property disputes.
25362 (Chemical)
18 May 04 1:19
Let us remember what two giants said:

Henri Poincare (1854-1912): "Science is built of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house."

Albert Einstein (1879-1955): "Science can only state what is, not what should be."
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
18 May 04 3:29
The two remarks are to some extent contradictory, since it appears that Einstein is saying that all science can do is state the facts, whereas Poincare seems to be saying that science is more than that.
 The trouble is that the architecture of Poincare's "house" keeps changing, as science goes through paradigm shifts occasionally. About the only thing you can be sure of at any time are the equations of physics, (insofar as they have been verified) rather than their interpretation. For example, you can adopt either "Lorentzian"  or "Einsteinian" relativity and get the same results - at least in regard to the experiments that have been carried out to date.
 And Einstein, whose name by some strange coincidence translates into English as "one stone", was as guilty as anyone of stating what he thought science "should be". On making his famous remark that "God does not play dice", one famous physicist (I forget which) told him to stop telling God what to do.
Actually, I have been reading a couple of books recently about Lorentz, Poincare, Einstein et al :
"Einstein the incorrigible plagiarist"
"Anticipations of Einstein in the general theory of relativity" (both by C.J. Bjerknes).
They make very interesting reading.
jmw (Industrial)
18 May 04 5:46
Da Vinci's designs have proven iresistable to a certain type of TV show and so many of them have been lavishly recreated. Many appear to work. Some appear to have been "interpreted" and made to work.

The point about Da Vinci is the same as for Babage (whose diference engines have been built, were huely expensive, but do work... no imaginative interpretations, the Science Museum in London paid the bills.)is that they are actually great examples of poor engineering.

What is a good engineering design:
(a) one that will do the job for which they are intended
(b) one can be manufactured
(c) one will be saleable

As i think has been said, engineers are practical folk. Time wasting doesn't figure high in the attributes of a good engineer.
So we might not be able to knock the inventiveness, but as an excercise in futility, many stand the test of time.

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JAE (Structural)
18 May 04 11:51
In the above quotes I see Poincare as dealing with the efficiency and good stewardship of engineering, while Einstein is launching into ethics.  Two totally different subjects.
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
18 May 04 12:18
JAE: You see Poincare as dealing with engineering ??  Regarding what Einstein's quote actually means, it seems unclear and it would help to know the context. Perhaps someone could enlighten us.
IRstuff (Aerospace)
18 May 04 14:51
I don't see any contradictions with those two quotes.  

Einstein was a scientist. His "what is" would have included general and special relativity, which certainly encompassed more than just "facts."


EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
18 May 04 17:12
Well, if you take "what is" to be equivalent to "facts", I see a very big contradiction. But these sorts of quotes are always ambiguous - it's difficult to say what they mean out of context, or even in context sometimes. I also think quite a bit of science today does in fact amount to "wishful thinking", and often consists of what a number of leading lights think it "should be". A number of inconvenient facts which don't fit into the current paradigm (which I interpret as Poincares "house"), are simply ignored. Of course, this has happened before in earlier times, but the nature of science is such that eventually there is a paradigm shift and it self-corrects.
IRstuff (Aerospace)
18 May 04 23:11
That's why some logic must be applied.  

Einstein was a scientist and as such would not have considered science to be only about "facts".  

What Einstein did object to was the concept of God playing dice in quantum physics, wherein the concept of what might be is a cornerstone of quantum behavior.


EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
19 May 04 0:11
Well, perhaps we should leave the last word to Nietzsche, who said "There are no facts, only interpretations".  

jmw (Industrial)
19 May 04 4:38
Before we get to Wittgenstein or Goethe, I'd like to say that anyone reading these threads will now understand why some engineering meetings go on for so long.

We agreed the project, split it into two and now we're discussing the metrics. You've just gotta have metrics.

Once we've agreed the metrics we can take a break for coffee.
Then we can start to look at possible sollutions.

However, if it takes one man a year to build a wall, how long does it take 10 men?
This is a meeting of over 1600 engineers so I'm going to send out for a mega-grande and tell them to keep it coming.

(PS the wall building question ain't that simple. I tried this argument on our chief engineer to see if he would get some contractors in or contract some of the work out. He didn't budge. He said it was a linear development.)

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PSE (Industrial)
19 May 04 8:05
How many threads have been started on just trying to define engineering?  Some of them still have posts being added.  If you consider discovery part of the engineering process (I do), you are also (in part) a scientist.  The ability to take it to the next level and make it practical for use involves engineering.  Hence my suggestion in my first post, the ability to create fire.  There are arguably many other key creations.  We speak of the stone, bronze, iron, and nuclear ages.  The wheel, flight, the semi-conductor, the laser, genetics, the lists can go on and on.

zdas04 (Mechanical) (OP)
19 May 04 9:38
Maybe you've hit on the essence.  What caused the transition from the bronze age to the iron age?  Was it one key revolutionary engineering development?  Was it a group of developments?  The change from the nuclear age to the information age seems to be pretty clear that it was one big step (we can argue about exactly which one was the big step) and go-zillions of smaller (but still major) steps.  

That is what I was looking for - the epoch changing developments.

David (Staff)
19 May 04 10:14
"The epoch changing developments."

