Just One Question: What Invention or Feat of Engineering, From Any Time Period, Impresses You Most?
The computer is by far the most impressive invention that I have seen and since graduation.
— Charlie Weinberg ’42 Th’43
The spiral tunnels on the Canadian Pacific Railway near Lake Louise. To gain elevation, it makes two complete circles inside the mountain.
— Tom Streeter ’44 TT’48
Fly ash from large coal-burning electric power plants has the same chemistry and uses as the volcanic ash the Romans used in their aqueducts. My company made a patented road base material from lime, fly ash, and various aggregates called Pozzolanic road base. It was a way to use products that otherwise would have ended up in landfills. The patent on lime-fly ash road base material impressed me and had an effect on my life in the 1960s.
— Craig J. Cain ’45 Th’45
What excites me are investigations of electromagnetic principles that permit low-energy electrolysis of water into its constituent parts, oxygen and hydrogen, and the controlling of the H2 output to power or increase the efficiency of an engine or motor. There are some currently in operation. Then there is BlackLight Power’s power source that extracts heat from the manipulation of the hydrogen atom to a fractional quantum state. Both 1- and 50-kilowatt units have been validated by an outside lab. The only input is water. Further, there’s the employment of “negative energy.” These new means of producing energy will power our world in the future.
— Ken Carpenter ’48 TT’50
I’m nominating the open-dredged caissons under the piers of the Huey P. Long Bridge here in New Orleans. This construction innovation is now fairly widely used, but in 1930 most caisson piers were pneumatically sunk to their founding. I’m now involved with widening that bridge without increasing the foundations, and am basing my confidence on the fine geotechnical work done in the 1920s on the site by Karl Terzhagi. Bill Kimball, then an associate professor and eventually dean of the Thayer School, was involved in the analysis. He wrote a fine paper on the geotechnical aspects of the bridge.
— William B. Conway ’52 Th’54
The greatest engineering achievement in my lifetime was Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon on July 20, 1969 and safe return to Earth. The Internet is another. My view is biased because of my 50-plus years in both the aviation and computers/communications fields.
— Pete Knoke ’55 Th’56
The solid-state computer impresses me the most. When I was at Thayer, there was just one chapter in one book that discussed transistors. That invention made possible the integrated circuit, and that made programmable computers possible. Throughout my career with the Naval Research Laboratory and then NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, I used these developments to build ever more capable telemetry systems for launch vehicles and satellites.
— Ron Muller ’55 Th’56
My late husband, Gene White ’56, would agree with me that in all our years of living and working in developing countries, three inventions stand out: the radio, the bicycle, and the sewing machine. Never did we encounter a person who did not want a radio or yearn for a bicycle if all their travel was by foot, donkey, or bus. Likewise, no one needed to be convinced that a sewing machine was a practical item!
— Betsy White (Mrs. Gene White ’56)
Velcro. Taking a look at nature and embodying the idea into a useful closure is quite exceptional.
— Charlie Schneider ’57 TT’58
The steam engine in the 1800s. It was a power source that could be located anywhere and enabled society to move away from oceans and rivers.
— Don Baker ’61 Th’62
GPS is my favorite. I have always loved maps, but GPS puts me into the map. It is a transformative invention.
— Bruce Johnson ’61 Th’62
The most impressive engineering feat that I found during my engineering career was four-color offset lithographic printing. The idea that one can create a rainbow of color by putting dots on a page using just four colors is amazing. It is hard to believe that using a photographic plate where the desired patterns are hydrophobic and attract ink, but the rest of the plate is hydrophillic and kept wet with a slurry, lets one put ink on paper. Further, achieving registration with four separate rollers at paper speeds of more than 2,000 feet per minute is an accomplishment.
— Harris McKee ’61 Th’63
The production of a practical helicopter by Igor Sikorsky in 1939 led to the multi-billion dollar industry serving societal and defense needs throughout the world.
— David O. Smith ’61 Th’62
The Boeing 747. It’s amazing it could get off the ground.
— Frank Barber ’62
Has to be the Archimedes screw. Its impact on agriculture in the Eastern Mediterranean from 300 B.C. until the full development of Europe is only outweighed by the development of fasteners in the Industrial Age.
— Bill Reilly ’67
My joint entry: airplanes and air conditioning. They allowed the full civilization of Florida and California. I guess you also have to tip your hat to the integrated circuit; most of its effects are invisible but also everywhere around us.
