In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about!

Engineering and the Elixir of Life

Monday, January 4, 2021

Author: Samuel C. Florman

We are approaching the end of 2020, 75 years removed from a horrific world war that ended with the introduction of nuclear weapons, only to find ourselves in the grip of a fearsome pandemic and shocked by near revolutionary crises of racial conflict. At the same time, as engineers, it is our professional obligation to plan for improvement, and, according to the charter of the National Academy of Engineering, “to serve the nation in connection with significant problems in engineering and technology.” Considering need, challenges, new directions—well, I wonder if I’m the sort of engineer who is equipped to meet the challenge.

I am a civil engineer and my career has been in construction. Ah, construction, that art, that profession, that science—one of the most glorious ancient achievements of the human race. Construction needs no special commentary from me. It will carry on with honor as it always has.

But as for facing the future, the problems that cry out for attention and solutions, construction simply does not seem ready to show the way. We dream of grand buildings in grand tomorrows, but tomorrow’s buildings will not solve the problems that threaten us today.

Yet I want to participate in planning for the future. And it so happens that I have recently found a worthy cause, a way to serve the nation as the Academy requires. Water supply and distribution. Needy, worthy, appropriate. Also, for me, personal happenstance enters into the picture.

In 2003 the NAE produced a volume titled A Century of Innovation: Twenty Engineering Achievements That Transformed Our Lives. It was my pleasure to play a minor role as a member of the book development committee and to contribute a one-page “Perspective” sharing stories and insights in connection with one of the 20 achievements. The topic to which I was assigned was water supply and distribution—not as a need, but as an achievement. It fit nicely into my personal inclinations then, and does now.

As a child growing up in New York City, my experience with water supply verged on the idyllic. My father was enchanted with the system of lakes, streams, aqueducts, tunnels, and reservoirs that brought a grand supply of water to our apartment in Manhattan, and he passed on his enthusiasm to me. My mother expressed appreciation for the medicinal and chemical triumphs that had made available water a healthy part of life. I was fascinated by the turbulence of buildings under construction, and beyond the handsome towers I took delight in the parks and beaches at our disposal.

As a student I took to mathematics, then engineering, and found hydraulics to be a subject with appeal. At the end of World War Two, as a newly commissioned officer in the Navy Seabees, I found myself in charge of Japanese workers building a small earth fill dam that provided pure water on a Pacific island. Working harmoniously with ex-enemies and discovering life’s elixir, pure water, amid vast expanses of ocean—it sort of brought philosophy into the picture.

When I started to make a living in the construction industry I further came to appreciate the complex role of water—technical and political—in our society. And, when, in the early 1970s, with my family I became the owner of a small cabin by a lake just 50 miles north of New York City—and served on the community lake committee—I was amazed to learn of the role that government had come to play in the world of water supply. We purchased special fish to control the growth of weeds, then were obliged to use fish that were neutered to keep the numbers under control.

Amazement turned to wonder when I became acquainted with the encyclopedic Century of Innovation project. In the early years of the 20th century waterborne diseases had been rampant—typhoid, dysentery, cholera. But the introduction of chlorine made an enormous difference, and the engineered control of rivers, the use of dams, canals, sewers, reservoirs, desalination—the introduction of superb engineering—brought civilization to new heights.

But just as I think these comforting thoughts, I come across a recent Engineering News-Record (July 20/27) reporting that Chennai, India, a city with a population of more than 8 million, for more than 4 months last year had run out of water. People lined up to get their allotment of water that was brought from the countryside by rail car and tanker truck. “The first major city in the world to go completely dry.” And the future threatens more trouble. Very much more.

This experience sent me scurrying to libraries and questioning experts. And what did I find? The US government is busily occupied with water problems in this country. In the May/June 2020 issue of Civil Engineering I read, “On May 6, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously passed … amended versions of the America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) of 2020 (S.3591) and the Drinking Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 (S.3590). Combined, the two bills would authorize more than $18 billion in federal spending on various water programs.” And there follows a list of agencies and government-funded programs that is dazzling. Solutions, at least domestically, seem to be far ahead of me.

So perhaps I can put aside my dream of helping our noble profession solve the problems of water supply. We have a long way to go, both here and overseas, but I am optimistic that engineers—with the support of socially responsible legislators—will demonstrate the Seabees’ “Can Do!” spirit and do what needs doing.

In turbulent times it is all too easy to forget the inner rewards of this profession, which I described nearly 45 years ago as the existential pleasures of engineering. We engineers can derive deep satisfaction from the very nature of the work itself: thinking, solving, fixing, making. These activities are inherently rewarding. They help give meaning to our lives, and also bring fulfillment that might just be inexplicable. But how especially rewarding then to devote ourselves to projects such as water supply, for the good of humankind, and indeed sustaining life.

About the Author:Sam Florman (NAE) is the retired chair of Kreisler Borg Florman General Construction.