To apply numbers to this question would seem a good idea.  The first number would be the IMPACT (I) of the achievement and the second number the REVERBERATION (R).  Apply them on a 1-10 scale with 10 being the highest.  Add the two together and you have a way to QUANTIFY the accomplishments.

Define impact on the achievement itself.  Define reverberation on how many OTHER people were influenced in their thinking to create/engineer other things.

For instance:

Pyramids 7(I) + 2(R) = 9
Fire  1(I) + 10(R) = 11
Wright Brothers 6(I) + 6(R) = 12

Anyone else care to monetize their suggested greatest engineering accomplishment?

Helpful Member!  Focht3 (Geotechnical)
19 May 04 15:45
Roman Aqueducts
I = 10
R = 4
Quantified Value = 14

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BJC (Electrical)
19 May 04 16:11
Right on, and when they used the water they had a sewer system to get rid of waste.  Serwers and sanatation systems have to rank high as they have probably save more lives than any two other things combined.
flamby (Structural)
20 May 04 6:19
Roman Aqueducts
I = 10
R = 4
Quantified Value = IR = 104 (Roman Maths)

Why, may I ask, is there a need to separate science and engineering where they are intertwined so inseparably. If you allow that, Newton's achievement of discovering laws of motion stands tall, both in science and engineering, as the sustaining basis of all modern science & engineering.
25362 (Chemical)
20 May 04 7:35
Don't forget paper making.
Helpful Member!  EddyC (Mechanical)
20 May 04 8:55

A Civil Engineering colleague of mine said that clean water supply systems and sewage systems have saved more lives than anything else, by preventing disease.
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
20 May 04 12:27
flame: Depending on how you define them, science and engineering do not have  to be inseparably intertwined. But for the purposes of this discussion, it is only necessary that they be  defined, either as one and the same or not, otherwise the answers cannot be compared since they are all responses to different questions. Of course, I suppose you could argue that we are not taking a poll, and everyone is being careful not to come up with the same answer anyone else has, in which case it doesn't really matter, but this might seem a rather vacuous exercise to some.
 In regard to "Newton's" laws of motion, the first and most of the second are due to Galileo. I am not sure whether anyone else anticipated the third - I'd be interested to know. And in the form that they appear in nearly every textbook today, they are somewhat illogical, since the first is simply a corollary of the second. An important adjunct of Newton's to the second law relating to the parallelogram of forces is also completely omitted. I have only ever come across one advanced textbook which attempts to correct these deficiencies. Since the laws have achieved almost religious significance, the attempt was obviously doomed to failure, although you cannot argue that the usual elementary textbook forms are fathful to Newton either, since they usually make no mention of momentum. I do think Newton must be credited with the remarkable insight that everything in mechanics could be explained with just these laws, and that there weren't any more. To me, that is his great achievemnet, rather than the laws themselves.
25362 (Chemical)
21 May 04 7:47
When speaking of the laws of motion, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton and Einstein should each be considered as laying a step in the rising stairs of knowledge.

Galileo and Newton both showed that the Aristotelian commonsense observation that rest is the natural state for objects on Earth was wrong, and (philosophically) shifted towards uniform motion as a natural state of things. It was Newton -when studying motion- who, with his first law, emphasized not the cause of motion but the cause of changes of motion.

This cause is the net force, F (i.e., the sum of all forces acting on a body) quantified in Newton's second law of motion by equalling it to the rate of change of the body's momentum p (velocity v multiplied by mass m). As long as the body's mass doesn't change, the law can be written:

F = dp/dt = d(mv)/dt = m dv/dt = ma

Any change in the velocity vector -either in magnitude or direction or both- represents an acceleration (a).

Newton's third law of motion states that forces always come in action-reaction pairs. The second and third laws together permit a consistent description of the motions of interacting objects.

It was Galileo's idea of inertia that resulted in what is called the principle of Galilean relativity, which states that the laws of mechanics are valid in all frames of reference in uniform motion. Its ultimate meaning being  that there is no way of using the laws of motion to answer the question "am I moving?", since with respect to the laws of motion, the question is meaningless; only relative motion matters.

Einstein showed that our commonsense notions of space and time are not quite right, and in the process he was able to extend the principle of Galilean relativity to all of physics in his special theory of relativity.

As a result all equations of motion (including those of Newton) are really only approximately correct; they work well for our everyday experience, and even for spacecraft probing the solar system, but they break down when relative speeds approach the speed of light.
zdas04 (Mechanical) (OP)
21 May 04 9:22
So to get back to Dave's framework, would you give Newton a 10 on Impact and 10 on Reverberation?


