Canadian Consulting Engineer


December 1, 1999
By Norman R. Ball

Oh great, another millennium list! By now you probably feel you've seen enough. Like the List of Great Books that turned out to be largely self-promotion by publishing insiders pushing their own compa...

Oh great, another millennium list! By now you probably feel you’ve seen enough. Like the List of Great Books that turned out to be largely self-promotion by publishing insiders pushing their own companies’ works. Or the poll of 1,500 Canadians about Great Achievements. It told us more about what average Canadians know than about what is truly great. No, what I’d like to do is make a list that has more of the relevance and usefulness of a darned good funeral.

Anthropologists know that funerals and the rituals of death are about helping the living who have to carry on and begin adjusting to life without the deceased. As we prepare to live without the comfort of an old, familiar century, and an even older millennium, let’s think about what we want to celebrate and build on so we can get the next century and millennium off to a good start. Let’s talk about the desirable characteristics of engineering achievements, the lessons we learned, and the benefits to society.

My list is not intended to be definitive or anywhere near exhaustive. It is intended to exemplify some qualities of engineering that I think are important. You could define different qualities and come up with a different list. In fact, I encourage you to do so. Like a good funeral, this look back at the past to take stock of what was significant is an important rite to go through as we move forward into the future.

Engineering and compassion

If I had to name only one 20th century Canadian engineering achievement to help guide us through the early years of the 21st century, it would be the McLaurin disarticulated hip prosthesis.

Technologies create the need for more technology. Penicillin saved many wounded World War II combatants from death by infection, but increased the number of above-the-leg knee amputation survivors who had to struggle with bad prosthetic technology. Traditional artificial legs did not mimic the natural gait. The amputees had to lift one side of their bodies with each step. Not only was the process embarrassing, it contributed to neuro-muscular and skeletal damage. Colin McLaurin changed that.

McLaurin came through the war physically unharmed, but with a deep respect for less fortunate fellow aviators. He wanted to help, but didn’t know how. He returned to the University of Toronto and in 1949, with a fresh degree in aeronautical engineering, he joined the staff of Sunnybrook Hospital, then run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Five years later the world had a better and carefully engineered leg which allowed amputees to walk with the greater dignity, comfort and health of a natural gait. It is still in use today.

McLaurin’s subsequent work included a lightweight foot prosthesis and an improved joint for ankle joint amputees. When children were born with deformities caused by thalidomide, he continued his pioneering work, developing myoelectric hands in which electrical microcurrents generated by muscles are amplified and used to control the artificial members. Unfortunately the various levels of government were far slower to provide meaningful economic assistance as the children grew to adulthood.

Compassion drove McLaurin; engineering was simply the expression of that quality. Very little has been written about the compassion and idealism that many engineers bring to the job. True engineering is much more than simply “protecting the public.” We need the best human qualities to take us forward into the 21st century.

Pushing back the frontiers of the usable

I also think we should celebrate engineering that takes us where we’ve never been before, for example, by converting a non-resource into a resource. In the early 19th century the only recorded use for the Athabasca Tar Sands was in patching birchbark canoes. Today the tar sands are an indispensable part of the Canadian petroleum industry. The journey from non-resource to resource has come from over three-quarters of a century of research, careful engineering and collaborative work between government, universities and industry. While there have been a few massive breakthroughs, most of the journey involved small but steady improvements, the fine tuning and rethinking that drive costs down. And as costs go down, the frontiers of the usable are pushed back even further.

The Sherritt Gordon Nickel refinery in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, is another good example of pushing back the frontiers of the usable. Based on research which started at the University of British Columbia in 1947, the refinery entered production in 1954 as the first commercial application of the Canadian-developed Ammonia Pressure Leaching Process. It extracted nickel from nickel sulphide ore both economically and with far less pollution. The process came about because of the need to deal with a particular problem — the Lynn Lake nickel ores, which were high in nickel and sulphur but low in precious metals. The new process also allowed for greater recovery rates for cobalt and copper, eliminated gas and dust handling problems, and reduced the demand for expensive labour by making use of automated controls. It dramatically changed the economics of the industry. In the early years of the Fort Saskatchewan refinery, the by-product ammonium sulphate had a higher commercial value than that of the metals recovered.

