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Princeton Weekly Bulletin   November 6, 2006, Vol. 96, No. 8   prev   next   current

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An innovator in engineering education, Billington connects disciplines


David Billington explains the mechanics of a suspension bridge with the help of a model built out of K’nex toys and simple supplies from a hardware store. The bridge is part of a laboratory created by Michael Littman, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and Billington’s collaborator for the “Engineering in the Modern World” course. It allows students to do quantitative experiments with three-dimensional models of structures studied in class. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

Princeton NJ — David P. Billington is well known for connecting engineering to other disciplines within the University — to the humanities, art, science and politics. His courses in “Structures and the Urban Environment” and “Engineering in the Modern World” combine the study of engineering with an exploration of the aesthetic and social values intrinsic to it, an association of ideas that have made them some of the most popular courses among engineering and non-engineering students for decades.

Billington, the Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor of Engineering, has taught perhaps 5,000 Princeton undergraduates since joining the faculty in 1960.

“It would have never occurred to me to make these kinds of connections if I had not been at Princeton,” said Billington. “I don’t think it would have been possible at other universities to have such long and fruitful conversations with other disciplines. But I was able to do it here because of the University’s relatively small size and because the engineering school is so integral to the University itself.”

Billington’s latest project is a book that provides an accessible account of eight breakthrough innovations that transformed American life from 1876 to 1939. He and his son, historian David P. Billington Jr., collaborated to write “Power, Speed and Form: Engineers and the Making of the 20th Century,” published this month by Princeton University Press. The authors provide short narrative accounts of each breakthrough to explain the engineering behind the innovation and to describe how its innovators thought. On Oct. 27, he and his son were keynote speakers in San Diego at the annual conference of the National Academy of Engineering’s Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education.

Billington has earned numerous honors for his scholarship and his teaching, including three Engineering Council awards. When Billington received the President’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2001, one former student praised him as “the best instructor, the most inspirational adviser, and the professor with the most lasting impact on my interests and thinking.” In 2003, he received the National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars.

In a recent conversation, Billington spoke about the beauty of engineering, his approaches to teaching and how Princeton has changed in the past 50 years.

Why did you and your son write the book?

The book grows out of my class “Engineering in the Modern World,” which I teach with Michael Littman [professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering]. It is often the largest course offered by the engineering school, and it draws engineering and liberal arts students alike. All of my scholarship grows out of this introductory course and two similar ones, and it feeds into those courses. I think of every lecture as a peer-reviewed publication.

The idea of the book, which is a follow-up volume to my 1996 book “The Innovators,” is to focus on individual people and to differentiate between true innovators and mere inventors. The difference is that an inventor takes out a patent on a specific invention. There are hundreds of thousands of inventors but many fewer innovators. An innovator in private industry brings an invention to market so that it has a place in the market economy, while an innovator in public works designs a new type of structure that has widespread impact.

There are two types of innovations. One type is an improvement on something that already exists. Then there are radical innovations, which truly change the culture. The telephone and the radio were radical innovations. The cell phone is less so because it is basically an improvement on existing innovations in wireless and the telephone. I don’t denigrate the more gradual kind of invention; it’s just that the other kind is more interesting to teach in an introduction to modern engineering.

Do these innovators share certain characteristics?

I’m naturally suspicious of general theories of innovation. Each one of these individuals is unique. But I would say they share a strength of character and an ability to think independently. For big thoughts, thinking alone is usually the most productive approach. But such engineers can only be successful in a technologically strong culture and usually with a group of talented people as assistants.

You have been an innovator yourself in the field of engineering education.

I’m trying to break out of the tradition of the standard way of introducing engineering. Technological literacy should be part of the liberal arts. Our life is an artificial world, and everything in our life is bounded by the built environment. I want my students to be equipped to see and interpret in an educated way the engineered environment that surrounds them.

On the other hand, I would like engineers themselves to be more imbued with the history of their profession. If you ask most engineers, “Who are the greatest engineers of the 20th century?” you will often get a blank look. The engineering field is forward-looking and with good reason. But the future is always an outgrowth of the past. You can’t grow from nothing.

What innovations do you cover in the book?

Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Thomas Edison’s light and power network, oil refining breakthroughs, the automobile, the airplane, the radio, large-scale steel bridges and concrete structures, and the stream- lining of automobiles and airplanes in the 1930s.

One of my favorite innovations is William Burton’s idea for obtaining gasoline from crude oil. Standard Oil began using the method in 1913, about the time that Henry Ford perfected his mass-production system for making automobiles. Burton’s process vastly increased the amount of gasoline that could be produced from a barrel of crude oil and therefore had a tremendous but frequently overlooked role in the ascendancy of the automobile and in the more efficient use of natural resources.

Who are your favorite innovators?

In personal terms, I would say that Orville and Wilbur Wright were such stellar people that they come across very well. If we were just writing hagiography, it would not be nearly so interesting. These were real people. They were flawed and stubborn but possessed brilliant insight as engineers. Samuel Morse and Henry Ford could be nasty. You don’t have to revere them to respect their innovations.