David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering
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25362 (Chemical)
21 May 04 10:30
I believe it would be reasonable to give Newton a 20 (=10+10) using Dave's scale.
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
21 May 04 10:58
zdas04: I think a more interesting question is what would you award Einstein? And are we in any case awarding the individual with an achievement rating or are we evaluating the theory with which they are associated, but are not necessarily fully responsible for ?
25362: (1) As far as I am aware, nobody to date has ever shown that "Newton's" laws are anything other than 100% correct - although it depends on how one defines the "m" term. To make them consistent with Lorentzian or Einsteinian relativity it is merely necessary to replace the "m" in the second law with Mo/sqrt(1-v^2/c^2), where Mo is the rest mass. If one takes “m” to be the apparent mass as recorded by a stationary observer, they are 100% correct without modification, as far as is presently known.
(2) If one defines Newton’s second law in the form F = d(mv)/dt with no further qualification, then Newton's first law is simply a special case of this with F=0 (see Synge & Griffith – Principles of Mechanics, 3rd Ed). If the second law is expressed in this modern algebraic fashion with no further qualification, as in most textbooks, there is no reason to suppose that the case "F=0" is excluded from the second law. Newton, however, used Latin, and considered the case of F=0 separately from the non-zero case, perhaps in deference to Galileo. Incidentally, I have yet to see a convincing explanation of why the original English translation of Newton's second law makes no mention of a rate of change of momentum, but only a change of momentum. He also says that twice the force produces twice the momentum, which seems ambiguous to say the least, and would hardly get one full marks in a modern examination. Perhaps it is all the fault of the translators.

EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
21 May 04 12:57
Some further comments :
   Only zdas04 can know exactly what he really had in mind when he posed the question “Greatest Achievement in Engineering”, and presumably we must defer to him in the event of any disagreement. He appears happy to include the whole of natural philosophy within the purview of the term “Engineering”- which I don’t agree with, but it’s his question and he can define it any way he wants.  He also appears content if we take “Greatest Achievement” to mean “most important events”, or something of that sort, and Dave’s numerical formulation appears consistent with that, if we assume by “impact” he means “immediate impact” – otherwise it’s something of a tautology.
    But personally, I prefer to interpret the question in what I take to be its literal sense, which to me is the more interesting question, although of course it is a far more controversial one.  For instance, I consider the Wright brothers (et al) efforts up to 1909 to be one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time, not least because there were only two of them, plus al, (just kidding) and they were so methodical and scientific in their approach and worked extremely quickly. However, at the time, they had almost no impact (because they were so secretive) and few of the detailed contributions which were unique to them  have stood the test of time, so I would give them a fairly low reverberation score also. If impact and reverberation alone are to be the yardstick, a la Dave, then to answer the original question honestly one would have to evaluate where we would be today if the Wrights had never been born – which is a very difficult and controversial exercise. Just how controversial can be gleaned from the following, for example: .  If on the other hand, one’s reply to the original question was “The development of flight”, that would undoubtedly have high impact and reverberation scores.
zdas04 (Mechanical) (OP)
21 May 04 13:20
I'll pass on the Einstein question because I am after all quite a coward.

I will take a shot at the second half of your question.  I'm looking for the forum's opinion of the "Greatest Achievement in Engineering".  

Many of the accomplishments that are attached to a specific name really represented things that previous work in many fields had made inevitable - and the person who got tagged with it just had the best PR.  The best example of this was mentioned above with the "invention" of calculus.  Most casul observers would say with certainty that Newton was the "inventor", but it doesn't take much research to put that "fact" into question.

As I said above, I think that the "winner" of this silly exercise (that I'm really enjoying by the way) will be some discovery/development/invention that brought about a "sea change".  Personnaly, I don't care that Newton's "Laws" were mearly a re-hash, re-statement of previous work.  What I'm interested in is the fact that codifying the description of the way that the universe works in response to a specific set of forces enabled the development of much of what we call "engineering" today.  To use Dave's term, that is some "reverberation".

EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
21 May 04 13:42
Well, I don't think it's silly if it leads to some interesting discussions. I do think Newton's "Principia" is one of the biggies in science - the laws of motion were only a tiny part of this monumental work, which has to score big on impact and reverberation (and personal achievement) - it changed the whole mind-set of science. (It doesn't have much to say about calculus by the way). But as I said, I don't consider science to be engineering. Actually, Newton wasn't a bad engineer either - the reflecting telescope is one example. By some accounts, he started out as a kid making small mechanical models.
25362 (Chemical)
22 May 04 1:40
To EnglishMuffin, I agree in that the laws of physics, among them the cornerstone "conservation of momentum", don't change in special relativity. However, I was taught decades ago as follows:

1. The relativity factor (gamma) you rightly mention is meant to correct the definition of momentum, not the rest mass. The right definition of momentum should be p=mv/sqrt(1-v2/c2). It is the increased momentum at high velocities (near the velocity of light "c") that makes the forces needed to change these velocities impossibly high.

2. Newton's second law expressed as p= mv would predict the momentum (as well as the force) to increase the velocity of a particle from rest to 0.01c, or from 0.98c to 0.99c, to be the same. The Newtonian expression would, incidentally, be sufficiently accurate at the low speed, but far off mark at the higher speeds.

3. The Newtonian expression for kinetic energy K=1/2 mv2 bears little resemblance to the relativistic K=(gamma-1)mc2. Only when v<<c can the latter be converted into the former expression. When adding the rest energy expressed by the popular equation E=mc2 we get the total energy Etotal=gamma.mc2.

