In This Issue
Winter Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 25, 2015 Volume 45 Issue 4

An Interview with . . . Sam Florman

Friday, December 25, 2015

Samuel C. Florman (NAE) is a civil engineer, retired general contractor, and author.


 RON LATANISION (RML): I want to begin by saying how much we appreciate the fact that we are now finally interviewing the man who has had more to do with this column than anyone else, beginning with our very first interview, with Richard Blanco.1 I’ve been trying to think of what word best describes your influence.

SAMUEL C. FLORMAN: I’ve been reading about the science advisor to the president. Why don’t we just say I’m one of your many advisors?

RML: When you say the president’s science advisor, do you mean John Holdren in particular or do you mean the community of advisors?

FLORMAN: The whole history of it—including President Nixon bouncing the advisor and shutting down the office—because in anticipation of this call I started thinking about engineers and what we should be doing. Giving advice certainly. We don’t hear much about it, but Holdren is there, as well as a whole crew of admirable people. Incidentally, he’s called the science advisor. We could talk a good while about the use of the word science when they really mean science and technology, science and engineering, and sometimes it should be engineering and incidentally science.

RML: That’s an interesting point; let’s come back to that, because I want to ask your thoughts on science and engineers in public life. But let’s begin with a bit of personal history. You’ve had a home in Manhattan virtually all your life, is that right? Maybe you can give us a short biographical sketch.

FLORMAN: At this very moment living in Manhattan is a special thrill and a special annoyance. The pope is going to be here in a few days, and it looks like the whole police force of New York is at our front door and we’re getting notices of how many streets are going to be closed.

We’ve actually had a pope here once before, and President Johnson and most of the other presidents right up to Obama. My wife and I live next to a transverse road through Central Park, and with ABC Studios and Lincoln Center to the West and the United Nations and ritzy neighborhoods to the East, this can sometimes be exciting. And of course it can be a nuisance. New York City is certainly dynamic.

As far as our profession is concerned, this city is a natural breeding place for engineers, especially for civil engineers. It’s almost like we live in the middle of a construction project. As a kid I was what we call a “sidewalk superintendent” all over town, and in addition right outside my window for a couple of years I had an apartment house under construction. In those days steel beams were attached with red hot rivets—today we use high-tension bolts—and the workers would sometimes toss those rivets long distances from the place where they were heated to the men who would catch them in a metal container and then hammer them into place. What a thrill!

And then there was the miracle of New York City’s water supply. The Academy publication A Century of Innovation (2003) described the many engineering achievements that have transformed our lives, and I was asked to write something about how pure water was provided for huge metropolises. This reminded me of the time I was with my family at a fancy restaurant, and the waiter wanted to bring us bottled water with the name of some European spa on the bottle. My father said, “No thanks, we will have La Guardia cocktails.” The waiter knew this meant we wanted New York City tap water. Then my father launched into a dissertation on the wonders of water in New York City being brought down from the mountains, through fantastic tunnels and culverts and viaducts. What a fabulous engineering accomplishment that was: to be here with millions of people, nothing around us but salt water and a contaminated river, and all this fresh water coming in.

So I would say that New York was a great place for getting a youngster to think about an engineering career. Of course I’ve heard about kids out on farms who tinkered with things—I guess you never know where the inclination toward engineering might come from.

RML: Am I correct that your only departure from Manhattan was during your undergraduate study at Dartmouth?

FLORMAN: Well, sort of, except that Pearl Harbor occurred during my senior year in high school, so my early places of residence were pretty much established by the events of World War II. I was very fortunate in choosing to go to Dartmouth, not only because I had one year of wonderful civilian college life—and because Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering encouraged me to think about the place of liberal arts in engineering education—but also because Dartmouth happened to have the largest Navy V-12 program in the nation. I enrolled in that program shortly after arriving on campus, and after that one year of civilian life I was called to active duty, which meant putting on a uniform and being subject to military discipline but continuing with my education. Along with the other V-12 enlistees in my class who were studying engineering, I stayed at Dartmouth until early 1945. In 2½ years we had earned enough credits to receive a degree. Then off we went to Officer Training School in Rhode Island, commissioned as ensigns in the Navy’s Civil Engineers Corps, given a couple of months of military training, then sent off to the Philippines to join the Seabees (US Naval Construction Battalions) being mustered for the invasion of Japan. We arrived in Leyte Gulf one day before a surrender agreement was signed by the Japanese. You could say that was fortunate timing, although there’s a touch of guilt that goes with being spared the action experienced by others. In any event, I spent the better part of a year in the Pacific on the island of Truk mostly rebuilding—with Japanese workers, incidentally—the facilities that had been bombed.

