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Engineering in American Society

Engineering in American Society: 1850--1875

Raymond H. Merritt
Copyright Date: 1969
Pages: 212
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  • Book Info
    Engineering in American Society
    Book Description:

    Technology, which has significantly changed Western man's way of life over the past century, exerted a powerful influence on American society during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. In this study Raymond H. Merritt focuses on the engineering profession, in order to describe not only the vital role that engineers played in producing a technological society but also to note the changes they helped to bring about in American education, industry, professional status, world perspectives, urban existence, and cultural values.

    During the development period of 1850-1875, engineers erected bridges, blasted tunnels, designed machines, improved rivers and harbors, developed utilities necessary for urban life, and helped to bind the continent together through new systems of transportation and communication. As a concomitant to this technological development, states Merritt, they introduced a new set of cultural values that were at once urban and cosmopolitan. These cultural values tended to reflect the engineers' experience of mobility -- so much a part of their lives -- and their commitment to efficiency, standardization, improved living conditions, and a less burdensome life.

    Merritt concludes from his study that the rapid growth of the engineering profession was aided greatly by the introduction of new teaching methods which emphasized and encouraged the solution of immediate problems. Schools devoted exclusively to the education and training of engineers flourished -- schools such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Stevens Institute of Technology. Moreover, business corporations and governments sought the services of the engineers to meet the new technological demands of the day. In response, they devised methods and materials that went beyond traditional techniques. Their specialized experiences in planning, constructing, and supervising the early operation of these facilities brought them into positions of authority in the new business concerns, since they often were the only qualified men available for the executive positions of authority for the executive positions of America's earliest large corporations. These positions of authority further extended their influence in American society. Engineers took a positive view of administration, developed systems of cost accounting, worked out job descriptions, defined levels of responsibility, and played a major role in industrial consolidation.

    Despite their close association with secular materialism, Merritt notes that many engineers expressed the hope that human peace and happiness would result from technical innovation and that they themselves could devote their technological knowledge, executive experience, and newly acquired status to solve some of the critical problems of communal life. Having begun merely as had become the planners and, in many cases, municipal enterprises which they hoped would turn a land of farms and cities into a "social eden."

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6389-5
    Subjects: Technology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1: The Functional Professional
    (pp. 1-26)

    Nathaniel Hawthorne published in 1843 an ironic revision of John Bunyan’sPilgrim’s Progress, which he entitledThe Celestial Railroad. In Hawthorne’s version technology had changed the dangerous and difficult journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial metropolis. The guide was no longer Evangelist, but Mr. Smooth-it-away, a corporation executive. Casting aside the classical traditions of education, engineers had spanned the Slough of Despond with a bridge of “elegant construction” erected on principles of mathematics and physics. Through the Hill of Difficulty they had constructed a tunnel while the gaseous products of the Valley of the Shadow of Death...

  5. 2: The Functional Intellectual
    (pp. 27-62)

    Knowledge was the critical agent in the growth of the engineering profession.¹ Private and public corporations hired engineers because they were informed on the latest technological developments and had the administrative skill to organize and carry out technical projects efficiently. Formal academic study and an extensive apprenticeship-training qualified an engineer to direct industrial enterprises. Once in the field, he kept abreast of his practice by reading technical journals and by participating in professional societies. These national and regional groups arranged formal discussion and lectures, supplied reference and library services, and encouraged their members to publish accounts of their own successes...

  6. 3: The Professional Executives
    (pp. 63-87)

    The engineering profession provided American society with its first professional executives. The ability to organize, to eliminate inefficiency, and to guide the actions of others characterized the salaried engineer. His relationship with a particular corporation was typically that of a consultant, hired to direct preliminary surveys and to present written proof of his recommendations. If his proposals were accepted, the engineer drew up the plans, sublet contracts, secured administrative personnel, and scheduled the purchase of materials necessary for the venture. He was often then retained to supervise construction and to organize the first operations. Few companies made a distinction between...

  7. 4: The Cosmopolitan
    (pp. 88-109)

    Engineers attending social and professional meetings in the latter part of the nineteenth century usually heard a speech or toast declaring their profession to be the one most responsible for extending and developing civi1ization.¹ The wordcivilizationwas used in the nineteenth century with much the same meaning asurbanizationis used in the twentieth century.² extend civilization implied building better surroundings for economic, social, religious, and cultural institutions as well as for the pursuit of personal freedom and leisure. Engineers pictured themselves as international promoters of such ideals in a peaceful world. Their work crisscrossed many political boundaries and...

  8. 5: The Manipulators of Nature
    (pp. 110-135)

    The extension of technology in the middle of the nineteenth century rapidly modified the established symbols of social standing and the means of obtaining wealth and prestige. Changes in the flow of commerce, the growth of cities, and the manufacture of new products produced a climate of opportunism nurtured by widespread job mobility. Ambitious men could achieve wealth and position more readily in an industrial state, but the security of their continuing employment, and hence their social status, was uncertain. During a century in which stream replaced manual labor, electricity superseded steam, and steel and concrete supplanted the basic building...

  9. 6: The Metropolitan
    (pp. 136-156)

    One of the major symbols of nineteenth-century American culture was the Brooklyn Bridge. It stood for more than a connection between two islands-it spanned a Gothic past full of idealistic imperatives, symbolized a technological age hung in the balance between stone and steel and formed a link with a future hope for the peaceful unification of mankind. Americans built many bridges after the Civil War. In 1871Van Nostrand’s Eclectic Engineering Magazinemade an accounting of the major bridges complete and under construction on America’s three largest rivers, the Missouri, and Mississippi, and the Ohio.¹ Fourteen had been completed, seven...

  10. 7: Engineering and Urbanization
    (pp. 157-176)

    A brochure published in 1848, entitledCairo City Property, envisioned a new metropolis at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. A foldout map pictured completed and projected canals and railroads leading into the triangle formed by the main waterways of the Mississippi Valley, which appeared to make Cairo’s potential as an urban center greater than the ancient Egyptian metropolis for which it was named. A consulting engineer, Septimus Worsley, listed seven additional attributes besides this transportation network and “the beauty of its position,” which he believed would make Cairo an important commercial complex: good climate, almost perfect drainage,...

  11. Bibliographical Essay
    (pp. 177-188)
  12. Index
    (pp. 189-199)