Unsung heroes
By Peter Wallace
Philippine Daily Inquirer
October 11, 2018 at 5:18 am

I’m going to be totally and openly biased this week, I’m going to talk about engineers and scientists. It’s corny, I know, but they truly are the unsung heroes of our modern world.

I’m not sure where we can really start, but let’s start with electricity. It’s probably (certainly?) the most important invention of all time. Without it, we would still be living in low-rise candlelit abodes, and getting to work by foot, horse or bicycle (an engineer invented that).

And there wouldn’t be any work for most people; all the manufacturing jobs we take for granted wouldn’t exist. Just a few hand-driven looms for cloth to hide our nakedness, and similar rudimentary devices, such as waterwheels driving grinding mills. Food would be grown on small, hand-plowed plots (seems the Philippines has reverted to the dark ages on this), and pyramids to build at the end of dirt roads.

So Benjamin Franklin should be our very first genuine hero.

Do you have in your hand or pocket right now one of the greatest miracles of our time, a smartphone? It is so smart it’s almost frightening, yet we take it for granted. It has in it a huge computer reduced to miniature size. Who is known as the father of modern computing and artificial intelligence? We did an informal street survey yesterday, and 73 percent didn’t know the man who revolutionized our lives.

It was British genius Alan Turing (watch the 2014 movie  “The Imitation Game,” based on his biography “The Enigma”—a great movie you’ll enjoy and will enlighten you). And that smartphone, who invented that? No, it wasn’t Steve Jobs, he just brilliantly marketed it. It was Martin Cooper, an American engineer at Motorola. He didn’t make the billions; a marketer, Steve Jobs, did.

That’s the case with almost everything in our world today; it was the unsung heroes who created these things, too often without acknowledgment, and without the riches they deserved. The riches are going to people who haven’t created our world, but who have just benefited from the inspiration and hard work of others.

You’ve heard of George Soros, but what did he do? Buy and sell land; that didn’t help you much, did it? Safety belts have saved more than a million lives since their invention. Do you know the name of that engineer? I doubt anybody does. And he didn’t live a life in opulent wealth, as he certainly deserved. It was Nils Bohlin. And then there’s the zipper; you’re probably wearing one today. Well, the inventor was Whitcomb L. Judson.

Engineers and scientists have given us the miraculous world we live in.

Another thing engineers do is look after things. Everything wears out over time, but that time can be vastly extended by proper, regular maintenance. That mindset is almost nonexistent in the Philippines. There’s not even a Tagalog word for it, there’s no direct equivalent for something so important. If you can’t define it, how can you do it?

As an engineer who believes looking after things is the 11th Commandment, I’ve always been horrified by the careless inattention all around, and the slapdash way of fixing things. A piece of wire does NOT repair a broken chair. A nut and bolt or a well-selected glue does.

Fires that destroy dozens of houses are caused by careless wiring methods. Mechanical failures on buses have killed hundreds—far too many of them from a brake or, occasionally, steering failure. I’m willing to bet almost no bus company has the proper tools. They probably don’t even know what a torsion wrench is. Their mechanics have, maybe, a couple of screwdrivers, a pair of pliers and an adjustable wrench. A full complement of flat wrenches and sockets (properly arranged in a case) is an unheard of “luxury.” The owners of these buses are, to my mind, as guilty as hell of manslaughter for the refusal to spend a few pesos on the proper tools, and a few more on the formal training of their mechanics.

And don’t let me get started on ships. As a yachtsman, I’m horrified by the conditions I see in too many way overaged vessels in the docks here. I wouldn’t go to sea in them.

If the Philippines wants to be a true leader in this technological wonder of a world we live in, it will encourage more young people to take up engineering and science—and honor them.

E-mail: wallace_likeitis@wbf.ph

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