What Engineers and Shamans Have in Common

Illustration of wires laid out in the shape of an eye, with the world globe placed in the middle.
Photo-Illustration: Edmon de Haro

By: G. Pascal Zachary

THE ENGINEER’S PLACEMy favorite electrical engineer is Vannevar Bushand whenever I grapple with a gnarly problem involving EEs, I turn to him for guidance.

Over the course of his protean life (1890-1974) as an electrical engineer and applied mathematician, Bush produced valuable insights into all matters technological. The world’s leading computer architect in the 1930s and a pioneer in cryptographic hardware in the 1940s, Bush served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s science adviser during World War II—and found time to organize the Manhattan Project and to author a visionary article (in 1945 foron the future of personal information devices and social networks. In the article “As We May Think,” published in July 1945 The Atlantic Monthly, he is credited with anticipating the personal computer and the Internet.

I spent much of the 1990s studying Bush’s life and times for a biography of him. This year I began re-reading many of his seminal essays, letters and private papers for a volume of his neglected writings. In the process, I came across a fascinating address he gave to the American Engineering Council on the vexing question of how best to think about the place of electrical engineers in the world. Bush had an answer.

Speaking in January 1939, on the eve of World War II, when Americans were trying to decide whether to mobilize for a global war, he presented a distinctive (and still relevant) way of thinking about what kind of profession is electrical engineering, and the nature of the obligations that EEs owe society.

The son of a Protestant minister of some renown in his native Massachusetts, Bush surmised that the engineer—and other emerging professions in an egalitarian country such as scientist, doctor, lawyer and teacher—had their roots in spirituality and the ancient search for meaning in a confusing world.

“We can start far back” before recorded history, Bush began. “In every primitive tribe there was some sort of medicine man. He was a man apart, the adviser of the clan rather than its titular leader. He spoke, in his field, with authority, and this rested upon a special knowledge which he was supposed to possess. The medicine man was the progenitor of the professional man of today” and, in particular, “The descent of the engineer from the medicine man has been highly involved.”

Bush went on to trace “a central thread” running from the shaman to early priests in organized religions to the contemporary engineer. Spiritual leaders, like engineers today, lived by “a strict code of conduct.” They “trained neophytes, subjected them to a long period of apprenticeship, initiated them into the mysteries, and inculcated in them pride in the cult, and rigid discipline in its formulas.” As engineers do now, initiation into the field required surmounting “intellectual hurdles” and learning “a special language.” Moreover, then as now, the shaman “sat as adviser in councils of the mighty. But more essential than all of these, he ministered to the people.”

The concept of ministry is central to responsible, ethical engineering, Bush insisted. “Ministry carries with it the ideas of dignity and authority,” he explained. “It connotes no weakness and offers no apology. The word has been carried into diplomatic usage; and in the derived form of administerinto law and business. There is no fog of subservience surrounding the concept. The physician who ministers to his client takes charge by right of superior specialized knowledge of a highly personal aspect of the affairs of the individual. The attorney assumes professional responsibility for guiding the legal acts of his client and speaks with the whole authority of the statutes as a background. It is in this higher sense that we trace the thread of ministry to the people.”

And no less should be demanded of the engineer writ large. “The great mission of the engineer,” Bush insisted, “lies in intelligent, aggressive, devoted ministration to the people.”

The ideal of “ministering to the people” isn’t the animating principle behind required courses in university EE programs nor does it translate easily into a code of conduct for individual engineers. Bush’s model for the social role of the engineer is frankly revelatory and even revolutionary. His model is aspirational, situation-dependent, protean—and well-suited for times in which the stuff humans build destabilize traditional ways of life and undermine longstanding values.

The revolutionary road of course co-exists and co-evolves with what we might call, following the historian of science Thomas Kuhn, “normal” engineering.

“Normal” engineers maximize stability, and honor traditions through respect for “path dependence,” a term which refers to those forces that keep things the same, or minimize change. Normal engineering emphasizes individual conduct and celebrates personal choices that are fair and responsible and reflect the integrity of effective technical practices. The concept of normal engineering fits well within the overall framework of the engineer who fixes things. Energetic and excellent maintenance, pragmatic sustainability, judicious redundancy and novel feedback loops that correct or reduce errors: all of these traits typify “normal” engineering and are hallmarks of responsible practice.

The perception of “engineers being able to fix things has contributed to the confusion” between the radical and conservative aspects of engineering, explains historian Henry Petroski in his valuable book, The Essential EngineerPetroski identifies a basic cleavage between engineers with “a talent for devising ingenious devices and systems and the locomotive-driving kind, who take their name from the engines they operate and tend.”

Petroski adds: “While denim-clad train-driving engineers are expected to focus on the long and narrow right-of-way before them, [ingenious] engineers are expected to have well-developed peripheral vision and so see also to the sides of the right-of-way and even to project conditions well beyond the horizon.”

Where a particular engineer fits on the continuum between revelatory and normal requires study and depends on specific circumstances. Seeing around the bend in the river—or even knowing the river ahead does indeed bend—can require the sort of leap of faith that made Vannevar Bush insist that shamans, priests and spiritual seers are the antecedents of today’s engineering stars.

Yet even visionaries spend much time on “normal” projects of narrow scope. In the life of a single successful engineer, the impulse toward revolution, and the tug of tradition and stasis, struggle to achieve balance.

While there is an essential tension between the two modes of engineering mentality, a search for common ground is necessary and desirable, I think. One way to discover, or rather more aptly, to build bridges between the two modes is to advance a common project—a project that appeals to both sides of the electrical engineer’s personality and honors the importance of innovation while respecting the value of tradition.. My choice: the need to reinvent electricity.

After all, the unifier among electrical engineers, who span such diverse fields as computing, power generation and transportation, is the centrality of electricity to the stuff they build, maintain, refine and advance. Given the importance—some might even say urgency—of reducing or even eliminating the carbon footprint of electrical generation, perhaps EEs should choose to make reducing the carbon footprint of electricity a collective professional goal? 

Pursuit of the goal would engage both sides of the EE, the conventional side and the rebel side of the engineer. Carbon-free electricity—through a combination of renewables, nuclear, better batteries and other innovations on the horizon—would bring concrete benefits to the peoples of the world while at the same time elevating the image of EEs among the pantheon of professions and within the corridors of power.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 8 August 2019.