APWA Book Review
Scene by the Engineer: Remarkable Prints from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
74 pp * 2005 * APWA * William E. Worthington, Jr.
At the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, you will find a priceless ocean of drawings and prints reflecting engineering sensations. The pictures show trains spanning vertical canyons on seemingly impossible trestles. Workmen and engineers at the levers of strange equipment. Solar power. A machine for perpetual motion. A motorcade crossing the Hudson through the cast-iron tube of a railroad tunnel. They show how machines and structures were used and who used them. And the best pictures tell hidden stories. At the Smithsonian they expose the tangle of sewers and mains paved over by street construction. They peel back the skin of streamline architecture, showing a cage of riveted steel. They preserve history otherwise lost when an object of engineering is removed from its original setting to stand alone in a great museum.
Engineering in America has long piqued the interest of engravers, painters, and image makers. In time, photographers joined them in creating a marvelous visual record of the work of engineers. All sought to preserve a wondrous moment. In the process, these artisans unknowingly created an important, sometimes unique, and often overlooked historic record of what was built in America and how it was done. For the historian, the two-dimensional images that they produced are no less museum artifacts than the three-dimensional specimens usually associated with museum exhibits. Because countless engineering works have completely disappeared, research must rely on camera, brush, stylus, and pen. At the Smithsonian Institution these pictures provide information that otherwise went unrecorded. They show how an idea evolved and offer clues that help explain a technology's failure or success.
The images that are included in this publication are only a minute sampling of the total number in the vast holdings of the Engineering Collection in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Nevertheless, they serve to illustrate that museum objects do not stand by themselves. There are enlightening stories in objects themselves and in their relationships, and these narratives help to educate us about our past. They might tell us what occurred and suggest why history has unfolded as it has, and ultimately tell us why we do things in a certain way. Museum objects and images, in particular, offer a remarkable view of the past, if we take the time to look through the window they provide. The subjects in this publication are either dramatically altered, no longer appear as they once did or are completely gone. As these rare scenes by and of engineers will not be repeated, it is hoped that they whet the reader's appetite and encourage a great appreciation for what might be unearthed through images of engineering.
William E. Worthington, Jr., has selected seventy for this publication. Printed chronologically, they range from an 1804 engraving of a neoclassical pump house to a 1970 photograph of a truck crossing a bridge made entirely of paper and glue. Most but not all show public construction. Some show lone inventors. Some show technological failure. Others strain to promote a futuristic concept that no company was willing to finance. All, however, are remarkable scenes of civil and mechanical engineering. Collectively, they speak volumes about engineering promotion and the communicative power of historical prints.
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