Everyday Engineering: The Marvels that Surround Us

Taught by Professor Stephen Ressler, Ph.D.

When we think about modern engineering and technology, we instinctively tend to think about sophisticated computing devices and consumer electronics, jet aircraft and bullet trains, and robots and lasers.

In many ways, the products of modern engineering that have the most substantial influence on our lives are the ones we almost never think about—the everyday technologies that surround us in our homes and workplaces.

Watch lecture 1 from the series Everyday Engineering, and follow along with the summary below.

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What Is Engineering?

  • Engineering is the application of math, science, technology, and experience to create a system, component, or process that serves our society.
  • Science provides us with explanations about how the physical world works. Sometimes these explanations are true representations of nature—but they often aren’t.
  • For example, Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion serve as a scientific basis for the design of most current everyday technologies, even though we know that these laws aren’t strictly correct representations of how physical bodies move in time and space. From an engineering perspective, Newton’s laws are much simpler to apply than Einstein’s theory of general relativity—and for most practical applications, their predictive power is entirely sufficient for their use in the design of engineered systems.
  • Indeed, from an engineering perspective, the only things that really matter about a scientific theory are its predictive power and its ease of application
Image for Everyday Engineering course by The Great CoursesEveryday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life
Explore the workings of the fascinating buildings, devices, and public utilities that we use almost every minute of the day, in this course taught by an award-winning professor.
  • A historical case in point is the scientific theory of heat. The first coherent theory describing heat as a form of energy equivalent to mechanical work was published by Sir Benjamin Thompson in 1798. By the 1850s, the principal laws of thermodynamics had been formulated and were proving quite useful in the design of steam engines. However, as late as the 1880s, scientists were still debating what heat actually is, with some claiming (incorrectly) that it’s a fluid, which they called “caloric,” and others claiming (correctly) that heat is the motion of the particles constituting matter. But even as the scientists debated, the engineers had a scientific theory that could predict the power output of various steam engine designs with reasonable accuracy—and that was all that mattered.
  • To engineers, the predictive power of a scientific theory is so important because every engineering design is, at the most fundamental level, a prediction of the future. When an engineer designs a bridge, he or she is predicting that the structural system will be capable of safely carrying the maximum load the bridge is likely to experience over its entire lifetime. And the basis for this is a series of scientific models used to predict internal forces, stresses, deformations, and material strengths. None of these predictions is perfectly accurate, but all are sufficiently accurate to produce safe designs.
  • All of these scientific models are expressed mathematically, because physical phenomena are inherently quantitative in nature. Mathematics is also the language of engineering, because technological systems are envisioned, designed, specified, and constructed quantitatively.
  • The relationship between engineering and technology is particularly fascinating because technology is both a means to an end and the end itself. The product of engineering is technology. Yet technology is also instrumental to the modern engineering design process.
  • Virtually all modern engineering designs use information technology, because the computational demands associated with our modern scientific models can be met far more efficiently by computers than by stubby pencils and mechanical calculators. But pencils and calculators are technologies, too, and they continue to perform an important role in modern engineering—as do all sorts of other technologies, such as materials testing equipment, measuring instruments, and the machinery associated with manufacturing and construction. These tools of the engineering process are themselves all products of engineering.

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  • This same sort of circular relationship also exists between science and technology. Science contributes immeasurably to the design of modern technology, and modern science would be impossible without technological tools like electron microscopes, satellites, and particle accelerators.
  • Its value notwithstanding, the role of science in engineering is sometimes overstated. After all, many of humankind’s most important inventions and technological innovations have been created with little or no scientific basis. At best, the people who built the first wheeled vehicles, waterpower, aqueducts, and cathedrals could only draw from a qualitative understanding of the physical world. The invention of the steam engine preceded—and actually inspired—the science of thermodynamics.
  • Conversely, the role of experience in engineering is often underappreciated. Consider the modern automobile, the invention of which is generally attributed to Karl Benz in 1886. In the years since then, the sciences of mechanics, thermodynamics, chemistry, and electricity have contributed mightily to the development of this machine. But much of its long-term development must also be attributed to experience—careful observation, empirical testing, trial and error, and meticulous refinement—interspersed with occasional bursts of creative insight. This side of engineering has little to do with science and everything to do with ingenuity.

