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Subject: Saga in Steel and Concrete - 470-477
Date: Fri, 30 May 2003 10:58:25 -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.

Since the pressure in America --- as earlier in Europe --- is toward
expanding the education of engineers, the writer has been impressed by
the opinion of some Norwegian engineers that the training should be
briefer and limited to strictly fundamental matters. The most convincing
exponent of this theory is Anton Grønningsæter, the metallurgist.
Speaking before fourth-year students of mining and metallurgy at Toronto
University, he recently remarked:
I believe it would be an advantage to get a clearer view than today of
the proper division of . . . training between the Universities and
industry; at the present, my impression is that industry is expecting too
much from the Universities and too little from itself. In general, I
believe the regular universities should attend to fundamentals and
principles, while special postgraduate schools and individual industries
should attend to the specialized training of the graduates needed for a
particular field. . . The graduate should realize that his first years
out of school should largely be considered as continued education. {14}
Addressing the Oslo branch of the Norwegian Engineers' Society in 1940,
Grønningsæter outlined methods whereby the preparation of engineers at
Norway's Institute of Technology might be improved. There should be, he
insisted, a greater emphasis on languages, especially English. Students
should also learn to know workers, their living conditions and
psychology, by taking work as laborers during vacations. Too many people
demand specialized knowledge on the part of the graduate, whereas the
greater need is for a thorough general preparation on which to build in
later years. Work under experienced engineers, postgraduate study in
certain instances, and the job itself will provide the necessary
specialization; one's whole life, he added, is a continued schooling. By
fundamental courses he meant mathematics, mechanics, physics, general
chemistry, physical chemistry, and the like. Students should learn to use
handbooks, periodicals, and other sources of information rather than seek
to remember all facts. One later learns in his specialty all that is
needed in the matter of details; the rest he has no use for. Lectures
should be brief and crystal-clear.
Grønningsæter, himself widely read in the economic and social fields and
eager that the institute should stress the significance of these and
related branches of knowledge, nevertheless maintained that it "is not
the duty of the Institute to train businessmen, economists, politicians,
and directors." Even so, the students must acquire some of the skills of
each of these professions in later years. While opposing the lengthening
of the course of study, Grønningsæter favored a year of graduate study,
preferably abroad and in America, giving as one of his reasons the
present superiority of English-language technical writings over the
German. He also called upon industry to assume increased responsibility
for continued training of engineers, foremen, and workers. {15}
Other engineers of sound judgment and professional recognition have
maintained --- sometimes with considerable heat --- that the present
engineering course, both in Europe and in America, is far too prolonged,
and that the graduates of Norway's Institute of Technology are older than
they should be when they enter the technical professions; they point to
the amazing adaptability and skill of the men of Horten, Porsgrund, and
of the schools at Trondhjem, Bergen, and Christiania. Their training was
in fundamentals and they became specialists on the job, not before. The
graduates of Norway's leading technical colleges lacked one thing in
their training: practical demonstrations to supplement theory. Whether
they would be able to compete today with the same success as before is
purely conjectural, but it is significant that not all professional men
favor the trend toward specialization in education and the
ever-lengthening period of preparation.
Engineers themselves will debate for hours on end and never arrive at a
solution of the problems posed by mention of education, the differences
between native and foreign-born, politics, and the changing status of the
engineer in the present century. About their permanent place in society,
however, there can be no argument. In the first chapter of this study,
sufficient evidence is given to indicate that most of the engineers of
our story came from the homes of the middle class-merchants, lawyers,
doctors, engineers, pastors, government functionaries, sea captains, and
moderately well-to-do farmers. Their children in America, invariably
college-educated, are entering the fields of business and the
professions. With hardly an exception, the personal data on the Norwegian
engineers tells an obvious but significant story. One has two sons and a
daughter; the sons are studying to be engineers, the daughter to be a
dietitian. Another has one son and a daughter; the son is a dentist and
the daughter, a college graduate, has a supervisory position in an
engineering office. A third has four sons, all of them engineers. Another
has one son, a lawyer. Still another has a son studying at a state
university for a business career. Government service, usually by way of a
specialized profession, is a common occupation. It need hardly be added
that these second generation Norwegian Americans live almost entirely in
the cities, are widely diffused in the larger American population, and
will therefore quickly shed any slight Norwegian coloring that may now
attach to them. And it is reasonable to assume that they will adopt the
moderately conservative social ideals of the educated middle class in
American society.
The close connection of the engineer with production and labor and his
strategic position for studying the social implications of modern
industry should make him uncommonly sensitive to current problems, if not
indeed a leader in their solution. How does the Norwegian engineer in
America react to this responsibility --- and what, more specifically,
does he think of Veblen's theories?