The many engineers who worked on the tar sands or the extraction of nickel embodied qualities of perseverance, patience and determination. They saw possibilities where others saw impossibilities — more qualities we can use in the years ahead.

Rescuing society from bad decisions

Ignoring sound scientific and technical advice is nothing new. Nor is the subsequent need to rescue society from the results. Winnipeg was once over-optimistically called the Chicago of Canada after it was chosen to be a rail centre. However, not many people realize that the best engineering advice of the day said Winnipeg was probably the worst place in the region for a growing city. There had been too many serious floods in the past. But the combination of tax concessions and the fact that land speculators had cornered the best sites overruled the voice of caution.

Then the floods came, each one more costly than the one before. After the great flood of 1950, the 1956 Royal Commission on Flood Cost Benefit determined that it would be cheaper to prevent the next deluge than clean up after it. The Red River Floodway was born, the largest excavation and earth moving exercise in Canadian history.

A similar story led to the creation of the Bassano Dam and the Brooks Aqueduct. A 19th-century scientific expedition had identified the Palliser Triangle in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan as unfit for agriculture. Crops grew when there was rainfall, but the rainfall was unreliable. Normally railroads were routed to go through areas of economic activity, be it farming, mining or manufacturing, because that was where money could be made by picking up and dropping off passengers and freight. That approach would have put the railroad north of the Palliser Triangle. Instead, the cash-starved Canadian Pacific Railway and an equally hard-up federal government decided to through the Triangle in order to make the route shorter and consequently cheaper to build. They ran massive advertising and immigration programs to bring farmers to the area. When the rains failed to come, the human tragedy that befell the settlers was all too predictable. Without the assistance of Canadian engineers like William Pearce and John S. Dennis in pushing for irrigation legislation and the creation of a large-scale irrigation network, the area would have become a landscape of ghost towns and abandoned farms. Today the dam and part of the disused aqueduct are historic sites, and most people have forgotten the real story.

Here’s a well known but rarely celebrated role for engineers: the people with the shovels who walk behind society’s elephants. When good advice goes unheeded, it is often up to engineers to deal with the consequences.

Admitting and learning from mistakes

Good failures are too important to waste. They offer the
opportunity for so much new learning. We are beginning to learn something useful from our slowness in responding to the Y2K software problem. But our 20th century wake-up calls go back to the collapse of the first Quebec Bridge in 1907. A Royal commission and other studies revealed the scandalous breaches of engineering practice that led to the loss of 75 lives. This was leading-edge technology and construction — it was intended to be the longest single cantilever span the world would ever see — and yet standard industry procedures for independent checking of calculations were waived.

The engineer-in-chief suspected his calculations were wrong, but told no-one and managed to convince himself that there was still an adequate safety margin. A week before the collapse, steel erectors said they didn’t like the way the steel sounded and pointed to deformed structural members. No-one listened. Anyway, no-one on site had the authority to halt construction. The crash was heard around the world. In many countries, Canada included, design and work procedures were tightened up. The second, and ultimately successful Quebec Bridge also had an accident during erection but that was due to a faulty casting, not design.

I put the flawed, fatal Quebec Bridge on my list because Canadian engineers have learned more from that failure than from dozens of successes. I believe that admitting errors and working together to fix them and prevent further problems are at the heart of good engineering. Although there is no evidence to support the claim that the first iron rings were made from steel from the Quebec Bridge, the link between the iron ring and the Quebec Bridge is an important part of engineering mythology in Canada and other countries. Myths are important. They tell us who we are.