Why Study Everyday Engineering?

  • Why is everyday engineering a subject worth studying, even if you’re not an engineer? The following are three reasons.
  • We can all benefit from being informed users of technology. For example, when your plumbing system breaks, you’ll benefit from understanding what went wrong, even if your plumber will be doing the repair.
  • Knowing something about everyday engineering can make us all better citizens. As an engaged citizen, you should take wellreasoned positions on issues like deregulation of the power industry, public investment in transportation infrastructure, and the environmental impact of shale gas exploration—and you should consider these issues when you vote for the officials who influence these policies. You can’t really take a well-reasoned position on any of these issues without some understanding of the associated technologies.
  • Perhaps most importantly, everyday engineering is immensely rewarding, and it’s fun to learn more about the world around us.
  • As you explore the world of everyday technology throughout this course, you will encounter the following recurring themes.
  • There is no such thing as an ideal technology; engineering always involves trade-offs. To achieve an optimum solution with respect to one criterion, we must inevitably compromise on one or more other criteria.
  • There is a collective love-hate relationship with technology. For example, we’re addicted to our cell phones, but we’ll vigorously protest the construction of a new cell tower in our neighborhood. This course can help reconcile these kinds of contradictory positions a bit.
  • Government plays a substantial role in everyday engineering. Throughout this course, you will learn about the impacts of government regulation, but you also will learn how deregulation has reshaped various industries and has significantly influenced the services we receive from them. You will learn how government incentive programs have been used to spur technological development—sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. As you will learn, the impact of government involvement depends on the specific government action, the context, the interface with relevant professional communities, and the technology itself.
  • Remarkable human achievements are reflected in the seemingly mundane works of everyday engineering. Our beautifully integrated systems for residential construction, water purification, electrical power distribution, telecommunications, and transportation are triumphs of human imagination, ingenuity, and persistence that substantially improve the quality of life for millions of people. As you experience these human achievements throughout this course, you hopefully will gain a keener appreciation for the work of the countless engineers who have done so much good work, largely behind the scenes, to make our lives better.

Key Terms to Know

aqueduct: A conduit used to transport water from its source to its point of use.

cell phone: A radio transmitter-receiver used in cellular communication.

distribution: (1) The movement of potable water from a local reservoir or water treatment facility to consumers. (2) The movement of electrical power from a substation to consumers.

engineering: The application of math, science, technology, and experience to create a system, component, or process that serves our society.

fluid: A liquid or gas.

heat: Thermal energy transferred from a region of higher temperature to a region of lower temperature.

infrastructure: Large-scale technological structures and systems that enhance societal functions, facilitate economic development, and enhance quality of life. The most common infrastructure systems are electrical power, water supply, wastewater disposal, storm drainage, solid waste disposal, transportation, and telecommunications.

internal force: A force developed within a structural element in response to one or more applied loads. An internal force can be either tension or compression.

load: A force applied to a structure. Types of loads include dead load, live load, snow load, wind load, and seismic load.

mechanics: A branch of science that deals with the effects of forces acting on physical bodies.

plumbing system: A building subsystem that provides clean water to fixtures and transmits wastewater outside the building for disposal.

power: (1) The rate at which work is done, measured in units of force × distance ÷ time. (2) Voltage × current, measured in watts (or volt-amps).

shale gas: Natural gas that is found within and extracted from shale, usually through the process of hydraulic fracturing.

strength: The maximum force a structural element can carry before it fails. Strength can be defined for both tension and compression.

stress: The intensity of internal force within a structural element, defined in terms of force per area (e.g., pounds per square inch).

structural system: An assemblage of structural elements—e.g., beams, columns, rafters, trusses, wall panels, and connections—designed to carry load safely.

technology: The product of engineering.


From the lecture series Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life
Taught by Professor Stephen Ressler, Ph.D.

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