For most of us, engineering isn't inherently sexy.* Why should we get all hot and bothered just because, as my colleague Collier at the Tech store explains it, an engineer named Stephen Timoshenko
was able to quantify the theoretical?
No reason at all, unless you've ever wondered why buildings stand up or why they fall down or why you don't fall through the floor. If you believe, as Henry Petroski does, that to engineer is human, then you're probably the type of person who can get a giggle from the sexiest mechanical engineering book ever: Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown.
Though he might not have been the type to indulge in scintillating small talk at cocktail parties, Stephen Timoshenko was singular in purpose, driven, and mathematically gifted. His textbook History of Strength of Materials is famous. That's right ? famous. Some of the other enduring classics penned by this engineer are Strength of Materials, Elementary and Advanced, Theory of Structures, and the lyrically titled Theory of Plates and Shells.
We've been lucky enough over the years to acquire several books signed by Timoshenko. Our copy of The Collected Papers is inscribed.
Engineering and literature come together beautifully in a small segment of The 42nd Parallel, the first book of John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy. In the prose poem "Proteus," Dos Passos pays homage to Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the Wizard of Schenectady:
[M]athematics to Steinmetz was muscular strength and long walks over the hills and the kiss of a girl in love and big evenings spent swilling beer with your friends
It is Steinmetz's law of hysteresis that makes possible all the transformers that crouch in little boxes and gableroofed houses in all the hightension lines all over everywhere.
Steinmetz is in the front of this photo taken in 1921. He is the four-foot-tall hunchbacked man, with a youthful Albert Einstein next to him, and Nikola Tesla ? the gaunt looking man with the mustache ? behind. Charles Steinmetz suffered numerous physical ailments, smoked cigars incessantly, and was a Socialist who just happened to work for one of the largest conglomerates in the world. He was also, as Dos Passos describes him, "the most valuable piece of apparatus General Electric had, until he wore out and died."
Why does he matter? Steinmetz's General Lectures on Electrical Engineering has the long answer; the short answer is Electricity to Your Home and Office. Edison is also profiled by Dos Passos in The 42nd Parallel, but I don't find that section as beautiful as the piece on Steinmetz.
There's a not-very-funny engineering joke that my father likes to tell. The punch line is "So who is this Irish guy Tim O'Shenko, anyway?" I've never heard a joke, good or bad, about Steinmetz, and I promise to never repeat my father's favorite (bad) joke about Mozart. But it's no joke what these two engineers have made available to us.
*Civil engineering is sexy.