After returning home and leaving the Navy I went to Columbia for a year, and then I worked a bit for a house builder. But I still had some wanderlust so I got a six-month job as a construction engineer in Venezuela, where the oilfields were being developed. Then I took the money I made and traveled around Europe ’til the money ran out. After that I came home and settled down. I’ve been here in New York ever since—except for such tourist travel as my wife and I have been able to squeeze in. And I guess I should mention a getaway cabin by a lake in Putnam County, just 50 miles from Manhattan but it feels like another world.

RML: You got a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at Dartmouth, and then a master’s in English literature from Columbia. That’s an unusual combination, at least for an engineer.

FLORMAN: Well, the concept behind the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth came from Sylvanus Thayer, also known as the Father of West Point. Thayer studied at Dartmouth and then at West Point, graduating in 1808, and when he was put in charge of the Academy in 1817, he brought with him respect for France’s École Polytechnique, where education for leadership was the tradition. In his older years he contributed funds for the founding of an engineering school at Dartmouth, and the concept of this school was that in order to be a topnotch engineer, you had to be a broadly educated individual prepared to take on the most pressing problems of civilized society. The school opened in 1871, and in the beginning students were obliged to take four years in college, receiving a basic bachelor of arts degree, and then spend two years in the engineering school before they could graduate with a degree in engineering. Eventually Dartmouth cut that back to a total of five years instead of six—BA degree after the fourth year plus BE after the fifth. And of course many graduates go on to advanced degrees. So, when I took a master of arts degree in literature, I was in a way honoring the Thayer tradition.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): There is increasing discussion of expanding engineering education to include some of the liberal arts. What do you think it would take to make that happen at other schools?

FLORMAN: As far as expanding the requirement for a basic engineering degree, a few years ago the dean of one of the largest engineering schools told me that the parents who pay the tuition are mostly not at all happy with the idea of adding a fifth year for the basic degree. However, currently there is considerable pressure to add more liberal arts courses into the basic engineering program. I happen to favor the Thayer program or equivalent, but I’m not privy to the conclaves where such decisions are made.

RML: Many of the decisions that are made in the interest of the public are made by people who have no training in science or engineering or technology. I’m curious: Given the background that you have in engineering and your interest and involvement in construction with KBF, where you were a chairman, have you ever thought about public life as a career?

FLORMAN: I guess everybody thinks about that—you look at the politicians and you say “I can do better.” But thinking realistically of public office for myself I would have to say “No, no, no, and no.” I get along fine with most people, but don’t put me before a rambunctious crowd and don’t ask me to debate with clever opponents or joust with professional journalists.

I’m supportive of the idea that engineers should be in public office. But exactly how this works out in the real world . . . well, it’s not clear. Our two engineer presidents have been Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Tom Wicker, a respected journalist of the late 1900s, noted that Mr. Carter used an “engineer’s approach of devising ‘comprehensive’ programs on this subject or that, but repeatedly failed to mobilize public opinion in their support.” Yet many apparently natural politicians, dynamic individuals who are able to mobilize public opinion, are often not clear thinkers nor trustworthy leaders.

CHF: What types of roles for engineers in public life do you think might be meaningful, relevant, useful?

FLORMAN: Well, we can’t give up on the idea of political leadership. I’ve mentioned the École Polytechnique in France, where engineering and science have been the foundation for going into public life. When doing research for a book that I wrote in 1997 I found that the presidents of several nations including Chile, Peru, and the Philippines were engineers. Jiang Zemin, president of China (1993–2003), was an electrical engineer who rose to political power through the post of minister of electronics industries. He had recently told an American visitor that although he no longer used his engineering actively, it helped him not only in his thinking and understanding of commercial and industrial projects in his country but also in systemizing his thinking about the world. So I’m reluctant to give up on the idea of engineers as political leaders.

But while we’re thinking about engineers seeking office or being in office because they’re so well informed and smart, somehow the advisory position doesn’t sound very romantic or dramatic. Yet it’s very important. All the key people in government, all the politicians, rely on advisors who we may not read about in the newspapers but often play a critical role.

There’s a very good play that was here in New York recently—based on a couple of highly praised books: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies—about Henry VIII and his advisor Thomas Cromwell. Very dramatic. Cromwell, as an advisor, really dominated the history of his time, doing more than advising, playing a critical role in the decision-making process.

