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Introduction: The Essence of Engineering

For this publication we asked AJ readers to nominate what they deemed to be the ‘essence of engineering’

Andy Toohey and Tim Lucas, partners at Price & Myers, ask: What constitutes good engineering?

At Price & Myers we are excited by the past, present and future of engineering in the broadest sense. Yet all too often we find ourselves meeting clients and other professionals with no clear idea of what we actually do or, more importantly, what constitutes good engineering.

We conceived of this exercise in the hope of provoking thought and debate about engineering as seen by collaborators, colleagues and peers, and by individuals elsewhere in the wider world of ‘making things’. The result is an opportunity to show off a selection of images of seminal moments in engineering and to put forward some thoughts as to what constitutes the Essence of Engineering.

Being an engineer is not the same as being a scientist, or an inventor. We take known materials and technologies and try to exploit them to overcome problems, and to improve lives. In our own field of structural engineering, perhaps it starts with the first log laid across a stream to make a bridge. As new materials and technologies become available we try to push them into new forms, such as the masonry arch bridge leading to Ironbridge, and on through the years to the Millau Viaduct and beyond.

In all cases the best engineering demonstrates what Robert Myers called an ‘elegant efficiency’. It should appear an effortless and obvious result of the materials and the need that it addresses. The engineer must devise ways of solving problems with clarity and ease, always thinking of the practical reality of how things will be made.

We expected that the breadth of the entries would surprise us, given that the only exclusion was the work of nature. They range from the conceptual to the prosaic, but it is interesting also to note some omissions. The fields of electronics and IT are not represented, nor are medicine, chemistry or the environment - all areas where engineering continues to be a vital component in changing our lives. In terms of the built environment, notable omissions include the Sydney Opera House, Crystal Palace and the Empire State Building - all in their own right examples of superb engineering in different forms. Perhaps the essence is more in the daring, determination and commitment of the individuals. One thinks of John Roebling at the Brooklyn Bridge or the Brunels, father and son, at the Thames Tunnel.

Engineering has passed through cycles as the resources of the world have changed. The best engineering is often born out of an imperative to use the minimum amount of materials. Perhaps now we are entering such a time; where advances in analysis and manufacturing technology, allied with increasing material costs, produce a renaissance in engineering and a resurgence of the role of the engineer in the public consciousness.

Thanks to everyone who submitted their idea for the ‘Essence of Engineering’.

An exhibition of the work in this booklet runs from 20 July to 17 August at the Building Centre, London WC1.

Add your own idea of what constitutes the ‘Essence of Engineering’

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