You have said that innovators are very different from scientists. How?

Unlike a scientist whose goal is discovery, the goal of engineers is to design new objects or systems. [Samuel] Langley, the head of the Smithsonian, approached the problem of flight as a scientist, and he was unsuccessful. The Wright brothers focused on full-scale testing and relatively simple mathematical formulas to design their pioneering airplane. All the innovations we explore used relatively simple numerical ideas. Our book is unique in that we gently weave these mathematical concepts into the narrative accounts of each breakthrough.

book cover

Your new book has lots of images (including a photo of you and your brother James at the 1939 World’s Fair). Long before the invention of PowerPoint, images were an integral part of your courses. Why?

When I was a student, no matter what subject you took you rarely saw images except in art history or architecture. The images help me communicate the visual, expressive power of all engineering. In addition, in the structures course, I want my students to study those engineering works the same way they would analyze paintings by Klee or Turner.

Are innovations works of art?

The definition I use to distinguish art from non-art is that art must be intentionally designed aesthetically. Engineering is driven by efficiency. As my students have heard me say time and again, the best structural engineering is a result of the three Es: efficiency, economy and elegance. Aesthetics are integral to the design, not some contortion of good engineering or simply a decorative pastiche.

You have revamped your spring structures course. Why?

Because the course already deals with the urban environment, we want to expand the material covered to include such things as the Big Dig in Boston and New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To make room for all this new material, we have radically simplified the emphasis on calculations, so the course should appeal to all students.

You and your brother, the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, are both Princeton class of ’50. Are you twins?

We’re not twins, even though we have the same birthday. I am two years older. We both came to Princeton as freshmen in 1946. I came after spending a year after high school as an electronics technician in the Navy, which had the misguided notion that people who were good in math and physics would be good at fixing radar sets. This was not so, at least in my case.

My brother is brilliant and he skipped a grade. He majored in history; he was such a stellar scholar [he would become valedictorian of their class] that many people thought that I went into engineering simply because I wanted to be as far away from him as possible. Actually, I was always interested in building, and I was genuinely drawn to the field. However, Jim did drag me to a lot of history lectures. I especially remember E. Harris Harbison, Gordon Craig and Joseph Strayer — they were all brilliant and formed a real powerhouse [in the history department].

Kenneth Condit, who at that time was the pioneering dean of the School of Engineering, had invented an academic program called Basic Engineering. It was for generalists rather than specialists. I took a wide range of engineering classes and had more electives than the liberal arts students did. My “Engineering in the Modern World” course is really a boiled down version of that whole program.

When did you come back to Princeton to teach?

After I graduated I won a Fulbright fellowship and went to study in Belgium, where I was exposed to a lot of innovative work in pre-stressed concrete. This made me valuable when I got back two years later to the United States, which was behind in this field. I worked in New York designing structures for a consulting engineering firm. In 1958 I was invited to teach a night course at Princeton, and two years later I joined the faculty.

How has the University changed over the years?

When I was an undergraduate, the ethos was mostly undergraduate-oriented. I had [former University President] Robert Goheen as a preceptor. The move toward a research university has been monumental. Princeton, more than any other research university, has retained the principle of undergraduate education but the great emphasis on research has still been a major change.

When I began teaching, Princeton was exclusively male. The students are of course more diverse now. And they are as vibrant as ever.

Although you are not formally trained in history, you and James are both historians. Was history highly prized in your family growing up?

My father really should have been a history professor. But when he was 14 his father died, and he had to support the family; he ultimately became an insurance broker. Jim fulfilled his ambition. In another era our mother would have been an engineer; her father was an engineer, and she was very good in math and science. Instead she became a home economist and was the cooking editor of the Curtis Publishing Co. and helped to found Jack & Jill magazine.

We grew up middle-middle-class outside of Philadelphia in Merion, Pa. Our parents lost all their money in the Depression. We had a truly wonderful upbringing in that it was not privileged. We hardly went anywhere in the summer. We were a close little family. It was very happy but not consciously intellectual. Jim and I loved comic books; we had a huge collection that we would loan out to our friends.

And now your son David Billington Jr. is a historian too, working as an independent scholar. What was it like to work together on this book?

David has described our work together as a collaboration in which each has learned from the other. I think that is absolutely correct. I grappled with this book for 10 years and then turned it over to him. David’s contributions changed the focus of the book to emphasize some important new themes. In some ways, this is perhaps more his book than mine, which is particularly impressive given that at the same time he was completing a significant book on modern British history that was also published this year.

Now that this book is finished, what lies ahead for you?

One principal challenge now for me is to ensure that the teaching of engineering becomes a significant part of the liberal arts curriculum at Princeton and that all engineering students gain an understanding of the grand tradition of modern engineering. A vital way to meet this challenge will be to educate, through my graduate program, a new kind of teacher-scholar. These students will learn how to do first-rate structural engineering scholarship during the course of their doctoral work; they will also teach in introductory courses and their research will in turn enrich these courses. Then, as exemplars of this teacher-scholar model, the students will carry this tradition forward as they take positions in other colleges and universities.


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