Quotes from the Works of Samuel C. Florman



Socrates said that the unconsidered life is not worth living. If the statement is valid, as I believe it is, then those of us who are engineers in the final quarter of the twentieth century are confronted with certain questions of compelling interest. ‘What is the nature of the engineering experience in our time? What is it like to be an engineer at the moment that the profession has achieved unprecedented successes, and simultaneously is being accused of having brought our civilization to the brink of ruin? (p. ix)

Of course I want engineers to be moral. I want young engineers, in particular, to be idealistic and to resolve to serve the public interest as they see it. But the main trouble with engineers has not been their lack of morality. It has been their failure to recognize that life is complex. For a century they put their faith, somewhat unthinkingly, in “efficiency” and “progress.” Now there is a danger that the same sort of mistake will be made with an abstraction called “social responsibility.” My warning is simply: Beware of slogans. (p. 27)

My proposition is that the nature of engineering has been misconceived. Analysis, rationality, materialism, and practical creativity do not preclude emotional fulfillment; they are pathways to such fulfillment. They do not “reduce” experience, as is so often claimed; they expand it. Engineering is superficial only to those who view it superficially. At the heart of engineering lies existential joy. (p. 101)

It is all very well for Aristotle to maintain that God is happy immersed in contemplation, because nothing else is worthy of Him. But we are human beings, not gods. Most of us are not constituted to become yogis. We take another look into the depths of our being, a clear, hard, earnest, passionate look. We recognize that we cannot survive on meditation, poems and sunsets. We are restless. We have an irresistible urge to dip our hands into the stuff of the earth and to do something with it. (p. 103)

We emerge from the world of Homer drunk with the feel of metals, woods and fabrics, euphoric with the sense of objects designed, manufactured, used, given, admired, and savored. If this be materialism, then our ideas about materialism seem to be in need of revision. (p.109)

Every engineer has experienced the comfort that comes with total absorption in a mechanical environment. The world becomes reduced and manageable, controlled and unchaotic. For a period of time, personal concerns, particularly petty concerns, are forgotten, as the mind becomes enchanted with the patterns of an orderly and circumscribed scene. This state of mind is scorned by many humanists, but in a way it is similar to the comfortable seclusion one feels when listening ‘ to a carefully constructed musical composition of the classical period, if such a state of mind comes to dominate ones life, then of course it can be said to be dehumanizing. But its absence from life deprives the individual of that “getting-out-of-himself’ which is an important part of the human adventure. Philosophers and religious thinkers are constantly talking about “losing oneself’ in the All, and then in the next breath of “finding oneself’ in some form of ecstasy. These emotional conditions are difficult to define verbally with any precision. But somewhere among the states of being sought by wise men falls that wondrous moment in which the engineer becomes absorbed with the machine. (p.137)

I do not want to imply that the practice of engineering keeps one in a state of perpetual ecstasy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There are moments of great elation which envelop an engineer. But such moments are rare. Indeed if they were not rare they would cease to be precious. The experience of the engineer demonstrates that the good life — what John Dewey called the “satisfactory” as opposed to the merely “satisfying” — is achieved by immersion in the material world, by engaging in activity which is often mundane. The search for perpetual ecstasy — as generations of experience should have proved by now — can lead only to frustration. (p.147)

I suggest that our present state of anxiety and alienation comes not, as so many savants tell us, from our materialistic concerns, but largely from our attempt to escape the natural confines of human life. We suffer from seeking ineffable fulfillment in mystical realms to which we have no access — except through the material life our philosophers scorn. (p. 147) Samuel C. Florman



The myth of the technocratic elite is an expression of fear, like a fairy tale about ogres. It springs from an understandable apprehension, but since it has no basis in reality, it has no place in serious discourse. (p. 41)

History tells us of advancing deserts, disappearing supplies of wild game, diminishing water supplies, and silting harbors, all of which led to a brutish struggle for survival and perpetual wars. Only with the coming of large technological systems and large social organizations have we had the chance to gain some measure of control over our fates. We seek to preserve the wholesome features of tribal life — in ways that range from PTA meetings to church socials — even as we join together in extended associations. But to shrink from organization on a large scale because of the yearning for a mythical Eden, is to breed feelings of helplessness, not to avert them. (p.92)

Large technology — at least as it has developed in the Western democracies — tends to promote the physical well-being of all citizens, and in this respect I would call it a towering force for moral good. If we abandon this technology before the needs of impoverished masses are attended to, I say that we will be guilty of unethical behavior And if we turn against this technology because it has failed to make us all happy, then I fear that we are saying less about technology than we are about our own lack of maturity. (p.94)

Every engineer knows that the profession is relatively powerless. Engineers do not make the laws; they do not have the money; they do not set the fashions; they have no voice in the media. It is one of the most irritating ironies of our time that intellectuals constantly complain about being in the grip of a technocratic elite that does not exist. (p 128)

Until women share in the understanding and creation of our technology — which is to say, until large numbers of women become engineers — they will suffer from a cultural alienation that ordinary power cannot cure. (p. 130)

