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Subject: Saga in Steel and Concrete - 460-469
Date: Thu, 29 May 2003 09:17:20 -0700


The following selection is taken from "Saga in Steel and Concrete:
Norwegian Engineers in America" by Kenneth Bjork published by the
Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA) in 1947. The volume is
still available from NAHA at where you will
also find the first 33 volumes of Studies and Records online. This
chapter is published with the kind permission of NAHA. The book this
selection is drawn from is under copyright and permission has been
granted for educational purposes and it is not to be used in any way for
commercial purposes.

No social philosopher has subjected American economic life to quite so
searching an analysis as has Thorstein B. Veblen. Sooner or later the
student of the social sciences comes face to face with one or another of
Veblen's penetrating observations, and, whether he likes it or not, is
forced to accept or reject here a major premise or there a startling
conclusion. The influence of Veblen on present thinking is attested by
the growing popularity of his theories and by their development, with
modifications, at the hands of others.
For our story it will suffice to say that Veblen interpreted our economy,
not as a system of capitalism in the sense in which the classical
economists viewed it, but purely as a price system. Because of inherent
weaknesses, this economy could not hope to survive for long. In a manner
almost irritatingly vague, Veblen predicted that a new order would
succeed the present one, after a succession of crises, each more acute
than the one before, gave proof that adjustment was out of the question.
In Veblen's own words, "Under the rule of the current technology and
business principles, industry is managed by businessmen for business
ends, not by technological experts or for the material advantage of the
community. And in this control of industrial affairs the smaller
businessmen are in great part subject to the discretion of the larger."
{2} The industrial system, he wrote in Engineers and the Price System, is
handicapped by "dissension, misdirection, and unemployment of material
resources, equipment, and man power, at every turn where the statesmen or
the captains of finance can touch its mechanism." Both direction and
investment are "allowed to decide matters of industrial policy which
should plainly be left to the discretion of the general staff of
production engineers driven by no commercial bias."
The industrial system, with its increasing complexities and many
interrelated processes, was, he believed, "approaching a critical pass,
beyond which it will no longer be practicable to leave its control in the
hands of businessmen working at cross purposes for private gain, or to
entrust its continued administration to others than suitably trained
technological experts, production engineers without a commercial
interest. What these men may then do with it all is not so plain." For
the time being, however, the captains of industry and finance continued
to "commercialize the knowledge and abilities of industrial experts and
turn them to account for their own gain," since "the use of these
technologists [is] indispensable to the making of money." As for the
engineers, the older generation had "become pretty well commercialized"
because of a "long and unbroken apprenticeship to the corporation
financiers and the investment bankers," and so they still "see the
industrial system as a contrivance for the round-about process of making
money." Many of the younger technicians, Veblen believed, were "beginning
to understand that engineering begins and ends in the domain of tangible
performance, and that commercial expediency is another matter." {3}
While it was Veblen who gave classic expression to the status of modern
engineers under the profit system, he is not alone in calling attention
to their position of dependence. In the Encyclopaedia of the Social
Sciences we read:
The increased importance of engineering for production has not been
accompanied by a corresponding increase of influence of the engineer in
production, society and politics. The engineers' attention is
concentrated upon technical progress rather than upon the conditions
requisite to economic success. . . . Only a few engineers become captains
of industry and of these only those who have an insight into the problems
of economic organization and finance. Singularly few engineers become
great political leaders. The great mass of technical functionaries
constitute but a passive element in the whole complex structure. . . .
The average technician, even when expertly trained, is more easily
replaced than . . . a foreman. {4}
That all the engineers are not satisfied with this arrangement is
indicated by Stuart Chase's comment, "As a matter of cold fact, many
technicians do not hesitate to affirm that they could do better work if
they were not constantly impeded by the profit motives of business men."