Would I be wrong all along?   
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
22 May 04 14:31
25362: This is all way off topic, but I did not say anything about "correcting" the rest mass - the rest mass in Newtonian physics is the same as the rest mass in Einsteinian relativity. The definition of momentum in Newtonian physics is exactly the same as in Einsteinian relativity and needs no correction. The only thing that changes is the interpretation of m. The following two quotes are verbatim from from Lectures in Physics by Feynman:

p15-1 : Newton's Second Law, which we have expressed by the equation F= d(mv)dt, was stated with the tacit assumption that m is a constant, but we now know that this is not true, and that the mass of a body increases with velocity. In Einstein's corrected formula m has the value
m = Mo/sqrt(1-v^2/c^2)

p15-9 : Momentum is still given by mv, but when we use the new m this becomes

          p = m*v = Mo*v/sqrt(1-v^2/c^2)

End of quotes.
The only thing I am quibbling with here is Feynman's use of the word "corrected" on p15-1 - I think the word should simply be omitted. The "tacit assumption" mentioned by Feynman is his, not Newton's. The m in Newton's second law can actually be a fixed or variable quantity.

Actually, if you listen to the original CalTech recording of Feynman’s actual presentation of this lecture on relativity, he begins jokingly by saying that all you have to do is make the substitution  m = Mo/sqrt(1-v^2/c^2), and then says “that’s it – end of lecture !”

The following quote is from "Einstein plus two" by Petr Beckmann:

"Let me take this opportunity to dispel another myth, namely that Einstein's theory contradicts Newton's laws. .....Newton never took the m out of the parenthesis in d(mv)/dt, for he was too careful a man to ignore the possibility that inertial mass might be variable. When Einstein introduced velocity dependent mass explicitly, he did not have to change one iota of Newton's laws of motion for any part of his theory; that he developed it in contradiction to them is one of the numerous fables surrounding the Einstein theory".

You may of course object that Petr Beckman was "merely" a professor of electrical engineering, but that does not prevent him from being right in this particular case, whatever you may think of his writings in general.

One of the problems with relativity is that a lot of it has become overlaid with metaphysics, which I think this demonstrates.
25362 (Chemical)
23 May 04 3:59
Newton's second law indeed showed force F=dp/dt, nevertheless F=ma is a more widely recognized formula.

I wonder whether Newton had the insight to rightly believe that momentum p -not mass, m- is a physical fundamental property.

Newton's times were too early to know that mass can be reduced by releasing energy. One would have to wait until the 20th century and Einstein's relativity to start considering the mass-energy equivalence.   

One more thing to put things in proportion. Newton's laws are laws of inertia. As such they don't apply on accelerating frames of reference. As when we try to throw a ball while standing on a whirling merry-go-round. We'd have trouble in getting it where we wanted. A merry-go-round is a rotating -and therefore accelerating- frame of reference and Newton's laws wouldn't hold.

Strictly speaking Earth's rotation makes it also a non-inertial (accelerating) frame of reference. Oceanographers and atmospheric scientists take this fact into account when studying the large-scale motions of oceans and the atmosphere.

It would be a slight exaggeration to say that F=ma covers all of classical physics, but it helps analyse a sky-scraper's response to gale-force winds, predict the position of planets and the timing of eclipses, and develop better tennis rackets. It lets us predict the motion of objects; as a result, for example, we can send a spacecraft to Jupiter, design new aircraft engines, or determine the safe distance between cars on a highway.
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
23 May 04 13:08
Whether or not Newton had any particular insight, and the fact that Newtonian physics as a whole has been superceded, are both beside the point. I simply state that Newton's laws of motion are as valid post Einstein as they were before. It should also be pointed out that you can use F=d(mv)/dt for accelerating rocket calculations (where the rocket mass is continuously changing), as well as for Einsteinian mass change situations - so it is quite conceivable that he could have been thinking of such a thing. However, his definition of mass might leave something to be desired, since it has been criticized by some as being circular.
xnuke (Electrical)
23 May 04 13:10
I think the last few posts have gotten off the topic of the thread.

In my opinion, the greatest achievement in engineering was the conversion of what is essentially a paraphrasing of the scientific method into something that could directly affect systems without human intervention - automatic feedback. Of course, being a controls engineer, I'm a little biased toward my field.

In the scientific method, a physical phenomenon is observed, a hypothesis developed, it is tested empirically, and refinements are made to the hypothesis. This is an iterative process that uses feedback.

A control system senses a physical phemomenon (a change in the process variable), determines a required response mathematically/logically, and adjusts the system to cause it to exhibit a desired behavior. This is also an iterative process that uses feedback, and I think it parallels the scientific method fairly well.

There have been many examples throughout history of engineering successes and marvels, but my favorites are those in the field of controls. Many things are built so robust that they can stand up to disturbances (think buildings and wind gusts), but those that can automatically compensate for disturbances never cease to amaze me (think the automatic leveling of the Kansai airport terminal in response to its uneven sinking into the man-made island on which it sits).

Most of the technology today would have never been developed without the idea of feedback. The idea is used in many fields, not just those related to technical accomplishments. Movie studios screen their films to test audiences and make adjustments before releasing the final cut. Students fill out end-of-term critiques on their classes and professors. The Federal Reserve makes changes to interest rates to tweak the economy of the U.S. All are forms of using feedback to adjust a system, but control systems can do it all automatically.


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EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
23 May 04 13:41
Let me be the first to agree with you - probably my fault. But sometimes the meanders in these threads are more interesting than the original question. At least we were still talking about history.

