General Engineering Introduction/Engineering Art

The arts are vast subdivision of culture. The words “art” and “artist” usually refer to the visual arts. Art, as understood in many engineering schools is effete, marginal and perhaps useless. It is a “soft” subject lacking the rigor of the hard sciences. But in reality, there is very little difference between engineering and art.

Art and Engineering


Economic Similarities


The economics of engineering projects evolved from patrons, commissions and grants just like art. Joseph B. Strauss spent eight years campaigning unsuccessfully for financial and political support until he switched from a bascule to a suspension bridge. Then he was made chief engineer on the Golden Gate Bridge. Even today engineers depend upon government grants/contracts, commercial investment or work for hire to finance projects.

Drawing Similarities


Visual art is a huge part of engineering. Engineers imagine and draw. The original engineers were graphic artists. Ax users had improvement ideas. The engineer/artist would listen and draw. Then the engineer/artist would take the drawings to a blacksmith. A new ax would be made and tested.

As late as the 60's, the first engineering class was engineering drawing. Thomas E. French's textbook "A Manual of Engineering Drawing" set the drawing standards for over 50 years. It was published as late as 1994 (14th edition). It is still a great way to teach K-12 drawing. Most engineering colleges today expect engineering students to learn 3D modeling software such as ProE Wildfire, SolidWorks, AutoDesk 123D, or Google Sketchup for a project. They don't teach 3D modeling just like they don't teach typing. The best artists work without formal instruction. The best engineers pick up tool skills, on an as needed basis, on their own, without formal instruction.

Successful artists are not arbitrary, whimsical or undisciplined. Artists can not be arbitrary otherwise they will not get financial support. Engineers also want freedom from people telling them what to do. Artists can not be whimsical or they will never develop a style that is unique. So does an Engineer develop a reputation of working successfully with particular technologies. An artist can not be undisciplined otherwise art never gets done. Both engineers and artists have “style.”

The best artists don't work alone. Inspiration comes from rubbing against the sharp edges of other people .. and from creating edges in an otherwise homogenous boredom. This is true of engineering. Managers feel most confident after seeing engineers disagree and then work to a consensus. Engineers, like Artists, learn to mix activities up. Engineers learn that music, movement, talking, changing the medium (paper, whiteboard, computer) all help get homework or project work done just like artists.

Many Solutions


Art is not more open ended than engineering. Engineers start with ill-defined problems that have no single “right” answer, but many. Some problems are over-constrained (too many conflicting requests/requirements). Others are under-constrained (too few requests/requirements, don't know where to start). Some have no solutions. How does one prove there are no solutions? Some solutions are better than others. Making wrong choices is the same kind of game as making right choices because often neither has been done before. Nobody knows the right or optimum design because nobody knows yet what optimum is. For example, a bicycle is slightly unstable in one dimension. This makes it easy to turn. It took 30 years after Wright brother's first powered flight for pilots and engineers to find the optimum aircraft stability/instability.



The work of an engineer appears precise but concealed are information choices, inarticulate judgments, acts of intuition, and assumptions about the way the world works. The information an engineer conveys is overwhelming visual: not verbal, not numerical. Behind the drawings and screen shots are numbers, instructions, programs and tool use stories, just like visual art.



Visual art sells when the artist stands next to the piece and tells stories about it. The stories could be about what they were thinking, the meaning, what was felt during creation, how it makes me feel now. The art is an extension of the artist and when it is sold, the artist feels a loss. The same is true for an engineer. Instead of a narrative, there is a presentation that sells the project, sells the product and solution. And every engineer is sad when it is over just like a visual artist.



Modern engineering projects still require engineering artists. As engineering has moved closer to science, specialized artistic professions that combine elements of engineering have emerged. These include architects, industrial design, and environmental design. The 1999 ABC NightLine episode "[DeepDive]" captures the industrial design part of engineering perfectly.



A frustrated engineer has several choices. One is to find a different starting point.

A second way is to do the same thing over and over again until bored. Sink into the boredom until the playful spirit can be found.

 .. just stare at the machine. There is nothing wrong with that. Just live with it for a while. 
Watch it the way you watch a line when fishing and before long, as sure as you live, you'll get a 
little nibble, a little fact asking in a timid, humble way if you're interested in it. Zen and the 
Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Part III 26

A third way, the way of symmetry, pattern and matching is that of art. Some engineers see a Fink Truss when looking at a snake rib cage. Some engineers create a circuit without the QMC design method by merely being guided by beauty.

"Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars - mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars
on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination
- stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one - million - year - old light. A vast pattern - of which I am
a part... What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little
about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the 
present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense 
spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?" Richard Feynman Quote

When a deliverable is truthful, beautiful and good engineers know intuitively they have a winner. It is called "elegant". Practice this while doing homework. Skip the design rules of the moment. Focus on beauty. Test whether the result meets all the technical requirements.

This can lead to a study of "form follows function, form factor, and ultimately the Greek philosophy of form".

