Commencement: Welcome to the Family Business
By James B. Meigs ’80
Somewhere in eastern Wyoming a mile-long coal train crawls under the endless sky.
“Coal train,” I say.
“Yep,” Benjy answers.
The two of us, father and son, are on the third day of a six-day cross-country road trip. A quarter mile slides under our wheels. “That’s the third one we’ve seen,” Benjy says. “There must be a pretty big power plant back there.”
“Yep. And Wyoming has an awful lot of coal.”
Another quarter mile. “Why don’t they just build the power plant next to the coal mine,” I wonder.
“Hmm….” He thinks about that. “Interesting. But that wouldn’t necessarily be more efficient.” And then the analysis begins: There are electrical losses over long-distance power lines to consider. And the fact that moving tonnage by rail requires surprisingly little fuel. Then there’s the cost of building a new power plant and transmission lines versus using existing infrastructure. The scarcity of water to operate our hypothetical plant’s cooling towers…. We could go on like this for hours.
For both of us, the cross-country drive is a break from routine. Benjy has just received his four-year degree from Dartmouth and has a free week before he has to show up for his summer job at an engineering company. (In the fall, he’ll be back at Dartmouth for two more terms to complete his B.E. degree.) As editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics, I actually have a legitimate excuse to be spending six days driving a hot little sports car across the country (the proper journalistic term for a jaunt like this is “long-term automotive testing”). And it sure beats a week at the office. So when my magazine needed a test car driven from the West Coast to New York, Benjy and I coordinated our schedules and booked a flight to Los Angeles.
As we often do when we’re together, we spend the better part of the drive analyzing how the world works — and how it could work better. Benjy’s expertise in engineering is the product of rigorous study. For me an interest in science and technology is a longtime avocation that I’ve been lucky enough to turn into a journalistic career. But for both of us, engineering runs in the family.
We come from a long line of what my father would call “good mechanics.” My father, for example, became certified as a journeyman machinist when he was just 21 years old. He worked repairing massive ship engines, and later kept P-38 and B-17 aircraft in flying condition — all before he even went to college. His father, Benjy’s great-grandfather, was a brilliant, largely self-taught engineer who loved anything mechanical. In the pre-World War I Navy, Al Meigs served on one of the primitive submarines of the era. Imagine what those must have been like: sweltering steel coffins crammed with clattering diesel engines and banks of crude lead-acid batteries belching toxic fumes. He loved every minute.
After his discharge from the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, Al Meigs was making his way across the Isthmus of Panama to connect with another ship that would take him to his home in Florida. The year was 1913, and the Panama Canal — then the grandest engineering project on the planet — was in its final stage of construction. Skilled workers were in demand, and Meigs was soon hard at work installing the machinery that would operate the mighty locks.
With the canal’s completion in 1914, Meigs was asked to remain. He spent his whole career maintaining and upgrading those locks and all the equipment needed to operate them. And my father was born and raised among the community of ex-pat Americans who ran the canal. It was a world of skilled craftsmen and engineers who never doubted the importance of their work. They knew the jobs they did were helping to make the world a better place, and they were proud of their skills and training. Being called “a good mechanic” was the highest form of praise.
My father often reminds me that whenever he was machining a part for a ship or fixing an aircraft engine, he knew people’s lives were in his hands. Long after he left the machine shop, he continued to bring that sense of craftsmanship to everything he did — whether it was building a backyard patio or writing a book. And he passed that ethos along as a kind of family heirloom more precious than any photo or memento.
In fact, the Meigs family penchant for engineering goes back quite a bit further than Benjy’s great-grandfather. In the 1850s, engineer Henry Meiggs (there is no record why his family added that superfluous “g”) departed California after some dodgy business dealings and made his way to Latin America, where he became the most renowned railroad builder of the era. His crowning achievement was Peru’s Ferrocarril Central, which — after a series of hair-raising, zig-zag switchbacks — crossed the Andes at a height of over 15,600 feet. (“I will place rails there, where the llamas walk,” he reportedly promised the Peruvian government.) It remains one of the highest railroads in the world today.
But the brightest star in the family engineering line undoubtedly belongs to Montgomery C. Meigs. After graduating from West Point in 1836, Meigs entered a long service in the Army’s Corps of Engineers. His projects ranged from building various forts and the epic Washington Aqueduct (which included the longest single-span masonry arch in the world) to supervising the construction of the dome of the U.S. Capitol. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was appointed Quartermaster General of the Union Army. Lincoln may have struggled to find generals who would take the fight to the enemy, but he had clearly found his man when it came to getting supplies to the troops. Meigs was a logistical genius who applied his engineer’s mind to the challenge of moving men and materiel over vast distances. In the end, it was the North’s logistical dominance, even more than the tactical strengths of Grant or Sherman, that won the war. (At least that’s the way we like to see it in the Meigs family.)
When I watched Benjy receive his diploma this past June, I couldn’t help thinking that some of that Meigs family heritage was reflected in his choice of studies. In a sense, he’s entering the family business. He has embraced the hands-on orientation of Dartmouth’s engineering program in a way that would please his mechanically oriented forebears. And, like so many Dartmouth students, he has tried to apply his training to effect some positive change in the world. He’s made two trips to Tanzania as part of the Thayer School’s student-run Humanitarian Engineering Leadership Projects (HELP) Worldwide. Working with several other Dartmouth undergraduates, Benjy helped set up a program that brings improved sanitation and cook-stove technology to remote villages.
Too often these days we take the technology and infrastructure around us for granted. We rely on technologies — from cell phones to the power grid — that we barely understand, and notice their complexity only when they don’t work. We’re irate if our airliner gets delayed on the tarmac for an hour before takeoff. But we fail to marvel that, when that hour is over, we do take off. And we fly.
We need to remember that our highly technological world can’t exist without thoughtful, vigilant engineers. As we rely ever more heavily on the infrastructure of modern life, the costs of poor design, inattention or carelessness can be enormous: levees fail; a bridge collapses; a deepwater oil well blows out. Better engineering could have prevented those disasters. And the slow motion emergencies of environmental damage, resource depletion, and global warming will require new breakthroughs that only engineers can provide. We need good mechanics today more than ever.
“Engineering isn’t just knowing how to do things,” Benjy said at one point during our drive. “It’s a way of looking at the world.” An engineering mindset means always asking questions: How does that thing work? Could it work better? For every problem, an engineer seeks a solution.
After our drive, Benjy will spend the summer troubleshooting medical devices for a bio-tech company. I’ll go back to Popular Mechanics and a full lineup of stories in progress — the race to build a 100-mpg car; the real story of how BP lost control of its well. But for now we still have a thousand miles of road ahead of us. And lots to talk about.
“Look, wind turbines.”
“Yep.”comments powered by Disqus