"....the greatest achievement in engineering was the conversion.... ".  So when in your view did this conversion first occur? (just interested - I'm a little hazy about the history of the development of automatic controls).
jmw (Industrial)
23 May 04 18:35
I would guess that if I suggest the fly-ball governor as an example of automatic speed contro, i will get clobbered by some one with an automatic mechanism from way back when.

Same with flow measurement, for example. It's a fair bet that the water cultures depended on some form of flow measurements and indeed, in Ancient Egypt we have the Shaduf as one method for quantifying the amount of water removed from the Nile or irrigation channels by each cultivator (the Shaduf being a bucket on a counter-balanced pole) and we also have the "Nilometer"  a graduated "stick" used in the nile rapids for open channel flow measurement. Not as sophisticated as today, I understand, because their math is not believed to have been up to the flow equations but good enough for empirical data use.

We will find this for most proposals i think, a difficulty isolating one product in a developmental sequence that probably goes back through the centuries and is interdependent on numerous other inventions.

Be nice to find something that stands out alone as a sudden an unexpected achievement that is evidently a leap of imagination. For pyramids we have them as the evoltionary achievement of all sorts of structures including the earlier mud pyramids. They didn't spring fully formed and perfect either, the first pyramids had a habit of slumping if the sides were too steep. Clearly an evolutionary learning curve.

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25362 (Chemical)
24 May 04 5:57
As a corollary (I hope final) to EnglishMuffin thoughtful remarks on Newton's laws.

EM is right when treating mass as a variable as for a rocket ejecting fuel, or for a body approaching "relativistic" velocities (close to c). In my previous post I just referred to the interconversion of mass and energy.

The motion of rockets or satellites is indeed related to the fundamental physical principle of conservation of linear momentum that has been derived from those laws. When no external forces are applied, the second law tells us that F=dP/dt=0, thus P = constant.

The principle of conservation of linear momentum in a system of particles (using the concept of center of mass), is even more basic than Newton's laws in that it applies not only to rockets -or everyday subjects like hydraulics, sports, etc.- but extends even into the realm of subatomic and nuclear physics -as in radioactive decay, particle scattering, etc.- where the laws and even the language of Newtonian physics are hopelessly inadequate.

Coming back to the main issue in this thread Newton's laws are indeed a monumental achievement in mechanical physics, if only when looking at the extremely useful derivations humanity managed to develop from them.

jmw (Industrial)
24 May 04 8:37
I think that as tool of phenomenal power, the telescope is a candidate:


Hans Lippershey (c1570-c1619) of Holland is often credited with the invention, but he almost certainly was not the first to make one. Lippershey was, however, the first to make the new device widely known.

Why? because it's a very powerful tool. As a reult of this beginning, other similar tools were developed that enable the universe to be examined throughout the electromagnetic spectrum.
This has had a profound impact in the fields of astronomy and cosmolgy.

It is only in recent years that we are make our first tentative steps to extend our physical reach to the nearest planets.

Engineers are, by and large, touchy feely folk. The tangible artifact is something that can be deconstructed, evaluated, measured, re-constructed and thoroughly understood directly through our senses.

But it is the ability to discover so much about the universe simpley by looking through a bit of glass is amazing.

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patprimmer (Publican)
24 May 04 9:15
After further studying the mood and direction of this thread, I am now convinced the answer is 42

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jmw (Industrial)
24 May 04 9:38
I didn't think the question was that profound.

Though it does seem we will be a few millenia arriving at an answer.

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zdas04 (Mechanical) (OP)
24 May 04 10:31
Just watch out for white rats, right?

quark (Mechanical)
24 May 04 10:51
To me, whether engineering is science or not, seems to be a linguistic problem rather than a scientific one. We first have ideas and expressions and then languages are spoken subsequently for ease of communication. As a part of any subject gets elaborated due to research, the part becomes a separate entity and gets a new name.

Though Newton made passing references to frames of reference in his works, I don't think keeping 'm' inside the differential justifies this. Mass will never change with respect to time in any frame of reference. If we have to consider, in force equation, the variable mass then it should be partially differentiated with respect to velocity and then the entire thing to time to get acceleration(excluding light velocity).

Feynman, obviously, was the best scientist of contemporary USA(as he himself declared) but I doubt his authenticity in psychology or other subject(I don't want to be ironic by saying science). In my view, it is not good to judge any subject till it gets developed. For example, differential calculus was first used by Archimedes and because of idealogical false hoods of Plato(that approximation can never be part of math), it couldn't see the light till 18th century.

In my view, Automobile is one of the greatest inventions.


EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
24 May 04 14:33
Well, Quark, now that you bring up Feynman, I'm not sure that it's "obvious" to everyone that he was the best - although he was for my money. But why don't I ever run into people like him in strip clubs? These "best" and "greatest" and "science versus enguneering" arguments will have no end, but Feynman himself does seem to have made a clear distinction between science and engineering. In "Lectures in Physics Vol 2", he is talking about the gaps between the iron in an electric motor rotor and stator, and says "...closing the gaps and making the thing work in the most practical way is engineering. It requires serious study of design problems, although there are no new basic principles from which the forces are obtained." It is true that he says in Vol 1 that "psychoanalysis is not a science: it is at best a medical process, and perhaps even more like witch doctoring", but he was not so dismissive of psychology in general. Feynman originally planned to be an electrical engineer, but quickly changed to physics after going to university. But it is quite clear from his writings that he always had the greatest respect for good engineers, unlike some physicists.
jmw (Industrial)
24 May 04 16:02
Maybe we should include some abstracts in our consideration.
Fenyman made good use of negative time. Historically, zero and infinity were pretty hard concepts to swallow at the time but are pretty essential to our thinking today.

