Canadian Consulting Engineer

By Jack Chisvin   

Fifty Years On

Engineering

When I think back to the year 1959 and the optimism with which Canadian Consulting Engineer was launched, I remember it as an illustrious time for Canadian engineering. The dislocation and shortages t...

When I think back to the year 1959 and the optimism with which Canadian Consulting Engineer was launched, I remember it as an illustrious time for Canadian engineering. The dislocation and shortages that plagued the country following World War II were coming to an end and there was much to be done as we headed to Canada’s glorious centennial year. The future looked so promising and endless, and Canadian Consulting Engineer was to be at the centre of it. Little could I have imagined, however, when Carson Morrison (a prominent engineer), invited me to attend the inaugural editorial meeting with Jim Daley (a publisher), that 50 years later the magazine would still be widely read and I would write one more Personal Notion.

That first meeting set the mission for the publication: that of giving the engineer in private practice the information and confidence to play a central role in a complex and rapidly changing world. The magazine was to speak not only to the engineer but for the engineer. It was to connect the world of engineering to the world of ideas; and to provide a forum for erudite consulting engineers who make no distinction between their professional interests and their societal interests.

Canadian Consulting Engineer through its changes in ownership and editors over half a century has never departed from two points of its basic purpose. One has been to avoid becoming a captive of technology, neither submitting to its dominance nor being intimidated by its complexities. The second has been an attitude that looked beyond the events, the manners and aberrations that lend themselves all too easily to striking labels and vernacular jargon.

The remote but remembered past, when viewed from the present, appears to have been a time when life was less complicated, people were more trusting, and presumably because we had the idealism of youth our illusions were intact. Retrospect imparts a quality of innocence to days gone by. As I write this, my thoughts wander. I think of how drawings were produced manually, ink on vellum; how computations were done with the aid of a slide rule. Some of my peers still talk about the good old days with a sense of superior moral authority, but I marvel how far today’s computerized, digitized, internet-savvy electronic world of engineering has left my generation behind. Yet at times I retrieve my log-log-poly-trig slide rule and challenge my grandchildren to see if they can perform some calculations on their calculators faster than I can on the slide rule. I am still attached to that slide rule as I might be to a Blackberry, if I owned one.

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Entrepreneurs, people with foresight and some daring founded many of today’s consulting firms. Their drive to succeed laid the ground work for the consulting engineering profession in Canada. Mostly they were sole practitioners or small partnerships, driven by a compulsive desire to be the best. The challenge of creativity was more of a motive to their efforts than the prospect of financial rewards. They were flamboyant, fiercely competitive, enterprising risk takers ready to explore new technologies.

As opportunities for entrepreneurs in the engineering field dwindled through mergers, acquisitions, and retirement, many of these early firms are gone. The modern consultant is more anonymous, ensconced in a corporate shell. Today the practice of consulting engineering, much as we may not wish to admit it, has evolved into a diverse business, considered an industry rather than a profession. Now the acronym ACEC that proudly stood for the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada has morphed into the Association of Canadian Engineering Companies. Have we reached a void between our practice and our profession?

The past half century, perhaps more than any previous period, has demonstrated that history is not immutable and that existing forces are not inexorable. The world that emerged from the pages of was tooling up for great change. Commercial jetliners came into service; nuclear power generation was born; space flight came out of the realm of science fiction; computers became household appliances; the internet became the norm in communications.

Yet with all this wonderful Hi-Tech some events are as relevant today as they were in the years gone by. Dur- ing my tenure as the titular editor of this publication [1979-1991] I wrote a regular column titled Personal Notions. As an encore I quote from three of those commentaries below. They are as meaningful now as they were when I first wrote them.

• On Technology, 1980. “The operative word in high technology is efficiency. In its name entire industries are shutting down. Mass unemployment among blue-collar workers is becoming an increasingly common event, resulting in the dislocation of the social, cultural and economic fabric of whole urban centres. Canada, with its branch plant industrial infrastructures is particularly vulnerable. Service industries are disappearing. As automation removes human judgements from the system, an aura of indifference to personalized service is developing. Attitudes towards work, play and social responsibility are changing. These new standards are producing a frustration and pointlessness, which in turn are evoking a sense of desperation.”

• On the Environment, 1980. “Things are not well in the world today in the most direct and simple sense. Contamination of the physical environment, squandered resources, limping societies, too little food, too many people and the persistence of social injustices are problems of world dimension. The crisis is not due to the imposition of technology, but to the failure to recognize the opportunities that it offers. Various facets of technology — urbanization, industrialization, automation, use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides, growth of leisure time and culture, medical advancement, better nourishment, the lowering of mortality rate and prolonging life — are closely interconnected and there is no possibility of turning back some aspects of progress without destroying all of civilization.”

• On Ethics, 1983. Now it is possible to achieve almost anything we want — so great is the effectiveness of technology. The main issue for scientists and for society as a whole is to decide “what” to do among all the things that could possibly be done. Unless scientists are willing to give hard thought to their social responsibilities, they may find themselves in the same position as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice: unable to control the forces they have unleashed. The question of how to do things is a purely technical one, decided on scientific criteria. But the choice what to do implies concern with ultimate social consequences.

So much for nostalgia. Looking back now, I believe that while the world is more convoluted, faster, less friendly and less personal than it was in 1959, engineers continue to have an obligation to public service. In completing this obligation is the acceptance of duties that are philosophically abstract. The duty to know all those who proceeded them; the duty to throw light on their work and to further their efforts; and finally the duty to pass on to those who follow the mandate to surpass them. It is this commitment from generation to generation that ennobles our calling.

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Jack Chisvin

Editor 1979-1991

Jack Chisvin was editor 1979-91. He was also founding partner of the ECE Group of Toronto in 1955, and retired from the practice at 00:01 hours, January 2000.

He was the first engineer in Ontario to be designated a Consulting Engineer under the Professional Engineers Act. He served on the Professional Engineers of Ontario council, and on the ACEC board of directors.

In 1983 he was awarded an honorary fellowship from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, and was conferred the ACEC Beaubien Award in 1987.

Jack grew up in Winnipeg, graduated from the Univ
ersity of Manitoba in 1949 with a B. Sc. in electrical engineering, and now lives in Toronto.

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L”Little could I have imagined, however, when Carson Morrison invited me to attend the inaugural editorial meeting … that 50 years later the magazine would still be widely read and I would write one more Personal Notion.”

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