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The Engineer's Mind

by Alan R. Miller


Some people think engineers know very little about human interaction. They see everything in absolutes, are ice cold, are sure of themselves; and do not know how to be human and caring. At the same time, engineers are perceived as being precise and logical, great at solving problems, analytical and definite in their views, and loyal, dependable, and decent.


Engineers like to solve problems. If an engineer walks into a room and notices that a picture is crooked she wants to straighten it. Everything in the universe can be placed into one of two categories:

     1. Things that need to be fixed, and
     2. Things that will need fixing after they've been used for awhile.
Engineers are notoriously frugal. This is not because of cheapness or mean spirit but simply because buying something is simply a problem in optimization. That is, how to get the most return while spending the least amount of money. One characteristic that best defines an engineer is the ability to concentrate on one subject to the complete exclusion of everything else.

Engineering development is a series of failures and successes. It is not enough to create the prefect product. Society wants a better, faster, cheaper version so the cycle of failure and success must be repeated. If this were not so, we would still be driving Model A Fords.

The following humorous examples have a serious purpose. They demonstrate how the engineer thinks differently about everything including ordinary everyday occurrences.


  • The optimist thinks the glass is half full while the pessimist thinks the glass is half-empty. The engineer of course thinks that the glass is too large by a factor of two.

  • In a foreign country a priest, a lawyer and an engineer are about to be guillotined. The priest puts his head on the block and the rope is pulled. However, the blade does not fall. The priest declares that he's been saved by divine intervention, so they have to let him go.

    Then the lawyer is put on the block and again they pull the rope and again the blade does not fall. The lawyer claims he can't be executed twice for the same crime, so he is set free too.

    Finally, they grab the engineer and try to shove his head into the guillotine. Of course, he looks up at the release mechanism and says, "Wait a minute, I see your problem..."

  • Date an engineer so that you can find out what those other buttons on your calculators really do.

  • A pastor, a doctor and an engineer were waiting one morning for a particularly slow group of golfers. The engineer fumed, "What's with these guys, we must have been waiting for 15 minutes." The doctor chimed in, "I don't know, but I've never seen such ineptitude."

    The pastor said, "Hey, here comes the greens keeper. Let's have a word with him." "Hey George, what's with that group ahead of us? They're rather slow, aren't they?" The greens keeper replied: "Oh, yes, that's a group of blind fire fighters. They lost their sight saving our clubhouse from a fire last year, so we always let them play for free." The group was silent for a moment. The pastor said, "That's so sad. I think I will say a special prayer for them tonight. The doctor said, "Good idea. And I'm going to contact my ophthalmologist buddy and see if there's anything he can do for them." The engineer said, "Why can't these guys play at night?"

  • An architect, an artist and an engineer were discussing whether it was better to spend time with the wife or a mistress. The architect said he enjoyed time with his wife, building a solid foundation for an enduring relationship. The artist said he enjoyed time with his mistress, because of the passion and mystery he found there.

    The engineer said, "I like both." "Both?" the others said. "Yeah", replied the Engineer. "If you have a wife and a mistress, they will each assume you are spending time with the other woman, and you can go to the lab and get some work done."

  • An engineering student was crossing a road one-day when a frog called out to him and said, "If you kiss me, I'll turn into a beautiful princess". He bent over, picked up the frog and put it in his pocket. The frog spoke up again and said, "If you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I will stay with you for one week." The student took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it and returned it to the pocket.

    The frog then cried out, "If you kiss me and turn me back into a princess, I'll stay with you and do anything you want." Again the student took the frog out, smiled at it and put it back into his pocket.

    Finally, the frog asked "What is the matter? I've told you I'm a beautiful princess, that I'll stay with you for a week, and do anything you want. Why won't you kiss me?" The student said, "Look I'm an engineering student. I don't have time for a girlfriend, but a talking frog, now that's cool."

  • There was an engineer who had an exceptional gift for fixing all things mechanical. After serving his company loyally for over 30 years, he happily retired. Several years later the company contacted him regarding a seemingly impossible problem they were having with one of their multimillion-dollar machines. They had tried everything and everyone else to get the machine to work but to no avail. In desperation, they called on the retired engineer who had solved so many of their problems in the past. The engineer reluctantly took the challenge. He spent a day studying the huge machine. At the end of the day, he marked a small "x" in chalk on a particular component of the machine and stated, "This is where your problem is". The part was replaced and the machine worked perfectly again.

    The company received a bill for $50,000 from the engineer for his service. They demanded an itemized accounting of his charges. The engineer responded briefly:

         One chalk mark...................................$1.00
         Knowing where to put it.....................$49,999.00
    
    It was paid in full and the engineer retired again in peace.

  • A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He reduces height and spots a man down below. He lowers the balloon further and shouts, "Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?"

    The man below says, "Yes, you're in a hot air balloon, hovering 30 feet above this field. " "You must be an engineer", says the balloonist. "I am", replies the man. "How did you know?" "Well", says the balloonist, "everything you have told me is technically correct, but it's of no use to anyone."

    The man below says, "You must be in management." "I am", replies the balloonist, "but how did you know?" "Well", says the man, "you don't know where you are, or where you're going, but you expect me to be able to help. You're in the same position you were before we met, but now it's my fault."


  • No one wants to learn from mistakes, but we cannot learn enough from successes to go beyond the state of the art. -- Henry Petroski

  • A scientist can discover a new star, but he cannot make one. He would have to ask an engineer to do that. -- Gordon L. Glegg, American Engineer, 1969
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