For the most part those who have expressed themselves as to the
engineer's proper role in our economic and social life feel that his
influence should be greater than it is now. Characteristic of the many
statements in the "case studies" is this: "He should be a leader in
business and in politics, which so influence the economic life. But the
fault has been his own; he has not been the kind of citizen that his
close connection with production and labor would seem to make logical and
natural." Another sees no reason why the engineer should not more
frequently assume administrative positions in business life. A third
feels that the engineer's training is at fault, since it has led to
abstract thinking, an overemphasis on details, and slowness in arriving
at decisions --- but that the engineer has a soundness of judgment that
would be of great value outside as well as within the technical field.
Only one, or possibly two, of the many who were interviewed professed
absolute faith in the vague tenets of technocracy.
A large number were of the opinion that engineers should stick to purely
technical activity, aim at research leading to cheaper production and
improved quality of goods. While some were convinced that the engineer
should interest himself in politics, about an equal number were deeply
prejudiced in the matter of anything concerning the politician and his
difficult tasks; they were inclined to feel that more good could be
accomplished by remaining in the background and working out problems in
the office than by mounting the speaker's platform. This did not, in the
opinion of some, rule out a growing importance of the engineer's place in
industrial development, public works, and better utilization of our
Selected comments from the majority who favor a more active part in the
larger life of America are of sufficient historical interest to merit
recording: "There are unlimited possibilities if the technicians as a
body would only give their insight and knowledge to the humanitarian
solution of the great problems confronting us and the world." "With his
training in planning and organization, the technician should fill more
high positions . . . many positions that are now filled by lawyers." The
engineer should "streamline our system of distribution so that it would
be up-to-date with the system of production which engineers have already
streamlined." "His thorough training and analytical mind should qualify
him as a servant in various public offices. He should have free hands to
carry out his responsible tasks with the highest standards of ethics."
"Though his part should be a bigger one, not every engineer is up to the
task. Some are introverts or too preoccupied with technical problems.
There is only one engineer in the New York State senate [in 1941]. The
lawyers play far too important a role in this industrial age." "Besides
the role he plays today, he should and will be playing an increasingly
dominant role in the economically planned society of the future." "The
technical training of the engineer should be utilized more in political
life; but the contrast of political intrigues and manipulations is too
great to make politics attractive to the majority of the engineers. They
should certainly be able to help materially in reducing the appalling
waste in our political life and in the economy of our communities." "The
engineer, to play his proper role, should have a more liberal education."
"The engineer should make this a more pleasant, convenient, and
comfortable world to live in."
Of the many who favor a more active and varied participation on the part
of the engineering group, not a few express misgivings concerning its
educational and other qualifications. An outspoken minority, composed
largely of men who have been successful as managers or business
enterprisers, go much farther. "The technician," one of them insists,
"has a somewhat exaggerated opinion of his role in our economic life. The
fact that he has an active part in production makes him feel that he is
entitled to a leading part. This does not follow, as the technician's
necessary devotion to detail, which is essential for the technical
accomplishment, at the same time makes it difficult for him to bargain
and compromise and cheerfully see the other's viewpoint."
In somewhat the same vein but with a note of regret, another writes:
"[The engineer] is necessarily a hired man, working for so much per month
(as little as possible) although he may have a far better brain, more
inventiveness and initiative than the men who hire him, while the latter
go off with the big prizes because their ability is to garner money,
while his is to create goods or equipment for producing goods. . . . I am
not talking about those few technicians who are also good businessmen at
the same time; the latter should have the management of factories, but
the average technician is generally poor at marketing and distributing
the goods." An otherwise liberal engineer adds this: The technician
should "stick to his job unless especially gifted or qualified for other
work," and another concludes, "I am not in agreement with the assumption
that a technically-trained man must be a success in other lines simply
because he is an engineer."
