February 15, 2021 is Presidents’ Day, which falls just shy of Engineers Week, a national event to celebrate the impactful work of engineers. To honor Presidents’ Day, and in preparation for Engineers Week starting February 21, Baskin Engineering commemorates past “engineer” presidents.
Did you know that George Washington, prior to becoming the United States first president, was an engineer? One of Washington’s first jobs was working as the official surveyor of Culpeper County. Shortly before his presidency, he led an engineering company called the Potomac Canal Company, which he founded in an attempt to circumnavigate the Potomac river. Even though he eventually joined the military and became president, he maintained an interest in engineering throughout his life.
President Abraham Lincoln was also a land surveyor at one time. Although he eventually turned to law as his primary profession, he never gave up his engineering spirit. His law partner, William H. Herndon, once wrote that Lincoln "evinced a decided bent toward machinery or mechanical appliances,” and while Lincoln was still practicing law, he came up with an invention for “buoying vessels over shoals” that he had patented in 1849. Although his invention was never manufactured or put into use, it has given him the distinction of being the only U.S. President to hold a patent.
Two other presidents in our nation’s history were also trained as engineers. President Jimmy Carter took numerous engineering courses while in the U.S. Naval Academy and was preparing to become an engineering officer in the Navy before his father died and he had to return home. President Herbert Hoover was also an engineer.
How do these presidential histories relate to engineering today? On the surface, the tasks that a modern engineer faces appear to be very different from the ones that our former presidents encountered. Next week, as the University of California celebrates the work our engineers are doing to curb the coronavirus pandemic, fight climate change, advance cybersecurity and robotics/AI technology, and make data science and ethical algorithms a priority, you will see articles about engineers who are grappling with challenges and solutions that not even Jimmy Carter, let alone George Washington, could have imagined when they were training to be engineers decades or centuries ago. The world of engineering has advanced to encompass artificial intelligence, environmental protection, computing, laboratory research, massive data sets, and human genomes. While the materials and projects might be very different, the fundamental goal of creating technology for good has not changed.
The ambition to solve problems for human equality and wellbeing and for the protection of our environment and natural resources is what being an engineer is all about, and it is that mission that drives UC engineers to keep doing what they are doing. Whether they are manufacturing vaccines from scratch, creating alternative transportation methods that would decrease our carbon footprint, or encoding data to protect people’s privacy, UC engineers spend their days analyzing problems and systematically designing solutions that they hope will bring us all to a better future.