Feature: November 5, 1997
Bridging Two Cultures
David Billington '50's teaching spans the gap between engineering and the humanities
by Ann Waldron
WE'RE IN FINE HALL'S TAPLIN AUDITORIUM, at 11 o'clock on a Monday morning, for the opening session of Engineering in the Modern World, a course for freshman engineers and liberal arts students taught by David P. Billington '50. As he explains at the start of his lecture, the course concerns changes in the environment and culture over the last two centuries and the role of engineers in that transformation. "We'll be looking at nature, politics, and art to understand engineering," says Billington. The course will emphasize the role of entrepreneurs and inventors in creating our technological society.
Engineering in the Modern World (Civil Engineering and Operations Research 102) is unique among Princeton courses in fulfilling--depending on whether a student elects to attend precepts or laboratories--either the undergraduate writing requirement or the lab requirement. Its flexibility and scope, and the flair Billington brings to his lectures, make it one of the university's most successful courses bridging the sciences and the humanities; it has become so popular that this fall, for the first time, enrollments were capped.
Billington begins his overview with the first of many slides. He uses two projectors and screens, and images appear simultaneously. A painting flashes on one of the screens. It is a landscape by Thomas Cole, of the Hudson River School. Completed in 1828 and titled Landscape with Dead Tree, it depicts a forested vista devoid of people. The next slide is of The Pic-Nic, also by Cole but painted 18 years later, in 1846. It shows a group of adults and children preparing to eat a meal in a grove cleared from the forest--the wilderness tamed.
"Nature is domesticated," pronounces Billington. "And do you know what domesticated it? The steamboat and the railroad." Slides of steamboats appear, including the first one built by Robert Fulton, and a self-portrait by Fulton, an artist "at the top of second-rate painters," says Billington. A picture of a steamboat exploding underscores the risks of industrial civilization. "The minute you start dealing with iron, you run into new possibilities of danger. It's dangerous to make, dangerous to use, but our civilization depends on it. Steamboats used iron boilers, and the last great steamboat explosion killed 1,530 people."
He moves on to structures. We see slides of the Menai Straits Bridge, the first modern suspension bridge, built in England in 1826, and of the George Washington Bridge. Formulas appear (the course demands some mathematics, but no calculus), followed by a diagram and photograph of James Watt's 1765 steam engine, which helped launch the Industrial Revolution.
The course also deals with industrial processes and how innovations in one area of technology impact others. We learn how a useless material such as hematite (iron ore) when mixed with carbon and heat produces something immensely useful--iron. We see blast furnaces smelting iron and the world's first iron bridge, built in England in 1779, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Maps of transportation networks show the impact of the automobile on the nation's railroads. More slides introduce us to Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller--"Think of them as you walk from Lake Carnegie to Rockefeller College," says Billington--and the steel mills and oil refineries that created their wealth. We see textile mills, a Wright Brothers biplane, a Ford Model T, Hoover Dam, power grids, a microchip, a computer. "I want to end with a painting, as I began with a painting," Billington says. He shows two. The first is a Piet Mondrian of 1932, a quiet, stable abstract of a Dutch landscape; the second is a later Mondrian, the frenetic Broadway Boogie Woogie, painted in 1943, after the artist came to New York: "A change of vision brought about by urban technology and the car," he observes.
The course uses about 1,200 slides, and subsequent topics are also lavishly illustrated. Billington begins his lecture on the industrialization of the Merrimack River Valley, in Massachusetts, with silhouette portraits of Hannah Jackson Lowell and her husband, Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817), America's first large-scale entrepreneur. "Had there been an engineering school then he would have gone to it," Billington says. We learn how Lowell, on a visit to England, sidestepped British laws aimed at protecting industrial secrets: he memorized details of the textile factories he saw there, then built improved versions of them at home. His textile mills were the first in this country to perform all operations involved in manufacturing cloth from raw cotton. We see slides of the Lowell mills, the falls of the Merrimack (essential for powering the looms), posters recruiting women "from 15 to 35 years of age" to work in the mills, daguerreotypes of spinners and weavers, and an etching by Winslow Homer of the ordinary life of mill workers.
ENGINEERING IN THE MODERN WORLD WAS BORN in the early 1980s, when Ahmet S. Cakmak, then an associate dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, asked Billington to develop a freshman course for engineers.
"We had one, but it was dying," recalls Billington. "It was a course, like the one most engineering schools offer, where representatives from each department take turns teaching for a couple of weeks. A course like that is hard to sustain and difficult to make coherent." Grants from the Sloan Foundation enabled him to develop materials for the course, which at first mainly covered civil and mechanical engineering. Billington, a civil engineer, knew about the former, but "I had to read about James Watt and Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers." Billington says he could not have developed the course without the help of faculty members throughout the Engineering School and the continuing encouragement of Dean James Wei and President Shapiro, who has stressed the need for science literacy among liberal arts majors.
He taught the course for the first time in 1985, with an improvised syllabus, no textbook, and no certainty about what would happen from one week to the next. J. Wayman Williams '47 of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, an engineer and photographer who had worked with him putting together exhibitions on bridges for the Princeton Art Museum, helped him with the slides. The course evolved: chemical and electrical engineering were incorporated, a writing seminar was added, and in 1991 it became a full-fledged writing course that satisfies the university's writing requirement. Billington now felt that Engineering in the Modern World was in a form that was "intellectually defensible."
"This course is the only one that really cuts across all engineering," says Michael G. Littman, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who designed and directs its laboratory experiments. "I think it should be called Engineering 101, not Civil Engineering 102."