RML: There’s a line in your book, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, in which you describe politics as “good objectives competing for limited resources.” I think that’s an apt description, particularly when, as an engineer, I look at things such as infrastructure in the United States. We’ve had bridges that have failed, sometimes spectacularly and with loss of life. We have airports that are described as third world, and water distribution systems, as in the city of Manhattan, that are more than a century old.

From an engineering perspective, there’s no doubt to me that our infrastructure needs some attention and updating, and yet we seem to have little movement on that from Congress. Is that the case? These are good objectives but with limited resources. And if that is the case how do we prioritize resources to deal with things that are fundamental to the way we function in this country?

FLORMAN: It is very much the case, and it’s hard to understand because most people agree that bridges should be safe and dams shouldn’t leak or levies disintegrate. Industry, certainly my industry, is waiting, waiting, waiting for the work to be financed. And the labor unions are all for it. What’s holding it back?

One is inclined to refer to the Great Smog of ’52, the air-pollution event that struck London during a period of cold weather in December of that year. The problem was obvious to all, but the danger had been ignored. The air in London was awful—coal-fired power stations, coal-heated homes, polluting vehicle exhaust. The city was renowned for its “pea-soupers.” The ’52 disaster was at first taken in stride. But in the ensuing weeks statistics compiled by medical services found that the fog had killed 4,000 people, possibly several times that number. After that event the public mood was completely changed. Regulations were imposed and laws were passed. Reflecting on the event at the 1962 international Conference on the Technological Order, Aldous Huxley observed: “Evidently we have to have a great many tremendous kicks in the pants before we learn anything.”2

RML: We don’t seem to have the political will to make some of this happen.

FLORMAN: That’s true. Politics is a funny thing. Newt Gingrich was leader of the Republicans in Congress at a time when members of his party were arguing for cutting the budget, and he said “Fine, let’s cut the budget, but not for science and industry.” He persuaded his party to work with the Democrats to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health. And all of the science and technical parts of government were funded at a time when many other aspects of the budget were being cut.

So it can be done, and everybody is calling for cooperation between the parties for the sake of the country. Let’s just hope common sense will prevail.

RML: In addition to your books, you have written for the New York Times and Harper’s.

FLORMAN: At Harper’s I was a contributing editor; at the New York Times I’ve had a variety of assignments—an essay in the Sunday magazine section, an op-ed, a couple of columns for the real estate section, and what I’ve really enjoyed the most is the book review section. I wrote eight or nine book reviews. That was fun, especially the front page review of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Soul of a New Machine. And for 15 years I wrote a regular column for Technology Review.

But Bob Lucky has done a world’s record number of columns for IEEE Spectrum over a period of many years.

RML: I know him. When I was at MIT he was a frequent visitor to the Materials Science Department. We had people in the department who were interested in integrative circuits and crystal growth and the kinds of things that were of interest to Bob and his colleagues at Bell Labs. I remember that he always spoke well and had a good sense of humor.

CHF: As evident in the title of the published collection of his columns: Lucky Strikes…Again. Henry Petroski is another engineer writer, and he spoke glowingly of you, Sam.

FLORMAN: If we ever have a club, Henry is the king and the emperor of engineer writers. I have a shelf full of his excellent books.

RML: The interesting thing is that you and Henry are both civil engineers. My sense is that the people in the engineering community with the most perspective and sensitivity to social issues seem to be civil engineers. That was true at MIT, where I remember people like Joe Sussman in the Civil Engineering Department. He really got very involved in public policy. His sense of the social value of what he is doing was enormous.

Maybe that is because civil engineers build systems that serve society—buildings and schools and apartments. There is also this dimension of a deep concern about the common good that has always struck me as being typical of civil engineers. Am I off-base or do you see it?

FLORMAN: No, you are very much on. As a matter of fact, historically, civil engineers were engineering until the mechanicals came along and identified themselves as a new and different group, and then all the other specialties followed. The civil engineer John Roebling, who designed the Brooklyn Bridge, was a student of philosophy.

RML: That is another common sort of factor here. Henry Petroski, in addition to teaching civil engineering, is a history professor. And you have not only a degree in civil engineering but also one in English literature. Literature and writing must have been a very high priority or very high interest to you at an early stage.

FLORMAN: Yes, and part of the answer is down the street here: the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. It has been a very progressive school from way back.

CHF: You’ve been associated with engineering ethics, and we published a piece that you wrote for the Bridge back in 2002. We’re actually devoting an issue of the Bridge in 2017 to engineering ethics. What’s your take on the current status of engineering ethics? What do you think are the biggest challenges for engineering ethics right now and where has the greatest progress been made?

