Great Engineers & Scientists

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

So who do you think of when you hear "Great Engineer"? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add him or her to the pantheon. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

The First Lady of Structural Engineering

Posted November 28, 2016 4:00 PM by MaggieMc

Elmina Wilson is widely regarded as “the first lady of structural engineering.” Born on September 29, 1870, Elmina came from a family of wealthy farmers and gained her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Iowa State University. While Wilson was not the first woman to obtain a bachelor’s degree in engineering, she was the first woman to gain a master’s degree in the same field. In addition, Wilson proceeded to work in civil engineering as a career woman, which was novel for the time.

During her studies, Wilson took courses at renowned universities: MIT and Cornell, while also working summers with engineering and architecture firms. After graduating, Wilson became a professor and continued to work summers at engineering firms, one of which was Purdy & Henderson, a firm that dominated the skyscraper industry.

One notable building Wilson worked on was the Flatiron Building in Manhattan. Completed in 1902, the Flatiron Building, and therefore Elmina Wilson, left a mark on New York City, defining the area in which the wedge-shaped building is located as the Flatiron District.

Elmina was also the first female to work full time as a civil-structural engineering professor. This is especially notable because it was less than forty years earlier, in 1855, that the first co-educational institution was opened in Iowa— it was also the first true co-ed college in the nation.

In addition to her legacy in the world of engineering, Wilson left a mark on women’s rights. Though Wilson passed away on June 2, 1918, and did not live to see the passing of the 19th amendment, she and her efforts played a role in the movement. As president of the Woman Suffrage Club in Manhattan, she “mingled with the national leaders and supporters of the women’s suffrage movement.”

Elmina’s sister, Alda H. Wilson, also received a degree in civil engineering, just two years after Elmina. Alda’s career moved more toward architecture. The sisters reportedly took a sabbatical in 1904 to study architectural and engineering works in Europe.


As noted in text.

Image Credit for Elmina Wilson to ASCE Library

3 comments; last comment on 06/27/2020
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U.S. Presidents Who Were Engineers

Posted February 16, 2014 5:01 PM by SavvyExacta

Monday is Presidents' Day in the USA. In honor of Washington and all other presidents we will take a look at those who contributed something to engineering or science.

George Washington: Land Surveyor

Washington was America's first president from 1789-1797. He was also a surveyor and a map maker. By the age of 16 he studied geometry and completed practice surveys from a textbook. He also studied surveying in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A year later he became the surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia. Washington completed 199 surveys in the surrounding area. He's also credited with establishing the U.S. patent system.

Thomas Jefferson: Inventor

Jefferson was president from 1801-1809. Among his inventions are the swivel chair, a macaroni machine, a personal plow (the moldboard), and the cipher wheel.

James Madison: Inventor

Madison was president from 1809-1817. He added a microscope to his walking stick to view small objects on the ground. It was too short for most men to use effectively.

Abraham Lincoln: Land Surveyor

Lincoln was president from 1861-1865. He studied land surveying from books and learned from mentors for six weeks before starting work in Sangamon County, Illinois. He surveyed several towns, roads, school sections, and farm plots. Lincoln also invented a ship with bellows on the hull. He's the only U.S. president to hold a patent, although his invention was never commercialized.

Herbert Hoover: Engineer

Hoover was president from 1929-1933. Before that he was a mining engineer, traveling the world and living in both Australia and China. In 1908 he opened his own mining consultation business. He eventually wrote a textbook on mining engineering.

According to the University of Virginia's Miller Center, "Hoover also applied the ethos of engineering to the world in general, believing that scientific expertise, when employed thoughtfully and properly, led to human progress." You can view some photos of Hoover in action.

An article on the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association described engineering as a profession in 1954.

Jimmy Carter: Engineer

Jimmy Carter was president from 1977-1981. Prior to his presidency he served as an engineer in the U.S. Navy working on nuclear-powered submarines. He attended graduate school at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., (near the CR4 HQ!) where his majors were reactor technology and nuclear physics. While he was based there he worked on developing training materials for a new sub's nuclear propulsion system.


George Washington: Surveyor and Mapmaker

Survey History

Miller Center

Naval History & Heritage

ShallowFalls: Presidents Who Were Also Inventors

Invention Mysteries: Which U.S. Presidents were the most successful inventors?

18 comments; last comment on 02/21/2014
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Top 10 Greatest Engineers

Posted September 20, 2013 12:00 AM by CR4 Guest Author

Who are the greatest engineers of all time? Here's a list of 10. Click on the links to see their biographies. Then tell us: who's on your top 10 list?