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Helpful Member!  corus (Mechanical)
25 May 04 6:01
When looking at greatest achievements in engineering it's best to look at each discipline.
In terms of mechanical engineering the automobile has to be no. 1, particularly for the versatility of the drinks holder design that allows young children to get their foot trapped.
For electronic engineering it has to be the mobile telephone, allowing the woman almost instant confirmation with her mother that she married a complete idiot.  
For civil engineering it has to be the UK's Stonehenge, probably the first example of a roundabout, something the egyptians never quite got the hang of.


25362 (Chemical)
25 May 04 9:21
A note to quark's observation. While dealing with rockets their mass M is indeed differentiated with respect to time. Naming the fuel velocity as vex, from the principle of conservation of momentum -in the limit-
Mdv/dt = -vexdM/dt

where dM=-dm (using dm for the mass of fuel ejected)

The right hand-side expression is called by rocket engineers the thrust of the rocket, and is a measure of the force accelerating it.

Playing around with both sides of the equality, we get:
dv = -vex dM/M, and integrating both sides between initial and final conditions we obtain:

vf = vi + vexln(Mi/Mf)

and since Mi = M+m > Mf, this equation shows what was expected, that the speed increases as the rocket ejects fuel.

The mass ratio sets the limit for the maximum achievable (terminal) speed from fully loaded to fully empty fuel tanks.

The equation also shows that, for a given mass ratio, the terminal speed can be increased by increasing the velocity of the exhaust gases.
quark (Mechanical)
25 May 04 10:31
I meant it with respect to the frames of reference with varying velocities and particularly Newton's perspective about relativity. Anyway thanks. I learned one new thing.

PS: I deliberately omitted Radioactive material from my post


IRstuff (Aerospace)
25 May 04 12:46
Most of the model rocket engines do not have constant thrust.  The actual thrust curves some in all sorts of shapes:
  >Triangular shape
  >Spike followed by constant
  >BIG spike followed by constant
  >This one actually is close to constant

links from:


EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
25 May 04 23:26
I think the development of the rolling element bearing has been a very remarkable and important engineering "achievement", although it has been a very gradual development over a very long period of time. Just how important they had become by mid twentieth century was demonstrated in WWII, when the US came very close to wiping out half of German ball bearing production with the Schweinfurt raids. Although they were unsuccessful, with modern guided weapons, they would have done it and brought fighter construction to a standstill. And just how old the basic concepts are was brought to light by Mussolini, when he supported the draining of lake Nemi in the 1930's, revealing two huge Roman ships from the time of Caligula, which contained among other things some large thrust ball bearings, and some thrust taper rollers with pintle cages. How ironic it is that the museum containing these was sadly destroyed by the retreating Germans in WWII - they were more successful in destroying the archaeological remains than the Allies were in destroying their distant descendents.
unclesyd (Materials)
27 May 04 18:51
You fellows have it all wrong.  
When this thread first started I asked my wife what was the greatest thing invented or developed that she could think of.  As we happened to be on the way to Wal-Mart she quickly said the shopping cart.  Just I today received my latest "Invention and Technology Magazine" and there is an article on the shopping cart.  “The Shopping Cart” by Curt Wohleber     The invention that made “Giant Economy Size and Super Store" common words.

On the more serious side is an article called "Inventions That Really Stuck" by Jim Quinn.  It talks about the current crop of 20 inductees into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. A few you know and some not known except in their fields.  
Can you link the names to the accomplishments
Luc Montagnier                    Cable
Edith Flanigen                      Aids
Harry Coover                       Insulin
Ray Dolby                            GPS
Bradford Parkinson               Sewing Machine
Ivan Getting                         Super Glue
Charles Kelman                    Pulse Code Modulation
Fredrick Banting                   Hypertext and Internet
Charles Best                        Zeolites
James Collip                        Digital Technology
Vannevar Bush                     Insulin
Wallace Coulter                    Food Preservatives
John H Gibbon Jr                   Insulin
Lloyd Hall                             GPS
Elias Howe                           Sugar Production
Claude Shannon                    Particle Counts
Bernard Oliver                      Heart Lung Machine
Norbert Rillieux                     Sound Improvement
John Robeling                       Cataract Surgery

This are mostly American Inventors but everyone one in the world had been effect by their work.
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
27 May 04 19:05
Well, I suppose one could start another discussion about whether "great inventions" were necessarily "great engineering achievements". Mind, you, I'm not necessarily saying that some or most of them aren't. By the way, I think that last one should be spelled "John Roebling" (suspension bridge cable).
unclesyd (Materials)
27 May 04 19:28
I grant you that some inventions fall out from under the umbrella of engineering on the first pass but nearly all required engineering input to implement whether it was  electrical, chemical, mechanical, or other.  Most engineering accomplishments are not from a single entity, but are the results of a team, group, or a cluster from many disciplines.  
You will find that the EOR standing on top of something in his engineers boots (shinny) and campaign hat smoking the Marlboro cigarette did very little of the engineering work on the work shown in the background.  
They don’t take our pictures.