Truth Beauty Goodness


Something can be Truthful (does what it claims), Good (helps improve the world), and not sell because it is ugly. Something can be a fraud, useless (Pet Rock), and still sell because it is beautiful. Some engineers restore old iron bridges (art) for a living. Others create companies manufacturing and selling electronic art supplies or exotic, expensive wood working tools. They get involved in music videos and commercials. Some freshman engineering classes only encourage Rube Goldberg type projects.

Practice of Engineering


The practice of engineering are the activities of students and working engineers, the books they read, the honors they receive, the tools they invest in, and the service they render.



Visual artists have juried shows and "hangings" where their work is displayed. The Royal Society of Arts has been awarding prizes for solutions to particular problems since the 1700's. Solving these problems is called a "competition" in the US. Competitions are sponsored by the US Federal Government(DARPA, NASA), state governments and industry. Some of these competitions start with seed money to jump start projects and award enough prize money each year to keep around 10 teams going nationally. Others require raising money. Competitions are sponsored by engineering associations, by local museums and independent non-profits. There are so many competitions, that schools with several teams entering several competitions always have a chance to win something.

Project Days


All engineering colleges hang project posters. Some hangings last years, others are setup for a day. At some colleges, Projects day] starts off with poster sessions and then transitions to presentations. The audience consists of potential freshman and parents making a decision to come to the college, all engineering students standing by their poster ready to explain their project, and professors entertaining potential project clients (businesses) that are going to pay for projects to be done at the college.

At a community college, the minimum is to set up a poster session for a couple of days. Put some folding tables up in a hall way, lean some foam board against the wall and begin marketing the event.



Even small communities have engineers displaying their farm equipment, carriages, old cars, old tractors, old electronics. There are museums of industry, science museums, air and space, and history museums. Most older engineers have been collecting memorabilia from their projects that make show and tell items for schools. Some are merely clubs that fly RC aircraft or ham radio operators practicing disaster response. The best vision of these museums are in science fiction book "The Mote in God's Eye." Museums always have engineering projects they want volunteer engineers to do.



The importance of physical models that describe how things work has been diminished by the physics of games and web sites such as how stuff works. However, first hand experience with models jump starts engineering intuition. Certain museums specialize in these models such as the Rode Island Steam Museum. The importance of models was recognized in the 1700's. There is a museum in Sweden with 412 models built before 1800. They include the "mechanical alphabet" which includes levers, wedges, screws, pulleys, winches, etc. Today's plastic models are a good starting point for kids.

Tool Kits


Today's tool kits are Legos and the DIY arduino world. Back in the 80's, old mechanical tool kits were abandoned in the name of "high tech." The old mechanical tool kits were associated with gears, belts, alignment, engines, and movement in general. The next wave of tool kits are biological.

Engineering Books/Software


Many early rags to engineering/science riches stories all start with a young person working in a book store.

Before 1995, engineers could be defined by what technical manuals and books they collected. The Pirotechnia (1540) includes 85 wood engraves on metallurgy. The Theatrum Machinarum, published between 1724 and 1739, distilled the mechanical repertoire of that time into 10 volumes and nearly 500 engraved plates. The De Re Metallica by Georgius Agricola was first published in 1556, translated by Herbert and Lou Hoover in 1912, and most recently published in 1956 describes the art mining. The Mechanick-Exercises (1683) describes the trades of printing, smithing, joinery, turning, and bricklaying. There are collections of these rare old books in special libraries.

Perry's handbook has recipes for just about any unit process a chemical engineering could want. Don Lancaster's cookbooks jump started the careers of many electrical engineers. Civil engineering has so many empirical design books (soil, oceans, traffic, etc) that many other engineering disciplines feel Civil engineers are not "scientific" or "mathematical" enough. This is not true. See science in this text.

Most engineering books are as expensive as text books. In fact they begin to look like textbooks. And like text books, they are slowly moving into the public domain. Many are emerging as expensive simulation software. Older versions are moving onto the net. Find them. Read the books. Learn the simulation software just like Hoover, Faraday and James Eads found old books and read everyone of them very early in their careers.

Engineering books are just tools. A hammer inspires smashing. Paintbrushes inspire painting. Engineering books and simulation software inspire much more. Start collecting!



Many engineers collect junk. Anything broken is taken apart and perhaps fixed. A good junk pile is inspirational. Junk piles are useful in a freshman engineering class to transition students from playing, through doing things first, to design. Studies have shown that kids at age 5 are free from functional fixedness. But by age 7, kids are using objects for their intended purpose only. Why are there so many soaps? Advertisements reinforce functional fixedness. Why are there so many toothpastes? Why are there so many different potato chips? Reuse of the junk is a selling point during presentations because the audience already has an understanding of form, function, and life cycle.

Reuse is highlighted in Rube Goldberg projects. For example, a rube goldberg project on laser printers would expose all the motors, relays, switches and re-purpose them. The laser would be replaced with a bright LED and the mirror would distribute it's light. Rube Goldberg projects are great [freshman] projects because they are open-ended. Here open ended means there are no expectations in the sense of maximizing artistic freedom:

He experimented further. In one class he had everyone write all hour about 
the back of his thumb. Everyone gave him funny looks at the beginning of the hour, 
but everyone did it, and there wasn't a single complaint about 'nothing to say.'
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Part III, 16