Out of Billington's lectures and handouts came a plan to write four textbooks for the course. The first one, The Innovators: The Engineering Pioneers Who Made America Modern, was published last year by John Wiley. Covering 1776 to 1883, it deals with topics such as textiles, iron, steam, railroads, the telegraph, and electricity. Billington is now writing the second, which focuses on entrepreneurs in private industries such as oil, automobiles, and aviation, and tracks the rise of manufacturing giants like United States Steel and General Electric. The third textbook will examine public works, including river basins and dams, highways and bridges, and hydroelectric and nuclear power. The last volume will deal with the postwar world of computers and the space program, among other topics.
A MULTIMEDIA APPROACH
BILLINGTON SAYS THAT AT FIRST, THE COURSE had its critics on the faculty of the engineering school. "We teach history, and they didn't like history. I understand--I never took a history course in my life. Engineers don't like to look back; they say if you look back, you don't innovate. But we've overcome that resistance."
Not that Billington embraces innovation for its own sake. Although he owns a computer, he still prefers a pen and a spiral notebook for writing and a slide rule for making calculations. He began using a computer in part to develop CD-ROMs for use in the course and as companions to the textbooks. As a first step toward that goal, when he taught the course last fall he incorporated computer technology into the final lecture, on the automobile. It enabled him to take a multimedia approach, illustrating the lecture not only with slides but with film clips and animation showing a four-cylinder internal-combustion engine in action. Notes Paul L. Hulick, a technician who helped him on the project, "It's not Disney yet, but it's a start."
Billington also teaches Structures and the Urban Environment, which is cross-listed by the engineering and architecture schools and deals with structural engineering as art. He created the course in 1974 and wrote its textbook, The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering (Basic Books, 1983). Some 30 other colleges or universities teach the course using Billington's text and copies of the 1,500 slides that he created for it.
Billington has spent his life doing new things. In 1950, when he graduated from Princeton, a Fulbright Fellowship took him to Belgium to study postwar innovations in construction and structural design. A valuable byproduct of those two years at Louvain and Ghent was fluency in French and Dutch. He then worked in industry for eight years as a designer of bridges, aircraft hangers, piers, thin-shell tanks, and missile-launch facilities. In 1960 he joined the Princeton faculty. Today he is the Gordon Y. S. Wu ['58] Professor of Engineering.
His first book, Thin Shell Concrete Structures, published in 1965 by McGraw-Hill, "is purely technical, and it gave me the liberty to do all the other stuff," he says. His Robert Maillart's Bridges: The Art of Engineering (Princeton University Press, 1979) and Robert Maillart and the Art of Reinforced Concrete (MIT Press, 1990) remain definitive works on the great Swiss bridge designer. In 1996 he contributed to an exhibition at the Pompidou Art Center, in Paris, on structural engineering as art.
WRITING AND CALCULATING
AT BILLINGTON'S SUGGESTION, I SAT IN ON A precept for Engineering in the Modern World led by Bradley W. Dickinson, a professor of electrical engineering. About a third of the dozen students were liberal arts freshmen and the rest engineers, a ratio that reflects the course as a whole. The liberal arts students, though, turned out to be interested in subjects, like economics or molecular biology, which have lots of science and math. "We don't get French majors," Dickinson says.
In the precept, one of the graduate assistants, John Ochsendorf, went over the week's problems, which involved suspension bridges. Ochsendorf is a recent graduate of Cornell, where he took a course based on Structures and the Urban Environment.
A text for the precepts is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. In the precept's first week, each student is assigned to write a 500-word essay for the next session on one of six topics chosen by the preceptor. Each topic involves a principle of technology. "The goal is not innovation or originality," explains Dickinson, "but a matter-of-fact explanation of how it works." Topics are assigned at random, as Dickinson wants each student to write about something he or she knows little about. They include the anti-lock brake, the audio compact disc, the catalytic converter, the automatic air bag, and satellite TV. After the preceptor marks up a paper, the student revises and resubmits it.
These short papers lead up to a term paper on a technical innovation in one of the four fields covered in the course (structures, process, machines, and networks). Students must write about the technical, social, and symbolic significance of their subjects, which cover topics as varied as the refrigerator, rocket propulsion, radio broadcasting, bullet trains, and the Channel Tunnel between England and France. Students who opt for a weekly laboratory instead of a precept build on what they've learned in the lectures about mathematical relationships. In the lab on arch bridges, for an example, students study compression and tension in a practical way, by applying weights to the end of a beam and measuring how much the end deflects.
Students in both the preceptorial and laboratory sections work through many of the formulas used by pioneering engineers. "Liberal arts students, especially, need to do the numbers--it's the only way they can really find out how an innovator grappled with technical problems," Billington asserts. "They do the same calculations that Robert Fulton did in order to understand how much thrust his paddles needed to overcome drag on the boat's hull as it moved through the water, for example. The math is really very simple and expresses fundamental concepts of engineering and physics."
If Princeton is even moderately more successful than most schools in bridging the gap between engineering and the liberal arts, it can largely thank Billington, who for three decades has pressed for greater understanding between the two cultures.
"Engineering doesn't work in a vacuum--it affects, and in turn is affected by, the natural and social sciences, politics, and the arts and humanities," he says. "Students in both engineering and the liberal arts need to understand this. On a material level, of course, engineers built our country. Over the last 200 years it's been fundamentally transformed, and the most important agent of that transformation has been engineering. It's not something we should take for granted."
Ann Waldron wrote about last spring's alumni art exhibit in the April 2 PAW.