Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/January 1903/The Engineering Mind



IN a fragment of autobiography written some years before his death, Mr. Huxley said:

But, though the Institute of Mechanical Engineers would certainly not own me, I am not sure that I have not all along been a sort of mechanical engineer in partibus infidelium. I am now occasionally horrified to think how very little I ever knew or cared about medicine as the art of healing. The only part of my professional course which really and deeply interested me was physiology, which is the mechanical engineering of living machines; and notwithstanding that natural science has been my proper business, I am afraid there is very little of the genuine naturalist in me. I never collected anything, and species work was always a burden to me; what I cared for was the architectural and engineering part of the business, the working out the wonderful unity of plan in the thousands and thousands of diverse living constructions, and the modifications of similar apparatuses to serve diverse ends.

Those who have read, however, the intensely interesting 'Life and Letters' of Huxley by his son, will recall that at the very close of his career, when driven to the continent in search of health, he took to collecting gentians and determining their species, with great enthusiasm. The physical enjoyments of the search, as well as the pleasure of recognizing each new species that he ran across, were doubtless added to the more direct pleasure he derived from observing the distribution of the genus and the adaptations that the different species had undergone.

At the same time, Huxley's analysis of the foundation of his intellectual pleasure serves to indicate a special 'note' of modern culture; or rather that part of modern culture which has been most profoundly affected by scientific thought. The age, at its best, is the age of the engineering mind. By this is not meant merely that it is an age of vast engineering feats and of a remarkable development of the engineering profession, but that a distinct habit of thought which may be called both with convenience and propriety the 'engineering mind,' is deeply influencing modern culture and is steadily preparing the way for the realization of a better ideal in popular education. The capable engineer computing to a nicety the elements of his bridge structure, the botanist studying the wonderful mechanism for the dispersal of seeds on the withered autumn weeds, the captain of industry organizing his factory, the skilled workman himself, the surgeon, the sea-captain—each and all of these, with many other representatives of human activity, are, at their best, endowed or equipped with a common habit of thought more or less directly connected with what Huxley called 'the architectural or engineering part of the business.' In other words, the more or less distinctly pronounced 'note' of modern culture is a capacity for the recognition of the universal in the particular or the reign of law in nature.

Unquestionably, the intellectual training which leads to the formation of the engineering mind, in its larger sense, affords a larger scope and capacity for pure intellectual pleasure, as well as a more permanent source of such pleasure, than is afforded, for instance, by the popular resort to light fiction. The poetry of common tilings, disclosed in enormous volume by the science of the nineteenth century, is familiar to many; but it is sealed to many more, not without a certain measure of intellectual culture, by the lack of the special training which forms the scientific habit of thought.

But, apart from the value of the engineering habit of mind regarded from the point of view of intellectual culture for its own sake, the question is at last being recognized with widespread interest as one of importance to nations struggling for industrial supremacy or stability. In Great Britain particularly, thanks in part to the large attention it received at the September meeting of the British Association not only at the hands of the president, Professor Dewar, but from the engineering and educational sections, the question is up for very general discussion in the country and, it is to be hoped, for progressive settlement. The incompetence displayed so often by British officers in South Africa has driven the British people to a severe stock taking, and that stock taking has brought into prominence a fact, more or less fully recognized by a wise minority from the time of Dr. Arnold of Bugby to the present day, namely, that the traditional methods of education in England are not conducive to the formation of trained habits of scientific thought.

Professor Perry, the president of the engineering section of the British Association, has been insisting for some time, and insisted again at the Belfast meeting, that the great fault of the traditional method is the manner in which mathematics is taught. Mensuration is dissociated too sharply from geometry, and geometry too sharply from algebra. That is to say, contrary to the example of Germany and France for nearly a century and to the more recent example of the American universities, the employment of the modern proofs of geometry has been resisted in favor of the more cumbersome and, to the average young mind, the far more difficult proofs employed by Euclid. The amount of geometrical ground that can be covered by means of the algebraical methods in one year by an average pupil is about equal to that which can be acquired by the same pupil in three years following the Euclidean method. And as there is no loss whatever in rigidity of proof, the natural consequence is surely that of two pupils who have devoted an equal period of time to mathematics during their school training, the one employing in his geometry the modern methods and the other the Euclidean, the former must be more prepared for the intelligent use of mathematical formulæ and reasoning in the university or the technical school than the latter. This consideration, indeed, derives still more strength from the fact that the proving of geometrical propositions by means of operations upon algebraical symbols extends the mental grasp of algebra itself.

Professor Perry appears to have hopes of speedy reform in this respect, the University of Oxford having decided to omit Euclid from the 'locals' of 1903, Oxford being capable of setting the pace for the great schools and the principles of the Society for the Improvement of Geometrical Teaching having made, during the past twenty years, sufficient theoretical headway to ensure the opportunity of the change being welcomed and grasped.

At the same time, it is to be remembered that the mathematical is not the whole or the only training even for the engineering mind. We have the constant reminder of Faraday's example in this respect. Faraday was able to reason most accurately and profoundly upon curves, centers of motion and other phenomena arising from his experiments in electricity and magnetism, although he was obliged to confess in a letter to Professor Clerk Maxwell that although he had tried hard he had never been able to understand even simple equations in algebra—a comforting confession for others to whom mathematical studies have been a great difficulty!—but perhaps more profitably to be regarded simply as a proof that a sufficiently helpful text-book was not placed within his reach at the struggling period when he laid the foundations of his marvelous self-culture.