Stuart Chase wrote in 1929, and Veblen even earlier. It was the
depression of the 1930's that led to a more generally critical study of
our economic institutions. One of the many proposed panaceas was the
movement of the early 1930's known as technocracy. Veblen, in his
Engineers and the Price System, had stressed the gulf between what we are
capable of producing under the efficient direction of engineers and what
we do in fact produce under the rule of the captains of industry. The
technocrats began where Veblen left off, dealt harshly if vaguely with
the use of money in exchange, and emphasized the potentialities of
automatic processes as a means of obtaining the desired efficiency. A
popular note was injected into the discussion with the hint that all
disagreeable hand labor might thus be eliminated. Shrouded in secrecy,
the technocratic movement, esoteric though it was, first fired the public
imagination, caused much uneasiness, then died out almost as suddenly as
it had begun. {6}
What to Veblen had seemed desirable but somewhat remote has actually come
to pass, though in slightly different form, according to one contemporary
writer. In 1941 James Burnham published his much discussed Managerial
Revolution, a book which flatly states that we are already in mid-passage
from capitalism to a "managerial society." Production for profit is fast
giving way both to state enterprise and to the manipulations of
production for purposes other than that decried by Veblen. In politics
all important decisions are made by the heads of executive bureaus and
commissions --- not by legislative bodies; in industry the manager
("operating executive," "plant superintendent," etc.) has replaced the
private capitalist of the past. Though they do not own, the administrator
and manager direct and determine, and as a consequence collectivism and
social aims are fast replacing individualism and private profit. A new
and dominant aristocracy, according to Burnham, has come into being. {7}
Before considering the attitude of the Norwegian engineers to the ideas
of men like Veblen, it would be profitable to examine in a general
fashion a few of the modern trends and characteristics to be found among
the engineering profession. It is desirable, too, to note the
differentiation which attaches to the foreign-trained engineer group.
The nineteenth-century engineer, as one American writer has observed, was
a kind of "private practitioner," whose work took him from place to place
and permitted him a considerable measure of independence in the choice of
a job and its execution. Quite commonly he opened a consulting office as
would a doctor, lawyer, or dentist. The competitive nature of his
professional life and the climate in which he developed contributed
toward a genuinely individualistic outlook and a social philosophy not
unlike that of the businessman in the same period. Today, by contrast,
over 95 per cent of the engineers are employees, usually of a large
engineering firm or industry, or the government. This change, a corollary
of the trend toward concentration that characterizes all our economic
life, has been greeted by frequent complaints that the engineer now
enjoys less freedom than the professional man in the legal or medical
fields. Salaries have tended toward uniformity, with ceilings at the top
and floors at the bottom; the inevitable result has been that earnings of
the gifted men have been shrinking and the opportunity to amass fortunes
has largely passed. The question has also been raised, as it has been
raised in connection with our productive equipment, whether all technical
ability is being efficiently utilized --- whether the security and
economic gain at the bottom of the ladder have not been won at the price
of restraint and limitation at the top.
Counteracting this trend toward dependence and uniformity is the fact
that more and more positions are being filled by technically-trained men,
both in private and in public life. As business assumes the corporate and
large-scale form, it also requires of those who direct it an
ever-increasing knowledge of the technology that has come to be its
primary characteristic. Out of this need, as Burnham points out, is
developing a managerial and planning class. Nor need the engineer cast
longing glances at the situation of the doctor and lawyer, for the
independence of these men is today largely illusory; both in medicine and
in law the trend is toward concentration -in the clinic, socialized
medicine, the law firm, and the business corporation. It is precisely in
industry, with its many new opportunities, that the future of the
engineer lies. "The extravagant prophecies that were once heard of
limitless possibilities may not . . . be fulfilled, but engineering
appears capable of offering an interesting, productive, and relatively
remunerative career to an increasingly large number of men." {8}
A study made by the Russell Sage Foundation reveals that in 1924
engineers five years out of college were earning a median income of
$2,860; ten years after graduation they could expect $4,000; after
fifteen years the salary rose to $5,000; those who had graduated thirty
years before were enjoying median earnings of $7,500. {9} This survey,
while not entirely satisfactory for present purposes, nevertheless
indicates that the earnings of engineers in recent times are adequate for
a comfortable standard of living but that, with exceptions, they are not
The engineer, when compared with representatives of other professions, is
frequently accused of being narrow, interested only in detailed technical
work. He has little understanding, the argument runs, of the economic
forces that operate in industry; he is not a man of broad culture; he
fails to measure up to the demands of a managerial position; and,
finally, in neglecting his obligations to society he reveals an appalling
absence of social responsibility. Inevitably the causes are found to lie
in the engineer's courses of study. His education, it is frequently
remarked, is of a predominantly undergraduate nature. Unlike the doctors
and lawyers, the engineers enter the professional school without
preliminary preparation in the liberal arts. The consequence is a
schedule overcrowded with technical courses to the exclusion of work in
the humanities and the social sciences.