FLORMAN: Engineering societies are concerned about ethics, and this concern leads to formalized codes and standards. Those have changed and continue to change because what we think is proper ethically for engineers is inevitably affected by what society values. Since society values safety we begin to put in place new laws, new rules, even new organizations to oversee compliance with these new standards. But standards have a way of changing.

It used to be people would say the Constitution gives you independence. For example, people once were concerned about the engines in steamboats blowing up and people being killed, and some politician of the day said, “You get on the boat, you check out the engine yourself to make sure the engine is proper. You can’t tell people what kind of an engine to put in their boat!” The thinking has changed, and with it the role of the engineer and the role of government have come to be generally accepted.

Now, that doesn’t mean that engineers who work for oil companies may or may not as individuals have opinions about where and how much oil should be developed, or where drilling is proper. During World War II IEEE had questionnaires for their members, and one of the questions was, “How do you feel about working on armaments?” For some engineers the answer was, “Sure, armaments are a part of life. I’m willing to work.” For others, well, all right, maybe they would work, it was patriotic, but they really didn’t like it—“We shouldn’t be devoting our technical knowledge to ever more horrifying weapons, ending up with the H-bomb.”

So, ethics… engineers sometimes are in the middle of situations where community standards are not at all clear. Take the automobile—the Pinto was a famous case. We learn that an automobile has a defect, and some people die because of it, and everybody is outraged. If you spend more money on an automobile you can make it safer and safer and safer. You could make it like a tank and nobody would ever be killed. Yet at the same time people say, “We want cheap automobiles, we want automobiles that are available for all citizens.” So we go back and forth; these matters are not simple. Similarly, if we want to save the environment, some people say “we’ll take care of that later on, right now we can’t afford it,” or “who knows what the danger really is.”

I think we’re all agreed we want to do the right thing, but then it turns out that engineers and the public can’t agree on the right thing to do. Or engineers can’t agree among themselves. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying, that we shouldn’t consider all aspects.
Certainly engineers should be committed to being careful and diligent so that we don’t have engineering mistakes from laziness or, I fear, sometimes greed. As we go along we have no choice but to be bound by current laws and regulations of which there are many thousands.

So ethics are very important, if sometimes difficult to define or agree on. I hate to see young engineers coming out of school and going to work and immediately becoming hostile because they don’t like something that the industry is manufacturing. You want your engineers to be enthusiastic about what they’re doing. Neither do I like to hear an engineer-executive say that his loyalty is to his stockholders, not to the public. But it’s not a simple matter, which is exactly why we should be working on it and having meetings and having issues of an important publication devoted to it. Incidentally, the article I wrote for the Bridge back in 2002 was titled “Engineering Ethics: The Conversation without End.”

RML: Let’s talk about KBF. You were chair of the general construction corporation Kreisler Borg Florman. You have a number of projects that bear the name of your firm in terms of the construction activity, but one that particularly intrigues me is called New York by Gehry, a 76-story apartment building in Manhattan. Could you tell us a little about KBF and New York by Gehry?

FLORMAN: There’s some confusion in the public’s mind, even good friends of mine, when they see our sign, Kreisler Borg Florman, up on a building, like New York by Gehry. We’re the project manager: we build the building in the sense that we get the different contractors together, we hire the plumber, electrician, we have people of our own doing work and expert superintendents and supervision, and we schedule and we oversee the money flow. Yes, we are the builder—we are professionals—but we are not the “owner,” who is usually a private developer, a government agency, or a private institution. Nor are we the architect, nor the various design engineers who prepare the drawings and specifications.

The owner puts up the money (in this case some $600 million) or arranges for the financing. Sometimes the developer wants his sign up there, and sometimes not, because communities are not always thrilled to see buildings going up in certain locations.

In the case of New York by Gehry, Bruce Ratner was the developer. This building is on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge, in a very interesting part of town near Greenwich Village, a somewhat artsy part of town and an active community. Certain members of this community didn’t want a huge building going up there, so Ratner worked with the local people, and lo and behold four stories of this building are devoted to a school, for the city as a whole and for that part of the city in particular. And one floor is devoted to a hospital to provide healthcare facilities. And then, for a variety of reasons, one of which was to help get approval from artistic people who might have objected to the building, Ratner hired Gehry, who has done some fabulous museums and buildings all over the world that have gotten attention, and that was a big plus.

