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Cover image of The Essential Engineer


Title: The Essential Engineer

Author: Henry Petroski

Publisher: Vintage Books

Copyright: 2011

ISBN13: 978-0-307-47350-9

Pages: 280

Price: $16.00

Rating: 89%

Henry Petroski's book The Essential Engineer explores the tempestuous relationship between engineers and scientists, both in the mind of the public and in the realities of their professions. It's an interesting read that builds a strong case for seeing the two disciplines as inextricably linked and not in conflict.

That said, habits and old rivalries are hard to break out of. I first encountered the tension between engineers and scientists when I worked at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA. I noticed that the organization chart had different designations for senior staff members: Principal Engineer and Principal Scientist. I asked a group of technical staff members how the company assigned the titles and, rather than a quick explanation dealing with degrees or job roles, I was treated to ten minutes of banter on the relative merits of engineers and scientists. The comments started with "A scientist designs the train, but the engineer gets to blow the whistle" and degenerated into jokes on the order of this classic:

Q: What's the difference between an engineer and a scientist?

A: An engineer has to wash his hands before he uses the bathroom.

That joke captures the common perception of how scientists are different from engineers: scientists are the guys (that's the stereotype) in the white coats who have brilliant ideas and do the research required for the guys (that's the stereotype) with the dirty hands to fit the pieces together. And, of course, if a system doesn't do what it's supposed to, it's an engineering failure. The scientists must have gotten it right and the guys with the screwdrivers built it wrong.

Reality, of course, is far more complicated than that. Engineers in the midst of exploration and invention rarely have time to wait for science to catch up with them. Some things just work and we don't know the what the underlying physical processes are. Similarly, scientists often discover scientific principles and basic technologies that don't fit within the current design paradigm. The technologies might be scientifically valid, but no one has figured out how to apply them yet.

Petroski presents a series of examples of how engineers and scientists move between basic (not specific to a product) and applied (specific to a product) work. In fact, Petroski argues that the distinction between basic and applied research is artificial at best and harmful at worst. Plenty of scientists pick up tools and attempt to design a system based on, or to advance, their discoveries, while engineers often delve into the science underpinning their work.

In the latter half of the book, Petroski argues how engineers can help solve problems such as climate change, automobile efficiency, and renewable energy. I could have done with one or two fewer examples, but The Essential Engineer is an enjoyable read that bridges the gap between two broad disciplines split by an artificial rivalry. I look forward to reading Petroski's other books.


Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 20 books, most recently Improspectives. He has also written more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media, and has created more than a dozen online training courses for In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at


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