Education that adapts

Now let me venture onto more dangerous terrain. Every engineer stoutly defends the school he or she graduated from. Every engineer encourages others to attend the same school and many donate money to their schools. But what can we learn from 20th century Canadian engineering education?

Many schools claim to offer the “best” engineering education. I don’t believe there is any such thing as a single best engineering school. Comparing engineering schools is like comparing apples and oranges, and that is as it should be. Diversity is one of Canada’s strengths. However, I would like to include on my list an engineering school that embodied something I admire: the ability to look at the interaction between technology and society, find weak spots, come up with good solutions and then have the nerve to wait out the critics.

Once upon a time, the University of Waterloo made itself a name as an innovator with a compulsory co-op education program in which all students had to alternate formal studies with paid work. At the time the new university introduced the program it had nothing to lose. It had low admission standards and no reputation to speak of. The deans of better established schools looked on co-op as a marketing gimmick. Well, that so-called gimmick has lasted. Entrance requirements at Waterloo are now staggeringly high. Most other universities now offer a version of co-op education.

What can we learn from this? The easy — and wrong — answer is that co-op is the key to success. The now famous co-op was nothing but the solution to a specific problem. Waterloo was important because it chose to tackle the situation, not because of the tool it used. In the mid-1950s Canadian industry was still expanding at a furious rate. There was a shortage of engineers and those we had were often promoted too fast for their own good or for the good of the companies they worked for. Engineers were moving up the ladder too quickly with too little understanding of what really happened in the workplace. Waterloo instituted a system whereby every engineering student got solid workplace experience before they graduated. Waterloo tackled the most significant technology-society problem bedevilling Canadian engineering and industry at that time.

Glimpsing the potential of new technology

In the 1950s only six per cent of Canada’s secondary manufacturing output was exported. The small Canadian market had taught Canadians to be good at batch or relatively small run production. As computer and automation historian John Vardalas recounts in an unpublished paper, Canadians couldn’t compete with the Americans in huge production runs which depended on specialized tools and high set-up costs amortized over large runs of one product. But in Montreal a small group of engineers at the Sperry Gyroscope Company of Canada thought Canadians should turn a weakness into a strength. Why not use newly emerging computer technology to position Canadian industry as a world leader in producing more varied products rather than more of the same? No-one used the term at the time, but the Sperry Canada engineers were close to what we now call mass customization.

In 1955, when very few people had heard of NC (numerically controlled) machines, Sperry engineers had automated standard machine tools for short and medium runs. Changing products was as simple as changing tapes, but as John Vardalas notes, Canadian manufacturers “did not beat a path to this new digital technology.” The Sperry engineers persevered and moved so successfully into CNC (computer numerically controlled) machines that in 1963 the industry journal American Machinist said that “with UMAC-5’s computer, [Sperry Canada] has solved the versatility problem that has hitherto plagued NC systems.”

Alas, the brilliant engineering could not deal with Canadian industrial inertia — manufacturers still couldn’t see past the holy grail of mass production to catch a glimpse of varied production — or deal with a government that didn’t seem to see the potential. In the United States the federal government helped industry convert to the new technology but the Canadian government remained aloof. Soon the Canadian lead and advantages were lost. Nonetheless the future had been glimpsed by a small group of Canadian engineers. Understanding the deeper meanings and potential of new technology is an important but rare engineering talent.

Now what?

That’s up to you. You’ve heard my short millennial funeral oration. You might turn the page, complain about what I’ve missed. Or you could agree that we need more fresh thinking about what we want engineering to be and how to get there. Why not meet with friends and colleagues to compile your own eulogy to the past. And remember to invite some non-engineers, they have to live with what you do. You might not know this, but they probably like you. CCE

Norman R. Ball, Ph.D is director of the Centre for Society, Technology and Values at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. He is the author of Mind, Heart and Vision, Professional Engineering in Canada 1887 to 1987, written to mark the centennial of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers and published by the National Museum of Science and Technology.


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