Howard Rase's
The Imperatives and Goals of Engineering


Howard Rase looks at imperatives faced by engineers in carrying out their work and draws conclusions about what would constitute a creative and satisfying professional life.

In one sense, this book could be seen as 'a call to arms'. Firstly, Rase calls on engineers to strive to do new original and creative work and not be content with the rote and unimaginative work which, while necessary, should be done as efficiently and effectively as possible. Secondly, he highlights the need for engineers to take on broader responsibilities and seek to work across all spheres of a project rather than allowing themselves to be consigned to be the servants of those who lead only by virtue of being the master of finances.

Engineering at it's core is about producing useful products. It is also about timeliness and a sense of urgency to deliver on schedule and within budget. To be able to do his or her job well, an engineer through their own experience, or by reading about the experiences of others, needs to develop an intuitive insight and feel for a problem and the way solutions can be developed.

Rase sets out the ingredients which would lead to the aquisition of engineering skills. These are: facts, laws, theories, techniques and tools. He examines techniques in some detail defining these as the expert method in executing the technical detail of accomplishing a desired outcome. He goes on to look at techniques in more detail, firstly considering analysis and synthesis, and then turning to how to develop concepts which are effective in turning uncertain situations into managable processes. He then considers how engineers reason in working toward a solution and how experiment and hypotheses can be used to guide work to a solution. An important part of Rase's view of engineering is how engineers make decisions and he details a five step decison making process. 

Beyond the mechanics of decision making, he highlights the considerations which inform an engineers mind. In the first instance, these are experience, know-how and the use of design standards as a way of passing on knowledge.

He also looks at how the knowledge of values is accumulated and in this sense he starts to deal with the metaphysical (beyond the known) and philosophical aspects of engineering. What are the ingredients from which value judgements are made? In a comprehensive fashion, he examines biological, economic, aesthetic, moral and spiritual values from the perspective of how these would benefit a practicing engineer.

Howard Rase concludes by looking at where the quest for meaning can be found in engineering. He notes that that such a quest is often postponed because of the series of important short-term and well-defined goals that fill in our lives. He highlights the disappointment that can flow from investing all in our one particular professional specialty because specialties can wax and wane.  Given that, he asks where does the dignity of labour lie? The answer is in knowing oneself and searching out an appreciation of life to the very limits of what is knowable. Having perceived these limits, we can return to our profession in a clear and confident way and use engineering as a tool to implement our perception of mankind's highest values.


As an addendum, we might ask is Howard Rase's view of engineering still relevant today? His philosophical basis for engineering can still can resonate with us as human beings. In a technical sense though, computerisation has allowed calculation to become exceptionally precise in all but the most complex problem areas. However judgement and experience is always needed, firstly to know how to start and carry out a task. Secondly, even if individual problems are able to be modelled accurately and calculations made precisely, when a large range of interacting processes form a system or network then it may not be possible to calculate what may happen with a desired degree of precision because the inter-related behaviour is too complex. So when engineers are asked to design ever more complex or complicated systems, precise solution are likely to always trail and engineering experience and judgement will not go out of vogue.

As to his 'call to arms', it perhaps is an open question whether engineers as a class have retained the desire to play a broader creative role in society and to acquire in one way or another the additional skills necessary to do this.


Howard F. Rase,

The Philosophy and Logic of Chemical Engineering
Gulf Publishing Company, 1961
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 61-18166