By saying that I espouse the tragic view of technology I mean to ally myself with those who, aware of the dangers and without foolish illusions about what can be accomplished, still want to move on, actively seeking to realize our constantly changing vision of a more satisfactory society. I mean to oppose those who would evade harsh truths by intoning platitudes. I particularly mean to challenge those who enjoy the benefits of technology but refuse to accept responsibility for its consequences. (p. 193)



Greece, for all its art and philosophy, and Rome, for all its wealth and technology, both in the end toppled and fell. Perhaps a culture that weds competence to grace, and wisdom to knowhow, would persevere and flourish where others have failed. Such a culture would have at its core a cadre of civilized engineers. (p. xii)

Engineering stands in the turbulent center of democratic life, thriving on variety, vital in the midst of paradox. If the past is indeed prologue to the future — if simple craft can evolve, as it has, into engineering science — there is ample reason to hope for the coming of ever more accomplished engineers, indeed for the coming of another engineering renaissance the nature of which we can as yet only dimly envision. (p. 64)

Even the most cautious engineer recognizes that risk is inherent in what he or she does. Over the long haul the improbable becomes the inevitable, and accidents will happen. The unanticipated will occur. Not that it is difficult to design redundant safety features into a product — it is merely expensive. It would be a lot easier for engineers if their fellow citizens would clearly stipulate that safety should be the paramount concern, whatever the cost. But the people do not say this. (p.71)

These, then, are what I take to be the main elements of the engineering view: a commitment to science and to the values that science demands — independence and originality, dissent and freedom and tolerance; a comfortable familiarity with the forces that prevail in the physical universe; a belief in hard work, not for its own sake, but in the quest for knowledge and understanding and in the pursuit of excellence; a willingness to forgo perfection, recognizing that we have to get real and useful products “out the door”; a willingness to accept responsibility and risk failure; a resolve to be dependable; a commitment to social order, along with a strong affinity for democracy; a seriousness that we hope will not become glumness, a passion for creativity, a compulsion to tinker, and a zest for change. (p. 77)

Engineers, being human, are susceptible to the drowsiness that comes in the absence of crisis. Perhaps one characteristic of a professional is the ability and willingness to stay alert while others doze. Engineering responsibility should not require the stimulation that comes in the wake of catastrophe. (p. 149)

The “roots” of a civilized society are the technical accomplishments that relieve people of brute effort and make humanity possible. When we speak of the “fruits” of our efforts, of the “flowering” of civilization, we refer to art, philosophy, and science. If the fruits and the blossoms are not returned to nourish the soil, then life loses strength and its flowering becomes less radiant. Which is to say that if engineers exclude themselves from the grand cycle, if technology is not enriched by new beauty and insight, then the growth that follows is less luxuriant and all of humanity is the loser. (p. 181)

The nation needs engineers who are able to communicate, who are prepared for leadership roles, who are sensitive to the worthy objectives of our civilization and the place of technology within it, and whose creative imaginations are nourished from the richest possible sources — spiritual, intellectual, and artistic. Furthermore, engineers as a group need to preserve their professional self-esteem and the esteem of the greater community — by guarding against an insensitive mechanical approach to the work they do. (p. 195)



What would become of the hallowed American system of justice if our trade deficit continued to rise, if our economy became depressed, if we suffered from extensive unemployment, if our poor lost all hope and our workers became desperate? What would become of our fine judicial theories if the middle classes fell prey to uncertainty, and if the dispossessed began to riot? Very quickly we would begin to hear some new and not very palatable interpretations of our constitutional rights. Wherever we look in the world we see that freedom cannot exist independently of technological progress. Technology does not in itself create freedom; but freedom cannot exist without material comfort, and material comfort in today’s world depends upon technology. (p.13) Samuel C. Florman

If we have gradually developed higher standards of public health and worker safety, we should be proud of our moral growth but also realistic. More stringent precepts have evolved in large part because we can now afford them. The wealth that allows us to be more caring and sensitive — as well as the new knowledge that enables us to reduce risks — comes from the very technological development that it pleases so many second-guessers to view with contempt (p. 47)

If it is sinful to worship comfort, it is equally sinful to take it for granted, and to fail to appreciate the ingenuity and effort by which it is achieved. Further, it is wrong to ignore the poverty and destitution that characterize the lives of so many of our fellow humans, and to neglect the skill and effort that is the only means of mitigating so much misery. What could be a more noble goal that to secure a modicum of comfort for the masses whose daily lot is suffering? (p. 50)

The ancient Egyptians, stirred by a primal impulse, grappled with nature in pursuit of material abundance. Having succeeded on a scale previously unequalled, they were inspired to go beyond physical need and gratification, to create temples and majestic works of art. This manifestation of the human spirit still endures. We create engineering works, not only to survive and prosper, but also to express transcendent aspirations. (p. 54)