Engineers are themselves conscious of the shortcomings of present
technical education and there are some indications that they are moving
toward the ideal of the engineer as a leader of men rather than as a
highly specialized agent of the business interests. This trend is
reflected in the recommendations of the Society for the Promotion of
Engineering Education and in the discussions that are increasingly
frequent in the technical journals. Greater emphasis is already being
placed on the study of administration, economics, sociology, and
political science, and there is a wide-spread interest in subjects that
are loosely designated as "cultural" or "broadening." Influence is being
widely exerted to lengthen the course of training from four to five years
and to encourage the better students to take up graduate study.
Whether or not a mere juggling of college courses will affect the general
outlook of the engineering group remains to be seen. It is obvious that
altered courses of study as such are meaningless without a corresponding
change in the philosophy of the engineering college. It is unfair to
accuse engineers and scientists alone of a "complete isolation from the
economic and social world," as Henry A. Wallace has done, at least by
inference; but he is on solid ground when he says that "the emphasis of
both engineering and science in the future must be shifted more and more
toward the sympathetic understanding of the complexities of life, as
contrasted with the simple mathematical, mechanical understanding of
material production." {10}
When we turn from the American engineer as a general type to the engineer
of foreign birth and training, we find that the same generalizations
apply. But there is a considerable element of variation.
The graduate of Trondhjem, Bergen, Christiania, Horten, or Porsgrund who
arrived on American shores during the eighties or nineties of the last
century and the early years of the present one came in response to a need
for specialized skills, and he regarded America as the land of limitless
opportunity. He had youth, ambition, college debts, and a sound
theoretical training as spurs or aids to the realization of his dreams.
Though he invariably sought employment with established firms, he looked
forward to an independent career once he had passed through the period of
apprenticeship and acquired competence in a certain field of engineering.
In treating of the careers of the more gifted engineers, our story has
been an almost monotonous record of dependent positions followed by
consulting practices, partnerships, exploitation of inventions,
manufacturing projects, and the like. Not infrequently this rise to
independence and professional recognition was accompanied by the
acquisition of considerable wealth. Even in the many cases where an
engineer retained his connection with a private or public concern, he
commonly became chief engineer, director, or in some other way gained a
voice in policy-making as well as responsibility in executing plans. Such
a person naturally accepted without serious misgivings the major tenets
of individualism. In politics he was invariably Republican, in his social
philosophy conservative, and, however strong his professional loyalties,
he had no exaggerated notions of the part an engineer should play in the
life of the community. All in all, he was content with things as he found
them, and he lived out his days in a milieu largely undisturbed by the
problems of today.
One of the questions most frequently asked of the engineers by the
present writer is this: To what extent did the fact of your foreign
training work to an advantage or disadvantage in your professional life?
In a majority of cases the older engineers answer that they did not feel
discriminated against because of their origin, and many insist that it
was at times a positive advantage --- as it is with the artist today.
They are convinced that their education was superior to that of many of
their native-born associates, who frequently were helpless in the face of
a simple theoretical problem.
They are usually quick to add, however, that the American-trained
engineer had a stronger aptitude for business, administration, and the
purely practical aspects of engineering, and was less inclined to become
lost in the details of a project. Occasionally the same men complain that
the foreign-trained engineer has a stronger tendency than the native to
remain in strictly technical work. Almost all of them were convinced that
the immigrant must work a little harder to overcome the initial barrier
of language and to acquire a mastery of American techniques; furthermore,
he must rely almost exclusively upon his own abilities, since he rarely
has the advantage of family or other personal connections in the offices
of those who own and control.