I think that this building is quite beautiful. Technologically it’s not different from most tall buildings, but artistically there’s a stainless steel covering in the form of waves, so that when you look at it it’s not a flat building with brick or plain metal plates, but instead you see this ripple effect. Some people are not sure they like it, but I think it’s very striking, very handsome. And a delight to build.

But along came the financial crisis—the worst since the Great Depression—and when we were about halfway up, at the 40th floor, we were told to stop work. It was a difficult time for the New York construction industry and of course for the nation. Happily the unions came in, not only for this building but for several under construction in the city, and negotiated some reduction in wages. Also, Ratner met with his financial associates, and took such actions as they thought appropriate, and after a short delay—a tense time—we were told to go ahead and get the building finished. It was nice to have this as one of the final jobs in KBF’s 60-year career as we decided to close down.

We were disappointed with the behavior of a couple of organizations once they knew that we were retiring from the scene, but Ratner was as fair and decent as he could be. And looking back over all these years in what is considered to be a tough industry—and what happens to be (with the exception of restaurants) the most failure-prone industry in the nation—I am overwhelmed by the memories of fairness, goodwill, and indeed kindness that came my way.

RML: Are your children and grandchildren interested in engineering or likely to pursue engineering?

FLORMAN: We have two sons and five granddaughters. The sons spent some time as teenagers working as construction laborers, but grew up to be one doctor and one lawyer, which pleases their parents very much. Among the five granddaughters, the oldest has just graduated from law school and I think this very week is starting her job with a law firm. I don’t believe her two sisters in college are on the scientific or engineering track, but I’m holding my breath.

The two younger granddaughters are now a junior and senior in high school, the same school their parents went to, the same school I went to—a very fine school. As young women of today they are very much into science and even engineering, which is being introduced in the high school. So check back with me in a couple of years and let’s see when they get to college which way they go.

RML: They must be in a high school that is emphasizing STEM education.

FLORMAN: Yes, and I’ve met a couple of the teachers engaged in this new enterprise. Of course you know that STEM in some places is being converted to STEAM—the A is for the arts, to make sure that liberal education doesn’t get left out in the cold.

RML: I think that’s a very worthwhile objective.

CHF: As we wrap up our conversation, Sam, what messages would you like to convey to the Bridge readership?

FLORMAN: I guess a final message should be inspirational. I know that we’re all proud of our free enterprise democracy and of the engineering skills that contribute so much to our worthy society. But beyond our personal efforts there is the communal endeavor that is vital to our society’s well-being. The NAE is committed to advising the federal government, sponsoring engineering programs, encouraging education and research, recognizing superior achievements, and such worthy causes. I think that we all have a responsibility to share in these efforts. I think that engineers as a profession are committed to go into society to create things in the public interest, and to serve with groups with worthy objectives. It has been a pleasure and a privilege for me to serve on the board of the Hall of Science here in New York, and a school board, a hospital board, and the board of overseers of my engineering school, and on committees at the National Academies. I think we all owe it. And darned if we don’t enjoy it when we get involved.

And beyond our own communities and even beyond our own nation, I’m happy to see that engineers are more and more committing themselves and their efforts to the public good in the widest sense, on an international scale. I used to be irked that there were Doctors Without Borders and other organizations that go out and help people in the world, without identifiable participation by engineers. Only belatedly is there an organization established called Engineers Without Borders. Engineers by and large are smart, and energetic, so let’s share our good impulses for the public good. Our government and those of many other nations band together for international rescue missions in cases of disaster. And charitable organizations support marvellous efforts to relieve poverty and cure disease. Some engineers—often young engineers—are valuable participants in such enterprise. I can’t claim to have participated in such efforts myself—except for small contributions—but you’ve asked me for a message to the Bridge readership. 

And thinking of the Bridge and of the Academy, let’s not forget the good folks in Washington, the staff, arranging the meetings, distributing the documents, bringing order to the enterprises that have to be efficiently managed to be effective. And publishing important materials. Please give those folks my good wishes—and to you folks who are putting out what I think is a very important publication—bravo! And Ron and Cameron, thanks for the invitation to chat about good and important things. We haven’t solved all the world’s problems, but we’re working on them.


1 Poet-engineer Richard Blanco, interviewed for the fall 2014 issue of the Bridge, cited Sam Florman’s book The Existential Pleasures of Engineering as a significant influence in his decision to become an engineer.

2 Huxley A. 1962. Technology and Culture 3(4):636–642. Proceedings of the Encyclopaedia Britannica Conference on the Technological Order.