In discussing the larger role of the engineer, our group has indirectly
expressed its attitude to the views expounded by Veblen, particularly in
his book The Engineers and the Price System. A distinguished medwestern
engineer, asked for his opinion of this work, replied:
I agree in what the engineer some day in the future may be called upon to
do. But I also believe [he] will not lend himself to any undertaking of
that sort until a complete collapse of the existing economic order has
taken place, and perhaps not even then unless a strong hand puts him to
the task. Today's engineers do not stick together. Their interests are as
selfish as anybody's and they are to a great extent willing to sell their
services to the highest bidder for almost any task within the law. There
are very few independent engineers and their views seem always colored by
their fear of losing a job or a client. And the older a man gets, the
worse it is for him to disagree. This applies to foreigner and native
Far less friendly to Veblen is the statement of a prosperous
engineer-manufacturer in the East:
The trouble with Thorstein Veblen . . . and a host of others is that they
have buried themselves in books too much and have been out of contact
with actual life. None of these gentlemen . . . has the faintest idea of
how industry is operating today. This detachment . . . has caused such
leaders . . . to stray into impossible and impractical and outright
stupid conclusions. Expert management in industry is today in practical
operation all over the world and has been for several hundred years. By
that I certainly do not mean to say that only engineers are running
industry or that they should ever do so. As a class, engineers have no
more business sense than any other class of average people. They would
certainly make a mess of it if they were to run an industry without the
aid of the general businessmen of whom Thorstein Veblen has such a low
opinion. The general businessman is today quite often much more of an
expert in his field than any engineer and there is no question in my mind
that he is just as valuable to the industry, if not more so, than the
engineer. . . It takes all kinds of people to make a world and there
certainly is no class of people developed as yet that knows how to run
and manage the affairs of other people better than they themselves can do
it. . . . Economic activity can only be developed to its highest state
through the profit system and through free individual enterprise.
That the Norwegian engineers have often earnestly discussed among
themselves their status in society is apparent when one pages through the
volumes of their Journal. Thus we find, for example, an article by Kyrre
Eide titled, "Social Leadership, Should Engineers and Scientists Take the
Lead?" Eide, who maintains that science and politics cannot be separated,
does not in this particular paper, however, go far beyond urging
membership in the Norwegian-American Technical Society as a first step
toward social leadership. {16}
The engineers, like all other wage and salary groups, are interested in
obtaining higher incomes and improved professional status. Typical of the
many discussions centering about this subject is one divulged by the
minutes of the Chicago Norwegian Technical Society. {17} J. Haakon Hoff,
who, like Giaver, worked hard in the interests of the engineers, spoke on
the subject, "How to Increase One's Salary for the Benefit of the
Individual and to Foster Respect for the Engineering Profession in
Drawing on his rich experiences, Hoff stated that as he climbed the
ladder of technical positions following his arrival in America in 1888,
he never received an increase in salary without having to ask for it. He
was of the impression that engineers were neither as fully respected nor
as well paid as other professional men, and that the public generally
must be educated to appreciate their value to society. Advising his
hearers to move when possible into the business phases of their
profession and to be alert to better income opportunities, he concluded
that employers and public alike would be better served if salaries were
higher. In the discussion that followed, one member proposed a union of
engineers and draftsmen. On this occasion, as at other times, the
proposal to identify engineers with the laboring class, and thus to
bargain for better wages and working conditions, had no measure of
success whatsoever.
Several years later, in 1928, Hoff believed that the times were favorable
for structural designers and engineers. Restricted immigration and the
shortage of competent men in America had created a situation that was not
to be ignored. Graduates of American engineering colleges, discovering
that the profession was underpaid, were entering other fields. Employers,
he said, "know so little about an engineer's qualifications, that they
all look alike to them. Instead of keeping [the engineers] and working
them into their business . . . they hire them and fire them like
laborers, and this alone, of course, encourages . . . especially the
better men, to go into other occupations." The field is thus to a large
extent left open to foreign engineers, graduates of correspondence
schools, and practical engineers who have worked up from the drafting
room. The Norwegians therefore need not be concerned about competition.
They should take advantage of the good times, demand more pay, and,
except in unusual situations, refuse to work overtime.
This line of argument closely resembles the reasoning of the labor union,
and one wonders why the principle of organization should be so abhorrent
to professional men --- engineers as well as others. The answer is given,
at least in part, by Hoff himself, "We should all be thankful that we are
here in this wonderful country with the many opportunities it gives us."
{18} Reasons not given are the prejudices of the class to which engineers
belong and the domination of the technical profession and its societies
by older, conservative members and by industry. It is possible, as a
recent writer has expressed it, that proper organization in the interest
of engineers must come about by an evolutionary process. {19}

<14> From a copy of this speech made available to the writer by
<15> "Kan ingeniørutdannelsen ved Norges Tekniske Høgskole forbedres?"; a
lecture delivered February 23, 1940, and summarized in Morgenbladet,
February 24, 1940. It is interesting to note that Professor Sem. Saeland,
physicist at the Norwegian university in Oslo and first president of the
Institute of Technology, was himself completely convinced of the value of
a general technical education.
<16> Vol. 11, no. 2, p. 18 (December, 1938).
<17> October 20, 1946.
<18> "Opportunities for Norwegian Engineers in the United States," in
Norwegian-American Technical Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, p. 18 (February,
<19> John Mills, The Engineer in Society (New York, 1940). See especially
"Organizing for Evolution," p. 129-140.

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