From the Places to Visit File…

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Many people may want to know: Where would an engineer want to visit on vacation? We have a number of great suggestions, but we will start with Washington, DC. The obvious choice for the engineer is Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. But, as I said, that is obvious, and we will cover that later. Here is another great location: The Building Museum!

Yes, dedicated to understanding the engineering (unfortunately with some architecture and planning thrown in) of buildings and all their facets, systems, and fascinating features. Now, for the bad news. If you didn’t visit it between October, 2009 and July, 2010, you missed what may have been the best exhibit ever. An exhibit dedicated to parking garages. Tell me that isn’t cool.

This is from the News Release at the time:

“House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage is the first major exhibition to explore the history of this familiar structure and open conversations about innovative designs and parking solutions for the future.”

We here at are dedicated to finding more gems like this, and, hopefully, before they are two years out of date. In case anyone ever brings back this exhibit, you will be the first to know. (No one has yet, to our knowledge. Don’t know why.)

Buying a Couch, or Not – The Engineer is Beaten

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This story is from my own life. A number of years ago, we moved into our second home in a different city and got into a house that had a little more room, to accommodate our growing family. My wife looked at our family room and declared, “We need a new couch!”

As an engineer, I surveyed the situation. There was a chair. There was a beanbag seat somewhere. The family room was next to the dining area where chairs could be pulled if needed. Multiple use of furniture, and, best of all, it didn’t cost anything. A new couch would cost something – time, money, calculations, etc.

I informed my wife that we did not need a new couch but we could certainly get around any seating issues in our new family room. Her response was to call my mother. Not her mother, my mother. After explaining the situation, my mother told her to put me on the phone. The first, and pretty much the only thing I heard, was, “Buy your wife a couch.”

The engineer can be frugal, but when your own mother sides with your wife, the increasing grade of the hill ahead is just not worth it. We got a new couch. The engineer was defeated.

You Might Be an Engineer If…

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– you have ever corrected someone about a term people wrongly use, only to be told that it doesn’t matter. (I always correct people when they say the word “cement”, when the word they clearly should have used was “concrete”.)


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Some may consider this a strange number to be of importance or meaning to engineers. Some, but not engineers. The engineer knows this number, 9.81, is one to be remembered and, if it didn’t sound too emotional, cherished. Many non-engineers out there may remember what this number represents from their science class in high school.

9.81, combined with the units of meters per seconds squared is the acceleration due to gravity, at the earth’s surface. It shows up in many equations, especially in mechanical engineering, and is represented by the constant “g”. Thus, astronauts and fighter pilots experience g-forces, or forces as if many times the force of gravity. This acceleration due to gravity means that an object falling near the earth’s surface, discounting air resistance, will travel 9.81 meters per second faster for every second of falling. I know, fascinating.

Sure, we could also talk about 32.2, the English equivalent of “g”, with the units of feet per seconds squared, but let’s not ruin the engineer’s enjoyment of this constant by bringing in a sub-standard unit of measurement. (Thanks.)

Factor of Safety

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A great way to understand the engineer’s interest in living life far from those risky edges is through the geotechnical world, otherwise known as playing in the dirt. When an engineer has to determine whether a soil will fail under the weight of a building, the engineer uses an equation – no surprise there. I won’t go into all the details here for fear of alienating the non-engineers (or putting them to sleep), but in simple terms the engineer want to assure that:

F < S

where, F = the force of the building

and S = Strength of the soil or the amount of Force the soil can withstand before failing

But no one wants S to be just barely more than F. Maybe we measured the forces wrong, or an extra force ends up on it, or our estimation of the strength of the soil may be off, or…. a lot of other things.

My first class in geotechnical engineering helped me see the risk-averse side of engineering. Use an equation with numerous variables which are mostly Greek letters, so you know they must be important. This involved look-up tables and various calculations to arrive at a number for both sides of the equation. Then, to make sure it is safe, multiply the force by 3. Yes, engineers want the strength, after all the complicated equations, to be 3 times stronger than what we calculate may be the force it needs to withstand.

This is how engineers live life. Make all the calculations. Then multiply by a Factor of Safety of 3. It explains a lot.

Mowing the Lawn – Updated!

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A couple weeks ago, I wrote about an engineer who came home from work and saw that his newlywed wife had attempted to help out with a household chore – mowing the lawn – only to find that she had mowed it in the wrong pattern! I also said, as was told to me by the non-engineer (NE) wife, that he, the engineer went out and re-mowed the lawn that evening.

I ran into another NE wife who, after reading that post, wondered if she had told me that story already because the exact same thing happened to her. She had not told me this. This was a second occurrence. However, her story was a little more insightful into the ways of an engineer. When her new husband came home and saw the lawn – again, mowed in the wrong pattern – he did not even come in the house. He started up the mower and got right to correcting this flagrant disorder, still in his oxford shirt, tie, and wingtips.

I say with Spock, “Fascinating.”

The obvious note: This second NE wife has also never mowed the lawn since.

You Might Be an Engineer If…

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– you have ever asked a girl out by reading from a script.

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