When one turns to the younger engineers, the answers are different. The
friendliness toward foreign skills is notably cooler today than it was,
say, thirty, forty, or fifty years ago --- just as the demand for foreign
technical skills is less than it was before the American schools attained
their present numbers and standards. One often hears remarks such as
these, "The foreign-born are discriminated against, but they are better
trained." "European education is broader and more thorough, but these
facts are not generally recognized." "Scandinavian engineers who are
willing to work hard to overcome the language handicap have a distinct
advantage over native Americans, since their education is superior, they
work harder, and they owe their positions to ability alone." "The
handicaps of the foreign-born are not so noticeable in good times;
generally in hard times they must be so good in their work that the
economic advantage of retaining them is apparent." "We are at a distinct
disadvantage, especially in times of political unrest and social
instability, and the situation gets worse rather than better." "The
handicap is noticeable only in sales and public contact work." "There
seems little opportunity of rising to responsible positions." "It is
harder for the foreigner to reach the higher job brackets." "Native
engineers are promoted ahead of the foreign-born." "There are too many
`fathers' sons' in high positions."
Remarks of this kind are too numerous to ignore, though it would be a
mistake to assume that they represent a generally negative attitude. It
would be interesting, too, to question the same engineers twenty-five
years hence. Many are now struggling up the ladder of professional
recognition, and success in their case, as with older engineers, will no
doubt change their point of view. It may be true, as one engineer has put
it, that "There are just as many successful foreign-born as native
engineers --- on a percentage basis." {11}
The answers to any question put to the engineers seem at first as varied
as the individuals themselves. Yet when subjected to the test of numbers,
the replies fit into a fairly clear if irregular pattern. They reveal,
for example, that in the matter of salary, the differences between the
native and foreign-born are slight --- for the same type of work. {12}
Certainly the opportunity for making great fortunes is less today than it
was in the nineteenth century. The widening field of employment, often
leading to positions of a responsible nature, is also clearly
In the field of political affiliation the shift is unmistakably from
Republican to Independent or Democrat, usually of the liberal or New Deal
variety. The shift is due as much to the growth of collectivist democracy
in the homeland as to the growing sense of social responsibility among
professional people in America. The young engineer who came from Norway
during the 1920's would find it as natural in the 1930's to accept the
program of the late President F. D. Roosevelt as it was for the immigrant
of 1890 to embrace the more conservative and individualistic doctrines of
the Republican party. {13}

<1> See Joseph Dorfman, Thorstein Veblen and His America (New York,
1934), and Alvin Johnsen's brief account of Veblen in Encyclopaedia of
the Social Sciences, 15:234 (New York, 1935).
<2> The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts, 351
(New York, 1937). Published by the Viking Press, Inc.
<3> These quotations are from the chapter "The Captains of Finance and
the Engineers," in Engineers and the Price System, 54-82 (New York,
1936). This book was written in 1923, and reprinted in 1936 by the Viking
Press, Inc.
<4> Emil Lederer, "Technology," in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences,
14:555 (New York, 1935). By permission of the Macmillan Company,
publishers .
<5> In Men and Machines, 335 (New York, 1929).
<6> See Myron W. Watkins, "Technocracy Movement," in Dictionary of
American History, 6:236 (New York, 1940).
<7> An excellent condensation of Burnham's theory is found in his "Coming
Rulers of the U. S.," in Fortune, 24:100, 119, 122, 124 (November, 1941).
<8> Esther Lueile Brown, The Professional Engineer, 85 (New York, 1936).
The conclusions made in this volume, p. 81-86, have been drawn on
liberally for the foregoing section. This book was published by the
Russell Sage Foundation.
<9> Brown, The Professional Engineer, 70. To the present writer these
figures seem unexpectedly high.
<10> Quoted in Brown, The Professional Engineer, 20. See also her
discussion of engineering education, p. 15-21.
<11> These quotations, slightly edited, are taken from questionnaire
sheets in the writer's possession.
<12> A word of reservation is necessary at this point because of the
inadequacy of figures for the engineering profession in general and the
understandable hesitancy among those directly consulted to give full
information about their incomes.
<13> It is significant in this connection to note an almost total absence
of fanaticism on the part of either "conservative" or "liberal." The
Norwegian engineer in the truest sense is a "moderate," characterized by
a striking independence of thought. Of thirty engineers selected at
random and without regard to wealth or age, thirteen are Republicans (two
of the liberal kind), seven call themselves Democrats, six prefer to be
known as Independents (three with left-wing tendencies), two call
themselves Liberals, one has "Republican leanings," and one is "mildly
conservative." Only one Republican indicated membership in Gannett's
Committee to Uphold Constitutional Government, an extremely conservative

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