Some of our current technological predicaments are so perplexing that they force us to reflect on who we are and what we really want. Thus, as an unexpected side benefit, engineering progress leads us back to the most profound depths of philosophical speculation. (p. 65)

During Britain’s fifteenth-century War of the Roses, the marauding armies, for all their ferocity, did not engage in civilian massacres as was typical of the age, one explanation being that the war took place an a relatively small island where people, over time, would have to live with each other. As our world becomes “smaller” — another consequence of technological advance — a similar feeling of mutual dependence may be evolving on a global scale. This might move us to devote our technological wizardry our satellites, lasers, computers, and the rest — to disarmament and monitoring in the cause of peace. (p. 72) Samuel C. Florman

Our apprehensions have been misplaced. Technology has been depicted as a Frankenstein’s monster that, having been created, might control and destroy us. A more apt parable is the genie in the bottle. After being released, the genie neither threatens nor constrains, but rather offers to grant wishes. Technology, like the genie, confronts us not with slavery, but with something nearly as vexatious: freedom of choice. (p. 79)

I don’t know what we can do to guard against the allure of cyberspace except to caution others — and ourselves — about its dangers. Perhaps we might start by floating an icon on our computer screens: Odysseus tied to the mast so that he could hear the song of the sirens but not be diverted from his journey (p. 90)

Engineer politicians have consistently underestimated the idiosyncratic nature of the human spirit. People, unlike machines, are not generally logical, rational, and predictable. Bismarck is credited with having said that politics is not a science but an art. Groucho Marx called it “the art of looking for trouble,” and Will Rogers said it was “applesauce.” Whatever it may be, politics clearly doesn’t lend itself to engineering analysis in the traditional sense, as engineers should have learned by now. (p. 141)

If engineers are to participate in the great communal debates, and take on leadership responsibilities, as I think they should, then they must learn the niceties of discourse, beginning with wit and empathy. If one wants to be persuasive, grumpiness is not the key. I favor humor for serious reasons as well as for love of a joke. (p. 149)

We will never eliminate the need for honorable and courageous technologists, nor would we wish to. But a system that relies upon heroism is neither stable nor efficient. A society that expects martyrdom from its citizens is neither wise nor noble. (p. 160)

It is interesting to note that Engineers Week is scheduled each year in February to honor George Washington’s birthday. The connection is that Washington, in addition to his more justly famous accomplishments, spent several years as a land surveyor. I’ve always thought it was a bit of a stretch to imply that this makes him a quasi-engineer by profession. On the other hand, it is good to remember a time when so many of our nation’s greatest figures were, by inclination and training, technologically erudite (Ben Franklin and Tom Jefferson — where are you in our moment of need?) (p. 184)

I am suggesting, however idiosyncratically, that engineering education could be redeemed by making it more enjoyable. Most engineers agree, according to studies and polls, that the professional practice of engineering supplies much satisfaction. But if the pre-requisite training gives no hint of this, if indeed the study of engineering brings on the opposite — discontent, displeasure, and malaise — then the harm done may be far worse than anything we have heretofore imagined. (p.195)

According to many reproachful critics, our technical genius has far outstripped our moral sensibility. We can go to the moon and explore the atom, so they say, but we’ve made precious little headway toward achieving a worthy society. I have long thought that this glum view is only a half-truth, and perhaps not even that. As I look at the progress made in areas such as racial justice, women’s rights, consumer protection, environmental preservation, and safety in the workplace, I can only conclude that our moral awareness has, by and large, kept pace with our technical achievements. Indeed, I would argue that technological progress has brought moral progress in its wake. (p. 206)

The sufferings of humanity cannot be alleviated solely, or even mainly, through politics and litigation. Wherever we look in the world we see material well-being as the essential preconditions for democracy and justice. The great challenge for this generation’s youth is to direct technical ingenuity to humane purposes. Toward this end, idealists will want to understand the rudiments of technology, and some of them, at least, will want to study engineering. (p. 212)

Most engineers work for profit, we also work to employ our professional talents. But that is far from the whole story When engineering is applied to noble ends the process is miraculously enhanced. (p 214)

Looking back over recorded history, and even into the mists of earlier times, we perceive at the heart of human nature a passion for discovery and invention. We can explain this passion, if we like, in terms of evolutionary science noting the survival value of creativity. We can revel in it, as does many an engineer. We can deplore it, calling it, in the dramatist’s terms, our tragic fate We cannot, however, suppress or repudiate the essence of our humanity. The lion hunts, the sheep browses, and the hummingbird sips nectar. Human beings are explorers and engineers. (p. 217)



Recently a reader asked me if I wasn’t getting a little cantankerous as the years go by. Existential, he said, was a celebration of engineering, while in much of my subsequent writing I have exhorted engineers to be better and to do more. Well, no, I replied, I don’t think that my disposition has changed nor my enthusiasm waned. Those of us who are engineers today are the heirs of a great profession. It is up to us to celebrate it indeed, also to defend it against wrong-minded critics, and — certainly not least — to do what we can to enhance it. (p. xviii)