Reading about Engineering Practice

One of my favorite topics is engineering practice - how people actually make all those things that we take for granted. I'm an even bigger fan of books that tell me the people and how their work affected the rest of their life.

Here's a reading list of some of my favorites.

John D. Clark, Ignition: An Informal History of Rocket Propellants. Rutgers University Press, 1973. Recently reprinted. A great summary of all the liquid fuels we've used for rockets from an opinionated scientist who knew everyone working in the field, with lots of snarky comments and stories about explosions and insane primary investigators. Clark also documented the end of an entire scientific area; by 1970, all the chemicals that were reasonable and affordable had been examined, and liquid rocket propellants was a solved problem.

Nikon Camera, A Thousand and One Nights. Stories about the development of each Nikon lens, with occasional stories about the optical engineers. "Ever since, I have consulted Sato whenever I needed advice on dealing with people. That is the same Sato who regularly gets dead drunk, misses the last train, and spends tens of thousands of yen on a taxi ride home. However, he is no mere heavy drinker. I suppose maybe I should call him not "The Gifted Sato", but rather "Sato, The Japanese Dionysus"' Much of the science goes over my head, but it's still interesting.

Tracy Kidder, Soul of a New Machine Tracy Kidder followed an engineering team at Data General for a year in 1978 as they designed a new minicomputer to compete against the DEC VAX. When I was a kid, this book made me think that designing a computer would be fun. "They got to stay up all night!" As an adult, I realized the challenges for the managers as they tried to build a project that the execs really didn't want.

Neal Stephenson, Mother Earth Mother Board., Wired Magazine, December 1996. Stephenson travels around the world to see the newest, fastest trans-oceanic cable laid, and reflects on both what it takes to lay fiber halfway around the world and how transoceanic cables changed the world. "In which the hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, acquainting himself with the customs and dialects of the exotic Manhole Villagers of Thailand, the U-Turn Tunnelers of the Nile Delta, the Cable Nomads of Lan tao Island, the Slack Control Wizards of Chelmsford, the Subterranean Ex-Telegraphers of Cornwall, and other previously unknown and unchronicled folk."

Linda Niemann, Boomer: Railroad Memoirs. Niemann was one of the first women brakemen on the Southern Pacific Railroad; she talked about her career as a "boomer", moving around the system whereever work was available, and making sense of a life where she was never in any one town for more than a few months.

Ben Rich, Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed. Stories about how Lockheed's secret aircraft research group worked, and stories about how the aircraft industry (and consulting for three-letter-agencies) changed over time.

Larry Ramspott, The Baneberry Vent: A Geologist Remembers. Lawrence Livermore geologist talks about the national lab in its glory days, and his efforts to solve nuclear containment issues so that tests could continue after one test vented to the atmosphere. Learn about flying on the Livermore - Nevada Test Site charter flight, and how to get enough evidence to show that the next test won't spew radioactive particles across several states.

James Carothers, Robert Brownlee, Bob Campbell, Gerry Johnson, and Bill Ross: Caging the Dragon: The Containment of Underground Nuclear Explosions. This has all the science and engineering behind Ramspott's story - how to keep radioactive gases from percolating through the coax cables, explosively cutting cables and pipes before the explosion reached them, worrying about geology, and what happens underground when you set off a nuclear bomb. It's a long, technical read, but it talks about technology most of us will never see.

Cliff Stoll, The Cuckoo's Egg. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab scientist finds 43 cent accounting problem, and catches a German hacker working for East Germany looking for military secrets. It's quaint in these days when an evil hacker can break into our phones, but Cliff's story talks about one of the first cases of tracking down evil computer hackers.

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table. A chemist tells of his varied life - from a childhood in pre-war Italy to resistance fighter, to Auschwitz, to the mundane life of a chemist tracking down why batches of paint wouldn't gel.

Patrick Purtell, Maintenance and Management ant the McLaughlin Mine, 1985 to 1997.. Oral History from Berkeley's Regional Oral History Office. More than you wanted to know about running a modern gold mine in Northern California in the 1980's.

James Curry Sr., Metallurgist for the Empire Star Mine and Newmont Exploration 1932-1955, Plant Manager for Calaveras Cement Company, 1956-1975. Oral history from Berkeley's Regional Oral History Office. Stories about the practical side of gold mining and cement making.

Joseph Perelli, The Establishment of the Filice and Perelli Canning Company in Richmond, 1929.. Berkeley Regional Oral History Office. Stories both about an Italian immigrant family and how they started a major canning business in California.

Christine Lecuyer, Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High Tech, 1930-1970.. MIT Press, 2007. Describes how the different industries in Silicon Valley each encouraged the next line of business: copyright-infringing vacuum tubes led to microwave tubes, which provided the people needed to build semiconductors, which led to integrated circuits, computers, and luxury chicken day care.

Dan De Quille, The Big Bonanza. A history of Virginia City from a newspaperman who was there to see it. Stories about the mines, the mills, the politics, and the people.

John Le Carre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. John Le Carre's famous spy novel is, of course, fiction, but it also seems like a realistic view of both the mundane parts of working for a secret agency as well as the frustrations of trying to get stuff done in a government department. My brother-in-law calls it "Dilbert for Spies".

Stephen M. Voynick, Making of a hard rock miner: An account of the experiences of a worker in copper, molybdenum, and uranium mines in the West. Voynick leaves boring employment to be a miner; although his experience is definitely 20th century, many of his stories - mines out in the middle of nowhere, dangerous conditions, boredom - all must match what 19th century miners would have faced.

Daniel Rehwalt, The Light at the End of the Tunnel and other Railroad Stories. Life as a Southern Pacific steam locomotive fireman.

Barry Gremillion, I Killed Charles Bronson's Cat. Life as a Hollywood location scout, and stories about movie production.

Vicki L. Ruiz, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950. Academic work covering how immigrant women unionized to have more control over their work in canneries and packing houses.

Carol Lynn McKibben, Beyond Cannery Row: Sicilian Women, Immigration, and Community in Monterey, California 1915-1999. Stories of women working in the fish canning industry in Monterey in the 20th century. It contains many more stories from cannery workers about both their jobs and families than Ruiz's book.

Bill Fisher, Thirty Years Over Donner: Railroading "family style" over Southern Pacific's Donner Pass, though the eyes of a company signal maintainer.. Great stories about what it takes to keep trains running across Donner Summit in the depths of winter. Bill's wife, Kay Fisher, also wrote about life as a railroad wife attempting to keep house in the worst conditions.

Kay Fisher, A Baggage Car with Lace Curtains Stories from the wife of a Southern Pacific signal maintainer on Donner Summit.

Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Terkel did interviews with a wide range of folks - "grave diggers to studio heads" - to hear how they see their work.

Donald A. Schon, The Reflective Practitioner. Schon looks at five professions to find out how they solve problems. He gives episodes of engineers, architects, managers, therapists, and town planners solving problems - much in the same way that Ben Rich solved technical problems at Lockheed, or the Data General engineers solved problems in their Eclipse computer.

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