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Posted: 05:30:12 PM, 27/02/2014

What the best engineers are made of

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In our neighbourhood when I was about 10, all the kids shared a red Radio Flyer wagon. Nobody knew who owned it; it was community property. But then one day, after several years of hard use, a wheel fell off.

We all gathered around to look at the wagon like a rider looking at his crippled horse. It'd have to be put down.

There was a boy on our block, about two years older than the rest of us, who was a tough kid. His hair was combed back in a DA, he never smiled, and he kept to himself. The word "greaser" didn't exist back then. When he saw us standing around, he ambled over to check out our wagon wake. Then he left and went to his house down the block.

A few minutes later he returned with one of his mom's bobby pins. Without saying a word, he flipped the wagon over, put the wheel back on the axle, and stuck the bobby pin in to serve as a makeshift cotter pin to hold the wheel in place.

Then he turned the wagon back on its wheels and it worked again, and we all stood in awe of the boy. For just a moment I saw a slight grin on his face when he said, "There." Then he got on his Schwinn, like the Lone Ranger astride Silver after saving a town, and went off on his solitary way.

I've met hundreds of engineers in my work life since then. And for all their advanced degrees, the best of them were all variations on that theme: approach a seemingly intractable challenge, see to the heart of the matter, and by addressing that single key point the fix falls into place.

Engineers may be the most taken-for-granted and under-appreciated people in the world. We see the courage of fire fighters and the skill of airline pilots, but the engineer's face is always well hidden.

Tom Mahon is a freelance writer for EE Times with a deep affinity for engineers.

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