Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 118.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Tue, 24 Jun 2003 06:54:05 +0100
From: Margot Brereton <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: an engineer's understanding
Re: Willard McCarty's email of Sat 7th June 2003, which has provoked a good
debate in our research group:
>>Armand de Callatay, in "Computer Simulation Methods to Model
>>Macroeconomics", states that, "An engineer understands... a
>>when he can design a (virtual) machine that is functionally
>>this system" (The Explanatory Power of Models, ed. Robert
>>2002, p. 105).
>>Three questions: (1) Is this a correct and complete
>>description of what it
>>means to understand something from an engineering
I think there are two halves to the story development of an engineer's
An good engineer can analyse a real machine and produce an analytic model
or simulation of it that predicts its behavior under a variety of different
external conditions. Depending on how complex the machine is the accuracy
of the model might vary but.... There could be a lengthy debate here on
what actually demonstrates and constitutes understanding but I would prefer
to address my comments to the second part of the story.
The second half of the story is that a good engineer can design a real
device in response to a set of requirements (an abstraction). The only
reason that engineers model things in the first place is because it enables
them to understand, in order that they may design.
>>If so, then
>>(2) are we to articulate our complete understanding of a real
>>as a tool, at least in part by simulating it?
Yes. If one can get an accurate simulation that predicts the correct
behaviour under a variety of different input conditions then one has
probably understood the device.
>>(3) If the artifacts
>>engineering comprise an intellectual tradition, as I think
>>has argued in Engineering and the Mind's Eye (MIT, 2001),
>>then would it not
>>follow that within the tradition only a machine is a proper
>>response to a
>>machine -- and not words, however many, however apt?
Not quite. I think Ferguson in effect showed that the response to an
abstract idea is a real machine.
For example in Chapter 1 or 2 where he discussed the development of the
Newcomen engine, he correctly identifed that while elements of ideas for
producing power from steam or explosions had existed as far back as Da
Vinci, it was Newcomen that designed and actually built the first working
steam engine. Ferguson rightly attributed the credit to Newcomen for this
Any history of technology has to preserve both the machines themselves, the
notebooks that describe the machine's development, and means by which
models of phenomena that led to understanding the machine came about - (
e.g the Wright brother's early aerofoil tests, engineering models that
allowed the steam engine to be refined etc. ) And of course understanding
the social, political and economic circumstances under which new
technologies were achieved.
May I humbly refer any interested readers to my PhD dissertation, which
addresses this topic of how engineering students learn by negotiating
between abstract representations and physical devices - the way to develop
real engineering understanding.
The Role of Hardware in Learning Engineering Fundamentals: An empirical
study of engineering design and product analysis activity. PhD dissertation
by Margot Brereton 1999 Stanford University
available to download at
>>Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
>>Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS
>>|| +44 (0)20
>>7848-2784 fax: -2980 || email@example.com
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