— Peter Fahey ’68 Th’69
The two inventions that are most significant to my life may be the TV and the automobile, but they are continuing to adversely alter American society, which isn’t fascinating at all; so lets skip those two. Let’s go with the Hubble Space Telescope. Why does the Hubble fascinate me? Because of this!
Imagine what we might have seen in the cosmos if the engineers hadn’t screwed it up by grinding the lens backwards. Then consider how amazingly they fixed it. I hope this fascinates you too!
— Steve Franzeim ’68 Th’72
The hybrid-electric drive train for vehicles, because it allows for recycling of energy. This may save mankind from itself. If cold fusion ever works, I’ll change my vote.
— Chris Yule ’70
Underwater concrete pylons for bridges.
— Larry Lewis ’71
The Great Pyramid of Giza.
— Stephen Flanders Th’73
The photographic camera. Photos preserve today’s events as well as events of billions of years ago from the farthest reaches of the universe. Photos can evoke profound emotions, making the camera the greatest emotionally related invention, just ahead of the phonograph.
— Steve Arcone Th’77
Favorite of all time: Wright brothers. Newest favorite: Stanley Williams, Hewlett Packard researcher leading the team that discovered the memristor, a fundamental physical component that interacts with electricity in a unique, non-linear way. If memristors can be developed, they may unlock a whole new generation of electronics.
— George Eger ’77
There is no more important human occupation than farming. And nothing has done more to make agriculture possible than the humble hoe. Even the most modern and sophisticated of agricultural plows are nothing more than a large-scale hoe.
— Nelson Valverde ’77
Watermills and windmills are simple and require little tech to deliver local power.
— Knud Eric Engelsted ’78
A case can be made for the Brown & Sharpe universal milling machine. While you don’t see them around anymore, the B&S universal performed an astounding array of work. It could make virtually any machine part or tool — and all motion was controlled mechanically.
— Steve Wyckoff ’78 Th’79
In aviation, I’d have to say the SR-71 Blackbird. It had stealth in the early 1960s, and nothing has been done since that performs anywhere near it. Charles Babbage’s calculating machine is another “ahead of the rest” invention. He couldn’t get it to work because machining wasn’t accurate enough in the day, but someone recently built one and it worked.
— Richard Akerboom ’80 Th’82, ’85
The Panama Canal was a huge project but brilliant in its simplicity. In its day, the lake that was created (Gatun) was the largest ever. The above-sea-level lake reduced the excavation from about 50 miles to only about 10. Many of the large earth-movers we take for granted today were developed specifically for the Galliard cut. The controls managing the water and locks stand basically unchanged for almost a hundred years, and gravity basically powers the entire operation. I am biased, as I’m from the former U.S. Panama Canal Zone.
— William Hale ’80 Th’93
While a graduate student at Thayer School during the early 1980s, I was given access to the ARPAnet, the beginning of the Internet.
— John Hoh ’81 Th’82, ’84
The Internet will be no less important than the invention of the printing press.
— Kim Quirk ’82 Th’83
The Panama Canal — first use of mass-poured concrete among other firsts, and an incredible feat of construction logistics to implement an excellent engineering idea (don’t build a sea-level canal, as the French tried to do, but build a lake and two sets of locks). It remains an engineering marvel for the ages.
— Mike A. Adams ’83
The Wright brothers’ airplane and first successful flight. I am biased, having gotten my commercial pilot license from the Lebanon airport while studying at Thayer. (Now as as president of Performance Motion Devices, in Lincoln, Mass., I’m too busy to get in much flying.)
— Greg Woods Th’83
The invention of semiconductors impresses me most. These are critical to computers, iPods, cell phones, and even today’s automobiles.
— Mark Jones ’84 Th’85
— Alex Hartov Th’88
My favorite invention of all times is the cell phone. I remember my joy when wireless phones came about. Freedom from the cord! Most important invention of all times, though — AC electricity: home-delivered and it powers everything (including my cell phone).
— Doris Martínez Th’91
— Duncan McElroy ’91
The Toyota production system has inspired much of my work during the last 15 years. It is the most effective system of production devised in human history, and is being emulated by organizations worldwide. The concepts behind the system seem full of paradoxes, yet when they work in concert, they create a powerful, self-managing, ever-improving system.
— Durward K. Sobek II ’91
I am impressed by the Thermos. If you put something hot in it, it keeps it hot. If you put something cold in it, it keeps it cold. How does it know?
— Erik Bliss ’92
Cochlear implants let deaf kids grow up listening and talking, and gives adults who lose their hearing the ability to retain their relationships and productivity! I’ve devoted my career to this technology, first as an audiologist, then academic researcher, and now strategist for the leading manufacturer of implantable hearing solutions.