  1. Louis Blériot
  2. Anselm Franz
  3. Ferdinand Porshe
  4. Carolus Linnaeus
  5. Eli Whitney
  6. The Wright Brothers
  7. Elisha Graves Otis
  8. Robert Fulton
  9. Athanasios Papoulis
  10. Philo T. Farnsworth
36 comments; last comment on 09/30/2013
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Leonhard Euler Remembered with a Google Doodle

Posted April 15, 2013 11:50 AM by LakeGrl

Today's Google Doodle honors a Swiss mathematician named Leonhard Euler. "Leonhard Euler was a pioneering Swiss mathematician and physicist. He made important discoveries in fields as diverse as infinitesimal calculus and graph theory." Wikipedia

He was considered one of the greatest mathematicians that ever lived and the most prolific, introducing much of modern mathematical terminology and notation. He was born April 15th 1707 in Basel, Switzerland and died 9/18/1783 in Russia. A large number of functions, equations and formulas are named in his honor. Lists of things named after Leonhard Euler from wikipedia.

Euler worked in many areas of mathematics including calculus, trigonometry, algebra, geometry, number theory, physics, and lunar theory. He is unique in that he has 2 numbers named after him, Euler's number in calculus, e, 2.71828, and Euler's Constant γ,(gamma) 0.57721.

According to Science World, he had a phenomenal memory and once did a calculation in his head to settle an argument between students. He lost the sight in his eyes possibly due to cataracts, but continued to publish by dictation. He published over 800 papers in his lifetime. He truly was a mathematical genius. Francois Argo said of him, "He Calculated just as men breathe, as eagles sustain themselves in the air" (Beckmann 1971, p. 143; Boyer 1968, p. 482).

Photo credits : Google Doodles

3 comments; last comment on 04/15/2013
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Were Newton, Tesla, and Einstein Autistic?

Posted April 10, 2013 12:00 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: autism einstein tesla newton

In addition to its place as National Poetry Month and the first month of the Japanese fiscal year, April is National Autism Awareness Month in the US. The autism spectrum disorders (ASD) - a group of conditions which includes autism, Asperger's syndrome, childhood disintegration disorder, and other developmental disorders - affect approximately 6 out of every 1,000 children born each year. Common symptoms include early abnormal functioning of social interaction and communication, as well as the prevalence of restricted, repetitive, sometimes obsessive patterns of behavior.

The diagnosis and treatment of ASD has been controversial since the mid-20th century. Potential causes and risk factors - from refrigerator mothers to excessive television - have been proposed and slowly discredited. Equally if not more controversial is the practice of posthumously diagnosing well-known historical figures based on biographical accounts of their eccentric or unusual behavior. A group of researchers believe that the behaviors of three figures well-known to the scientific community - Newton, Tesla, and Einstein - can be explained by autism or Asperger's syndrome, while others decry this speculation as mere unfounded pseudoscience.

According to biographical info on Sir Isaac Newton, he was prone to offbeat behavior. He rarely spoke, suffered from anxiety and paranoia, and often taught to an empty classroom when students failed to show for his lectures. Newton never married, is believed to have died a virgin, and had only one known close acquaintance - Nicolas Fatio de Duillier - whom he corresponded with for about three years until 1693, when it is believed that their brief friendship ended. Opponents of Newton's theoretical autism point out that his behavior could have been caused by mercury poisoning from his alchemical pursuits, basing their belief on the fact that the chemical was found in large quantities in his postmortem body.

Nikola Tesla (who? Aren't you referring to Edison?) showed savant-like characteristics and was often described as well-dressed and suave as he roamed the streets of New York. Tesla also possessed a number of unusual personal traits: he claimed to have an eidetic memory, remained celibate for most of his life, and rarely slept. His well-documented obsessive-compulsive traits include a morbid fear of jewelry, round objects, hair, and germs, as well as an obsession with the number three. Researchers such as Michael Fitzgerald and Ioan James believe that these traits, combined with Tesla's supposed superhuman powers of visualization and design, suggest that he was mildly autistic.

Despite the fact that Einstein was married several times, had close relationships, and was publicly outspoken on political and scientific issues, Fitzgerald, James, and Simon Baron-Cohen believe he may have had Asperger's. Fitzgerald and James base their assertions on Einstein's control issues, lack of social tact, and self-confessed difficulty "thinking in words." Other authors describe him as a loner suffering from agoraphobia who was prone to childlike tantrums. Of all three of the great minds described here, Einstein's diagnosis seems the least plausible.

The supposedly autistic tendencies of Newton, Tesla, and Einstein do little to dampen their greatness, although it is interesting to consider the historiographical effects of their purported personality flaws. Tesla, especially, was widely misunderstood because of the lack of knowledge pertaining to OCD in the early 20th century. Whether they suffered from autism or were simply eccentric is and may always be a matter of conjecture. Perhaps one of Einstein's greatest quotes might apply not only to invention and brilliant theories but also to personal behavior : "Great spirits have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds…"

(Image credit:

28 comments; last comment on 04/13/2013
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