As you mentioned Roebling, there is little mention in literature of the people that designed and built his wire rope machines.     
jmw (Industrial)
27 May 04 19:43
I don't think we can include the shopping cart, even if they ever fix the wonky wheel problem.

And maybe the possibility that they gave rise to the supermarket is another good reason.

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25362 (Chemical)
28 May 04 4:55
EM said something en passant as "under the umbrella of engineering" and that brought to mind the umbrella (or a rain-proof parasol) as a valuable old invention...

EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
28 May 04 11:33
You are mistaken. It was not I, but unclesyd who mentioned "umbrella of engineering".
unclesyd (Materials)
28 May 04 16:04
I could have make your day a little better if I had reported the next article was about the development of the electrical guitar and amplifier.

I think don’t think one can say that there is one greatest achievement in engineering.  Each event in the world of engineering  has a different meaning or affects different people in varying degrees, some good, some bad.   The engineering event’s place in the realm of things depends on one’s vantage point that point in time and subsequently how it affects one from that point foreword.

The mechanical application of Newton’s laws has had very little to benefit to my life other than allows me to be under the threat of rocket attack and getting hit by a higher velocity bullet among other bad things.  Gravity for me is and will always the same and I know through empirical analysis that if I wreck at 60 mph it will be much worse than at 30 mph.  Now,if I could convince my grandson to work on his bat speed Newton would come into play.  He is just out of the ninth grade and doesn’t know who Newton is much less how his laws affect his baseball playing.

If I would take some of the inventions in respect to engineering from the list presented,  one of the greatest achievements of engineering to me would be the engineering that went into the mass production of the different insulins available today.  My father spent half his paycheck every week for insulin for 19 years until his death.  I take insulin and my cost per unit is approximately 1/20, in real dollars, of his cost and with health insurance even less.   Adding to my list is the Heart Lung Machine and the engineering development that went into perfecting it.  It allowed me to have bypass surgery which without I would have been given a supply of Morphine and sent home to die.  An interesting twist now is that engineers of several disciplines are trying to relegate the Heart Lung Machine to the sidelines by development of the Laproscopic surgical procedures.
I like The Dolby enhanced sound and have read of the amount of engineering work that was needed to bring to fruition.   I will always appreciated the engineer, technician, or chemist that first stuck his fingers togather with Super Glue.  When I cut my finger wood carving it is a wonderful development of a chemical process to make the glue that puts my cut back togather.
If I take Newton again in respect to GPS, granted his laws allowed the engineer the tools to development and deploy  the system but it required a tremendous engineering input to be implemented in the way it is today and will continue to be improved by engineering.  GPS has been a great benefit to a lot people including myself but has been terrible for the fish.  When I started fishing we had a 45 Ft wooden boat which  would make 5 knots take hours to get in the vicinity of a desired position using only a compass and bottom sampling for navigation.  Later a 200 pound Loran set got us within a 1/4 mile circle.  Now we have a 45 plastic boat with a high speed diesel, a product of untold amount of engineering,  that will run 45 knots and with a GPS set (1/4 lb) that makes it possible to get within a 4 meter circle.   
Add Newton to a locally developed bomb and couple it with GPS running is the better option than hiding.

Roebling’s cable allowed the development of beautiful great suspension bridges, we don’t have many in this area, but it also allowed giant high rise buildings to be built in the wrong place.  Might have to pass some blame to Mr. Otis for overcoming some of Newtons work.  Roebling’ s cable has contributed to  marvelous feats of engineer in many areas.  When I started in industry,  right outside my office building was a process operating at 6250 psig and some fairly large equipment and quite impressive and somewhat worrisome.  Then in less than four months later I visited Exxon in Baton Rouge and my first question was how in the world did they engineer and construct such huge equipment.

What would the price of gasoline be today if not for Zeolites.  But one has to think of the engineers and all the engineering that went into those giant things to hold all of them and the engineers that figured out how to recover all the heavy crudes  with all the bad stuff and transport them to these vessels.     

I don’t think the engineer or their achievements have ever gotten the credit deserved even from their own peer group due to emphasis put on the bottom line by management whether it be king or CEO.   With few exceptions a working engineer isn’t rewarded for their input on project other than their normal compensation.  There is little or no credit for the great engineering work being done today.  One point is the skyscraper where all you hear about is the architect not the engineer who came up with the development of the steel frame to support the upper levels instead of the masonry/stone support in use at the time.   How about the engineer that came up with the solution to flushing a toilet on the 80th floor of the Empire State building without sucking all the water out every toilet below and destroying the pipe at the lower levels.   

If a story I read is correct, Newton was deep down an Engineer.  As the Royal Society was debating how many teeth a horse had by comparing it to all other similar animals Newton being a new inductee and not wise to ways of the society got up, went outside to the hitching post open the horse’s mouth and counted his teeth.  Upon returning and reporting the number was nearly thrown out for being unscientific.   

The vast majority of ideas, aside from the fundamental laws, don’t become great or the greatest without engineering input using all the fundemtal laws.  

Engineers and Engineering are great, sometimes.
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
28 May 04 16:57
jmw : In regard to your last anecdote, assuming it is true, it would seem to me that the Royal Society were being very unscientific. Newton's approach on the other hand was precisely what that of a scientist should be - ie carry out an experiment and then make deductions. But I don't see what such an experiment has to do with engineering, since he did not carry out the all important step of creating anything physically new from the observation, again assuming the anecdote is true. I guess this argument will go on for ever, but to me the distinction between engineering and a science in the majority of cases is obvious. It is worth noting that although the Royal Society is a scientific institution, it has numbered among its fellows a number of engineers, among them Sir Harry Ricardo, whom automotive guys will recognize as the founder of the world renowned "Ricardo's" engine consulting firm in the south of England. Reading his biography "Memories and Machines" should leave one in no doubt that an engineer is quite capable of doing science, even in the eyes of the FRS. Another engineer, however (Eric Laithwaite) who was on the verge of being inducted, was not so lucky. He gave a lecture to the FRS which they refused to publish, since it revealed his complete lack of understanding  of Newtonian mechanics, and he was shunned by them for the rest of his life.
unclesyd (Materials)
28 May 04 18:55
Wouldn't you agree that sometimes things it falls on the shoulders of an engineer to inform management that things are not so good,  going bad, or getting worse.  
As I've posted before my worst failure was I wasn't able to persuade management to shut the whole plant down due to problems we were having with some heating equipment not based on engineering but on plain common sense.   The equipment shut itself and the plant down.
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
28 May 04 19:40
Well, when it comes to whether one is an "engineer" or "a scientist", that's something else again - to my mind quite distinct from the question of whether a specific activity is science or engineering. It's quite possible for an individual to be a scientist, an engineer and a manager all at the same time, or at least on consecutive days. Many good scientists are also good engineers. and even a few managers are at least capable of being good engineers (so they tell me).
25362 (Chemical)
29 May 04 3:21
To EM, sorry for the mix up, the contributing reasons: your handle written in bold letters, distraction and a bad eyesight.

As for the last sentence in your previous post, I entirely agree and bear witness to its being true. In my long career I was lucky enough to work beside two outstanding chemical engineers (PhD) -one of them now deceased- in two different continents, who, after being heads of R&D divisions for some years, became general managers of oil refineries, and excelled in both positions.
Skogsgurra (Electrical)
29 May 04 5:14
Congratulations to 25362 for having posted the 100th post in this thread.

My little contribution to this thread is to ask zdas04 to start a new thread "Greatest Achievement in Engineering II" because this one is getting very long and takes some time to load (old telephone line and 50 kb/s modem).

Sequels are popular - and it would also give me the great pleasure of having the last word in a thread.

zdas04 (Mechanical) (OP)
30 May 04 11:10
Sorry, I started this ramble, I get to finish(?) it.

So, the consensus of the group is that the greatest feat in engineering falls somewhere between the "invention" of fire and the development of the supermarket shopping cart with the wonky wheels.  I can't disagree with that.

Anyone with the wherewithal to read through this long thread (102 posts in 2 weeks is pretty impressive) will see a lot of good information and sound reasoning to help them form their own opinion.  

In my mind the "soul" of engineering is an evaluation followed by an opinion.  Engineer's reading this thread in the future will have a decent collection (with impressive arguments) of nominees to help them form their own opinion.  This looks like an outstanding engineering exercise to me.

Thank you all.

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering
Please see FAQ731-376 for tips on how to make the best use of Eng-Tips Fora.

AlohaBob (Structural)
29 Jun 04 18:08
Some comments over the years are significant.

The best thing since.... Canned beer, Or apple pie.

Also, if Ben Franklin hadn't invented the lightbulb, we would be watching TV today in the dark.
EnglishMuffin (Mechanical)
29 Jun 04 23:33
Perhaps you were joking, but in case you weren't, Ben Franklin did not  invent the lightbulb. And as a matter of fact, neither did Edison, in spite of the popular myths to the contrary.
jmw (Industrial)
2 Aug 04 16:29
After much thought, i finally give my vote to "duct tape" (often pronounced "Duck tape") as it has to be one of the most versatile of all the tools in an engineers tool box and far more widley used than the inventors can have eimagined, not just for Pop Cranes easy chair in Frasier.

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25362 (Chemical)
30 Aug 04 6:29
To EnglishMuffin, I forgot to thank you for pointing me to the article by Alberto Mendez-Arocha of April 17,2002 On the origin of the name "engineer", on your post of May 16th. Never too late...
plasgears (Mechanical)
8 Dec 04 14:20
Second to the Manhattan Project has to be the V-2 project. Read Dornberger's account entitled "V-2."

One chapter in particular is his summary of technical achievements developed during those trying times. Setting aside political differences (I hate the Nazi's, too), it is an eye opener. Some of their developments are still being explointed in current technology:

- swirl vaporization of fuel
- film cooling
- motion acceleration (second derivative) feedback

During development testing in Poland they positioned themselves at ground zero with telescopes to study flight motions of the rocket after re-entering the atmosphere. As a result, they reinforced the casing against breakup.

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