Friday, April 12, 2013
159: Eugene Ferguson's Engineering and the Mind's Eye
Ferguson's emphasis on the visual is actually linked to a larger concern with engineering's loss of that holistic, experiential real-world experience on which the field was initially based - its retreat into scientific analysis. Thus, his history of engineering emphasizes its subjective nature before the scientific turn. In the Renaissance, engineers used improved drawing techniques to visualize and thus think through Scientific Revolution discoveries like planetary motion and human anatomy, and perspective drawing techniques (devised by Renaissance mathematicians) facilitated design by making representations more realistic. In the 18th and 19th centuries, formalized drawing techniques (especially orthogonal drawing), the use of models, and the development of visual systems for engineering calculation - slide rules, indicator diagrams, nomography, and graphic statistics - kept visual thinking at the forefront of engineering design and practice. After WWII, engineering education shifted away from an open-ended art and toward deductive, exact science: shop courses were replaced with theories of thermodynamics, mechanics, heat transfer; students have little interaction with the real world; graduating engineers have a hard time designing solutions for real-world problems.
Throughout, Ferguson's underlying argument is that the subjective, connected to real-world problems through visual thinking and representation, is incredibly important to engineers' ability to design effective solutions, and that engineering's scientific turn to abstract objectivity has had disastrous effects on the safety and utility of engineering projects. While his emphasis on the visual leads Ferguson to neglect larger systems of power in some of his examples (the Challenger failure), and I suspect that what he's actually getting at is fostering creativity rather than the visual per se, his argument for subjectivity and creative, real-world thinking in engineering certainly makes sense to me.