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4 July 2018

Poets of the material world: engineers are the people who make dreams real

An engineer’s achievement of pure utility can also create structures of stunning grace and beauty.

By Joe Moran

Most of us could name a few hip architects and industrial designers. Who, though, could name a star engineer? Dead ones (Brunel) and cartoon characters (Dilbert) don’t count. Even the word “engineering” is out of favour, ousted by the less greasy sounding “technology”. Mostly we clock the world of the engineer when something goes wrong with it. The scribbled note on the broken photocopier reads: “An engineer has been called.”

And yet, as Simon Winchester and Roma Agrawal show in these absorbing books, engineers prop up our world. By doing the sums and testing the 3D models, they keep the structures that sustain our daily lives from succumbing to entropy and falling apart. Their minds must be both clinical and creative, for they need to apply scientific principles and natural laws in order to make something that does not exist in nature. An engineer is a poet of the material world, constantly treading that familiar poetic line between invention and exactitude.

Simon Winchester inherited from his father, a precision engineer, the belief that cogs, screws and slugs of metal could be magical. As a boy growing up in the 1950s he marvelled at the Jo blocks that his father brought home from work. Named after their Swedish inventor, Carl Edvard Johansson, these are steel tablets used to make precise measurements in factories. They are so flat and uniform, ground to such nanometre accuracy, that two of them can only be slid, never prised, apart.

Winchester is full of such nicely nerdish details. He delights in the jet engine’s impeccable union of compressor blades, turbine blades, hot-sprayed fuel and Newton’s third law of motion. He lauds the Rolls-Royce crankshaft made with such fastidiousness that, once spun up to speed by hand, it could be mistaken for a perpetual motion machine. Exactly is about precision as “an essential, but mostly invisible, component of the modern world”. Almost any piece of modern technology, from the smartphone to the space telescope, relies on tiny components that must fit perfectly together. The book is structured, elegantly, around escalating degrees of “tolerance”. Tolerance is an agreed amount of permissible variation in the dimensions of an object. Agreeing this amount allows a piece of engineering to fit snugly with another piece.

A shoe is a thing of low tolerance, because there must be wiggle room for the foot to fit inside it. A screw thread requires much higher tolerance, because modern machines need their minutely measured parts to fit tightly together. As engineered objects have become more complex, precision has become ever more vital and tolerances ever higher. It takes three months (and a $100m machine the size of three jet cargo aircraft) to make a single microprocessing chip.

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Precision keeps the modern world going, but also makes it precarious. The smallest human error may mark the invisible beginning of a journey towards fatigue-cracking catastrophe. One of Winchester’s many diverting human stories is of the near-tragic Qantas Flight 32 of 4 November 2010, when an Airbus made an emergency landing in Singapore after one of its engines exploded. The culprit turned out to be a fractured stub oil pipe, just five centimetres long and less than a centimetre wide, into which someone at Rolls-Royce’s Nottinghamshire plant, probably tired at the end of a shift, had bored a tiny screwhole slightly out of true. Winchester’s unnerving conclusion is that “modern machines of certain specific kinds are being made now with just too much precision, with too much complexity, for it to be prudent for humans to participate in the making of them”.

Exactly promises “a cascade of philosophical questions” about precision. Is this endless pursuit of infinitesimal measurement really necessary? Is ever-more exact exactitude good for us? Has our narrow interest in the flawlessly flat sheet and the totally spherical bearing stopped us exploring our wider human potential? None of these questions is really answered. A final chapter on Japan, home of the Seiko quartz watch but also of wabi-sabi, the aesthetic of the asymmetrical and under-engineered, feels like an afterthought. What wabi-sabi can bring to engineering, as opposed to the Japanese arts of bonsai or flower arranging, remains unclear. Winchester concludes that “before the imprecision of the natural world, all will falter, none shall survive – no matter how precise”. But this wrap-up feels out of sync with the rest of the book, which reads like a paean to the engineer’s perfectionism.

Winchester’s engineers are all men – sometimes winningly geeky, sometimes obnoxiously alpha male. The structural engineer Roma Agrawal is used to being the only woman in meetings: once it was 21 men and her. On another occasion a builder asked her if she wanted her picture taken in her “costume” – the hard hat, hi-vis jacket and steel-toed boots she must wear, like everyone else, when she passes the blue plyboard door through the site hoarding into the world of clanking steel and beeping cranes.

Built is in part a professional memoir of how Agrawal has managed to engineer things in this male-dominated world. Her book comes most alive when discussing her own designs, such as the beautifully cable-stayed Northumbria University footbridge, and the Shard, on which she worked for six years doing the sums for the foundations and the open-air spire.

Mostly, though, Built is about what engineering is in its most basic form: the human battle to build permanent structures in the face of those two formidable foes, the Earth and the elements. Agrawal defines the engineer’s job as “figuring out how structures can withstand the manifold forces determined to push, pull, shake, twist, squash, bend, rend, split, snap or tear them apart”. The most stubborn of these is gravity, the force that holds the solar system together, and the second most stubborn is wind.

The engineer of a tall building spends much of her time worrying about wind – consulting wind maps drawing on decades of data, testing scale models in a wind tunnel, and walking the area around the site to see how the thickly textured cityscape affects flow and turbulence. Sometimes human psychology intervenes. Tall buildings must be designed to sway in the wind. But if they move too much the people inside them panic, so the engineer needs to cancel out the sway with a pendulum called a tuned mass damper, which moves in the opposite direction. Keeping people safe is not quite the same as making them feel safe.

An engineer’s job, as Agrawal sees it, is like plate-spinning, answering lots of questions – about load bearing, sewage disposal, power supply, earthquake protection and a hundred other things – all at once. Her tone can sometimes be a little Panglossian: she is the kind of engineer who thinks that every problem has a solution.

But surely an engineer is also an artist of the possible, trying to satisfy the different demands of architects, developers, planners, politicians and end users. Just like poets, engineers work with constraints, not of language and form but of cost, safety, elegance, reliability and marketability, which often conflict with one another. Sometimes things go wrong. It’s hardly Agrawal’s fault that the chapter on fire doesn’t mention Grenfell Tower: the book was presumably finished before it happened. But it’s perhaps telling that the engineering disasters discussed in Built, such as the collapse of the Quebec Bridge in 1907, are all reassuringly in the past. Agrawal’s history of engineering, from the Parthenon’s Doric columns to the Gherkin’s exoskeleton, is a long narrative of ingenious human fixes to questions posed by nature. 

She is also buoyant about the future, and the potential for 3D-printed footbridges, people living underwater in pods made from paper-thin glass, and bridges spanning miles because they are made of that miracle material, graphene. “Whatever we can dream up, engineers can make real,” she concludes. But can they really, and would we want them to? Not everyone thinks the Shard is a good dream, or can easily separate its supreme technical accomplishment from its vacant apartments for the global super-rich.

Both these books show that an engineer’s achievement of pure utility can also create structures of stunning grace and beauty. Missing from both, perhaps, is some befittingly lyrical writing to match the engineer’s accidental lyricism. Winchester has a great nose for a story but rather too many sentences such as, “In mid-century Britain, there was a very real sense that the Western world was changing, and changing fast.” Agrawal has a nice, clean style but tells it fairly straight. These books left me enlightened about the structures that surround us, but also with the feeling that the engineer’s concrete poetry deserved to be hymned with some truly poetic prose. 

Joe Moran is the author of “On Roads: a Hidden History” (Profile)

Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World
Simon Winchester
William Collins, 336pp, £25
Built: the Hidden Stories Behind our Structures
Roma Agrawal
Bloomsbury, 320pp, £20

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This article appears in the 04 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit