As kids, I think the first encounter most of us have with the idea of an “engineer” is “the person who drives the train”. By the time I started my undergraduate studies, however, I knew that the College of Engineering wasn’t just about driving trains. But I always wondered how a purely functional role could have the same name as what I now saw as an engineer: someone with a very active role in design and problem-solving. Or as wikipedia puts it, “An engineer is a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems.”

Recently I picked up some books at the library on steam locomotives and other fascinating train topics. And suddenly, I realized why the train-driver could also lay claim to the title of engineer. Historically, at least, the railroad engineer did not just drive the train. He (these were generally men) also had to be a top-notch engineer, familiar with all of the inner workings of his engine, as he was continually required to maintain, lubricate, tend to, and sometimes even repair the engine. One book noted that the “iron horse” was just as temperamental and required as much attention and grooming as the organic horse it had replaced.

Today, it seems we have a very different view of machines and their users or operators. Most of us who drive cars do not expect to have intimate knowledge of how they work; instead, we hire car mechanics to deal with the details and fix problems. No doubt today’s train engineers are also much more removed from their engines than those of the 1800’s. Computers likewise (or our attitudes about them) have evolved as well, so that users need not understand operating systems and file systems and network protocols, disk scheduling and memory allocation and pipelining, kernels and shells and scripts. Instead, one can hire an IT expert to maintain the machine and fix it when it breaks.

Is this trend a result of the growing sophistication and complexity of these machines, or a shift in our social attitudes towards the desirability of being involved in details? Or both? If it’s an evolution in the machine, are there other machines out there in their infancy and still requiring that the engine be a part of the engineer?

I can see the allure of both the low and high levels on this abstraction spectrum, for computers. I personally enjoy tinkering with the configuration of my computers and knowing what’s going on under the hood, even up to spending hours buried in an ancient Linux machine to get a wireless card working—but sometimes that loses its appeal when I just want things to work. And in truth, when the machine is reliable enough that I don’t need to be checking and tinkering constantly (as with my Mac), I’ve found that I stop doing it. Yet I still feel a tug of curiosity about other machines as well—I’d love to take a basic automotive mechanics course, and learn more about how trains work, and I’m fascinated by pulleys and linkages and astoundingly clever machines of all kinds. But then, I’m an engineer by inclination—or perhaps, I have a wish to be (in a friend’s charming coinage) an “engine-er”: someone who knows and tends and cultivates the engine, akin to a farm-er or a sail-or.

1 Comment
1 of 1 people learned something from this entry.

  1. jim said,

    July 19, 2010 at 8:34 am

    (Learned something new!)

    The knowledge and skill required to repair a vehicle is more related on the consequences if you don’t. Consider the Iron Horse engineer circa late 1800s: if the train breaks, he’s completely screwed if he can’t get it running. The 2000s automobile driver: calls AAA. Or waits for a tow truck while texting to Facebook. The space shuttle astronaut: lots of training, but has a radio tether to a ground crew who can help troubleshoot. Cars are more reliable than either 1800s trains or 1970 shuttle technology.

    In less serious areas like operating systems, I’ve spent countless hours tinkering with systems (from configuring monitor refresh rates to get X11 running on a Slackware Linux box to the near-continuous maintenance and patching that’s Microsoft Windows), but now have better things to do with my time. When considered on a purely economic level, the up-front premium for the MacBook seems worth it.

    I’m all about learning and DIY, but there are times when it’s in one’s best interest to hire an expert. :-)

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