Friday, February 26, 2016

Engineering: Past vs. Present

I recently spent the weekend in Colonial Williamsburg and had an opportunity to look at a lot of the old buildings.  I started to think about the state of engineering, or lack thereof, during that time period.  Structural engineering is based upon calculus; Sir Isaac Newton had just developed calculus, so that tool was not available to the architects and engineers of that time.

So how did they do their engineering?  It was the good ole philosophy, let's build it and if it falls down, we'll put some bigger, stronger pieces in place.  The craftsmen of that time had to have a strong sense of what worked and didn't in terms of resisting loads.  I am sure back then they were much more familiar with forces of gravity than lateral loads, such as earthquakes and hurricanes.  Today a lot of that innate sense is still possessed by the tradesmen.  It is often difficult to tell carpenters who have been in the business for a long time that what they have been doing for umpteen years will not work on paper or in our models.  There are a lot of connections and forces that we have to idealize in our models, hence we have to tell the tradesmen to do it the way we have drawn.

So to the tradesmen out there, keep your innate sense of what works and what doesn't, as it is a time tested tradition, but try to see it from the engineer's point of view as well.