Inspirational Reading for Engineers (and Aspiring Engineers)
by Prof. Reid Harrison
Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering
University of Utah
Salt Lake City, Utah
While bookstore shelves are filled with
biographies of entertainers, sports stars, and politicians, there are
relatively few good books that profile engineers or the process of
and invention. I find biographies and other historical accounts of my
chosen career to be very encouraging and inspirational, and I would
encourage every engineer (or aspiring engineer) to seek out a book
or two related to their field of interest. These books can provide
unique insight into the history and personalities behind the
forces of invention and innovation.
Contrary to popular stereotypes,
you will find that engineering is at its heart an extraordinarily
creative endeavor, and the top people in this field can only be
described as artists.
Since few of these books are bestsellers, I provide
here a list of recommended ''inspirational reading'' for engineers
and those who wish to understand engineers.
Recommended Reading (in order of publication)
- The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder, 1981
A classic tale of a year in the trenches at Data General in the
late 1970s during the design of a new 32-bit minicomputer. The story
illustrates the nature of teamwork and compromise in a modern high-tech
corporation. This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
- Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, by Steven Levy, 1984
Another classic. This book profiles ''hackers'' of the law-abiding variety:
innovative, unorthodox programmers and electronics hobbyists from the late
1950s to the early 1980s. Highlights include: the world's first video game,
developed by MIT grad students in 1961; the Homebrew Computer Club, Steve
Wozniak, and the invention of the Apple II; Bill Gates' first programming
job and the origins of Microsoft; and the video game programming wizards of
the early '80s.
- ''Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!'': Adventures of a Curious
Character, by Richard P. Feynman, 1984
Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist, not an
Still, this collection of personal anecdotes, humor, and autobiographical
tidbits should be required reading for every college student in
America. This book conveys the essence what it means to think clearly
and critically, and how to approach and solve problems.
Plus, it is easily the most entertaining book on this list. If you have
any friends who think technical folks are somehow lacking in humanity,
give them this book.
If, after reading this book, you become a Feynman fan, I recommend the
- ''What Do You Care What Other People Think?'': Further Adventures
of a Curious Character, by Richard P. Feynman, 1988
- Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick,
- The Eudaemonic Pie, by Thomas A. Bass, 1985
This book recounts the unlikely (but true) story of a band of
students/hippies at UC Santa Cruz in 1976 in their (mostly successful) quest
to built a wearable computer capable of predicting the trajectory of a
roulette ball in real time and thus make untold riches in Nevada casinos.
Information theory pioneer Claude Shannon makes a surprising cameo appearance.
- Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology,
by George Gilder, 1989
Although much of this book is heavily dated (particularly the economic
observations), it contains some real gems related to the origins of
the integrated circuit, Intel's rise to power, and Carver Mead's prophetic
view of VLSI technology. Plus, Chapter 19 ("Analog People") is a great
profile of Bob Widlar (the hard-drinking, hard-living genius) and other
engineers who developed the first integrated
- Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, by Tom Lewis, 1991
Edwin Armstrong is probably the least well-known of the few people who
could be considered geniuses of the 20th century. This book recounts
the origins of radio and the brilliant (but ultimately tragic) life of the
man who invented most of the original radio circuits.
- Skunk Works, by Ben R. Rich and Leo Janos, 1994
This book recounts Lockheed's legendary, ultra-secret Skunk Works group
from their design of the U-2 spy plane in the 1950s and the Mach 3+ SR-71
Blackbird in the 1960s to the development of the F-117 stealth fighter.
The author joined the Skunk Works in 1954 and headed the organization from
1975 until his retirement in 1991. An amazing tale spanning the Cold War
and describing the invention of planes that
propelled CIA and Air Force pilots to speeds faster than a rifle bullet.
- Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the
Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel, 1995
This book chronicles the efforts of British commoner and self-educated
carpenter John Harrison (no relation) who designed one of the most
significant technological advances of the 18th century. A clock that
saved countless lives and revolutionized ocean travel...
- The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards
Behind the Supercomputer, by Charles J. Murray, 1997
From the late 1950s until the early 1990s the fastest computers in the world
were designed by one man: Seymour Cray. Most of these remarkable machines were
developed by a small team of engineers in the town of Chippewa Falls,
Wisconsin (population 12,000). This is the story of Cray and the genesis
of the supercomputer.
- Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine
Espionage, by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew with Annette
Lawrence Drew, 1998
While this book does not directly chronicle engineers, the recently
declassified technology described in the book is nothing short of amazing.
One example: custom-built electronic eavesdropping pods that were attached
to Soviet undersea telecommunications cables by submarine-based divers
in near-freezing waters. Another incredible view of Cold War technology.
- The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the
Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers, by Tom Standage, 1998
A brief but enlightening look at the dawn and rise of the telegraph from about
1830-1880. This book chronicles the genesis of what later became known
as electrical engineering. If you think the modern internet brought
unprecidented change to the world and that hackers didn't exist until the
20th century, read this book for a healthy historical
- Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer,
by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco, 2002
The story of physicist/engineer Robert Moog, the most significant pioneer
in the development of synthesizers and electronic musical instruments in
the 1960s and '70s. The book describes an interesting dynamic between
the engineers and musicians during this ''pre-digital'' era.
- Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed
Pop Culture, by David Kushner, 2003
This book follows John Carmack and John Romero -- the programmers behind
Doom and Quake -- from their childhoods in the 1970s and '80s to their creation
of first-person-shooter video games in the '90s. A
modern rags-to-riches story that takes place far from Silicon Valley
in Shreveport, Louisiana and Dallas, Texas.