— Kevin Franck ’92
Most of us could not do our jobs without our computer. It has become the most central tool of our lives.
— Annie Kaskade ’92
While reading my 4-year-old son a book on the first moon landing, I was struck with how amazing it was to engineer the equipment that carried people to the surface of the moon and safely back to Earth for the first time. In addition to working in uncharted territory, the engineers had a tight time frame and didn’t have access to the computing power that exists today.
—Laura Iwan ’93 Th’94
The Golden Gate Bridge.
— Keith Lenden ’95 Th’95
Space travel was and still is an amazing feat. And the Apollo spacecraft had less computing power than my cell phone.
— Vic Almgren ’94 Th’96
U.S. Patent No. 3,605,843 (1971): Cashew nut sheller. Inventors: Thayer adjunct professor Robert C. Dean Jr. and Richard W. Couch Jr. ’64 Th’65. The first line of the abstract says it all: “A method and apparatus for removing explosively the kernel of a cashew or similar nut from its shell while isolating the kernel from contamination.”
— Solomon G. Diamond ’97 Th’98
Uniform screw threads that are easy to manufacture and validate. These didn’t exist in the United States before 1864. I grew up taking the basic engineering infrastructure for granted, that we can all go to the hardware store and get nuts and bolts in order to fasten two objects together. No research required! How I wish we had such a technology base for biology!
— Drew Endy Th’98
The boat is the most important invention ever created. (I’m biased, because my Thayer M.S. thesis involved fluid simulation of an America’s Cup yacht for Professor Horst Richter.) The boat allowed humans to reach Australia 40,000 years ago, spread down the coasts of North and South America 13,000 years ago, and colonize the Polynesian Islands 5,000 years ago. The shipping trade in the Mediterranean Sea supported the rise of the Greek and Roman Civilizations. The global economy started with European explorers in sailing ships. The bulk of trade goods are still carried in ships.
— Joe McInerney Th’99
The plow enabled man to start cultivation, which led to civilization.
— Holden Chi Hoon Lee ’00 Th’01
My favorite invention is the personal computer. My second favorite is the jet airplane. The two together allow me to live, work, and play anywhere in the world I want.
— Will Schoen ’00
The original Ferris wheel was designed and built in 1893. The size of the wheel impresses me — 264 feet high, weighing more than 2 million pounds, and able to carry 2,160 people at one time. People marveled at how such a delicate-looking structure could be so strong and not waver in even gale force winds that tore apart the roofs of buildings and other structures during the fair.
— Lauren Scopaz ’00
The total knee replacement.
— Derek R. Jenkins ’02 DMS’06
As a feat of imaginative engineering: Tarski’s undefinability theorem of 1936 on the limits of truth. For elegance and usefulness: solar water disinfection (SODIS), developed by Martin Wegelin in the early 1990s. My personal favorite: nature’s evolutionary engineering of a tree. It is a masterpiece of simple thermodynamic efficiency, and energy degradation.
— Daniel Bilar Th’03
I am amazed at large structures like skyscrapers and huge planes. On a smaller note, the iPhone is pretty amazing, too.
— Brian Mason ’03 Th’04, ’05
Airplanes. Every time I am in a metal tube with wings I can’t help but to look out the window and marvel at how we ever managed to make this happen.
— Peter Rice ’05 Th’06
I am glad Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Paper, given to us by the Chinese, is one of the most important inventions.
— Subha Srinivasan Th’05
A windmill built by William Kamkwamba, when he was 14, to power two light bulbs and a radio for his family of 20 in the remote village of Malawi, Africa. He built it by reading a physics book!
— Afua Amoah Th’06
My favorite invention is air conditioning. Without it, there are a lot of places we couldn’t comfortably live.
— Glenn T. Nofsinger Th’06
One recent invention caught my attention: Last week people broadcast a football game live, in 3-D.
— Trinell Ball Th’07
I’d go with the Internet. It has revolutionized how we communicate, work, shop, bank, learn, teach, etc.
— Thach Bui Th’07
The bicycle. The design of modern bicycles is so simple that it is beautiful. Every part of a bike — the frame, crank, crank arms, brakes — has a function that is integral to its use. The simple mechanics allow for a robustness and reliability that very few other inventions can achieve. Bicycles made 30 years ago are still used daily with only minimal maintenance. Computers, cell phones, and even cars, become obsolete every five years.
— Calvin D. Krishen Th’07