Month: September 2016

Art and engineering

Windows of the Soul II [3D video art installation:]

Windows of the Soul II [3D video art installation:

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the meaning of the words ‘engineer’ and ‘engineering’ [see my post entitled ‘Engineering is all about ingenuity‘ on September 14th, 2016] .  And it was clear that most engineers are involved in some sort of creative activity.  One of the common skills that unites the many different types of engineering is creative problem-solving.  But in that case how are engineers different from artists who are also involved in creative acts?  David Blockley summarises it succinctly as engineers produce something useful and artists produce something extraordinary.  Of course, very occasionally we manage to do both and an artist-engineer produces something extraordinary that is also useful.  I say ‘very occasionally’ because extraordinary implies it is exceptional, which eliminates mass-produced artifacts. It is difficult to identify modern creations that fit this description – the Large Hadron Collider is an extraordinary piece of engineering but is it art?  It is a product of the application of human skill and imagination, which is another definition of art.  Or the Solar Impulse – the solar powered plane that flew around the world?

On the other hand, when we visit art galleries we can buy prints and postcards that are copies of the artworks displayed in the gallery. Is the mass-produced, but iconic, engineering artifact equivalent to an art print? Perhaps the original has to be rather less transitory than the latest model of phone or car.  The advent of computer-aided engineering and rapid prototyping means that the original often only exists in virtual space, which is more equivalent to the video installations that are becoming more commonplace in galleries, such as Sonia Falcone’s ‘Best Video Installation Art at the Biennale in Santa Cruz Bolivia‘.

Engineering synaesthesia

A street in Sante Fe

A street in Sante Fe

One of the most memorable places we visited when we lived in the United States was Sante Fe, New Mexico.  We rented a house on a hillside that was walking distance from downtown.  The landscape is stark, vast and vivid all at the same time.  Georgia O’Keeffe captured it beautifully in her paintings.  In our house in Liverpool, we have a number of prints from her paintings that we bought during a visit to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Sante Fe about ten years ago. So it was a nostalgic experience to visit the O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern in London a few weeks ago and reacquaint ourselves with familiar originals as well as enjoy paintings we had not seen before. ‘Red and Yellow Cliffs‘ (1940) was one of my favourites in the exhibition which was reminiscent of many of the landscapes in New Mexico.  I also enjoyed the room entitled ‘Abstraction and the Senses’ that contained a series of paintings in which O’Keeffe took inspiration from sensory stimulation and expressed in her paintings the feelings induced by ‘signals’ from senses other than sight, such as hearing music.  This is known as synaesthesia: ‘the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body’, according the Oxford Online Dictionary.  Some people suffer from synaesthesia and hearing particular sounds might trigger a sensation of taste, or letters might be associated with colours, for instance ‘A’ with red. It can be very useful, for instance I ‘see’ numbers laid out in patterns and so can perform mental arithmetic pictorially.

Engineers make use of similar phenomena to visualize patterns of variables that are invisible.  For instance, moiré interferometry uses the interference between regular arrays of lines to magnify tiny differences in the arrays and generate visible fringe patterns – this is useful in comparing the dimensions of two objects to which the arrays are attached.  In photoelasticity, polarised light is used to generate colour fringe patterns that are contours of stress in transparent components or models of components [see my post entitled ‘Art and Experimental Mechanics‘ on July 12th, 2012].  Unfortunately this elegant, but analogue, technique has been almost completely usurped by digital analysis using computers. Many of these computers have a touch screen that convert your thoughts, conveyed by the tap or swipe of your fingers, into text or commands for devices attached physically or wirelessly to the computer. And, virtual reality goggles, head sets and haptic devices allow the computer to reverse the process by transmitting signals to our senses, which often confuse us as they become intermingled in a new form of synaesthesia.  Georgia O’Keeffe died in 1986 at the age of 98 and so missed out on this aspect of the digital revolution but it might have generated a whole series of beautiful paintings.


Engineering is all about ingenuity

Painting from Okemos High School Art Collection at MSU

Painting from Okemos High School Art Collection at MSU

Who was the first engineer?  It’s a tricky question to answer.  Some sources cite Ailnolth, who lived in the second half of the twelfth century and worked on the Tower of London, as one of the first to be called an ‘ingeniator’.  The word comes from the Latin and the Roman writer, Vitruvius, describes master builders as being ingenious or possessing ‘ingenium’.  Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was perhaps the first person to be appointed as an engineer.  The Duke of Milan appointed him ‘Ingenarius Ducalis’ or Master of Ingenious Devices.

So it would appear that an engineer is ‘a skilful contriver or originator of something’,  which is the third definition in the on-line Oxford Dictionary after ‘a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines or structures’ and ‘a person who controls an engine especially on an aircraft or ship’.  This type of engine, which uses heat to do work, is a relatively recent invention probably by Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen in the early eighteenth century.  Engineers have been contriving, designing and inventing ‘works of public utility’ [quote from my older hard copy Oxford English Dictionary] for many centuries before the heat engine hijacked the terminology.

Why does this matter?  Well, many people have a misconception that engineering is all about engines, the heat kind; and yes, some of us do design, build and maintain engines but very many more engineers contrive, design and invent works of public utility – in the broadest sense of the words, i.e. just about everything ‘invented’ in the world. In other words, engineering is using human ingenuity to produce something useful; preferably something that improves the quality of life – oh, but now we are moving into ethics and I will leave that for another day!


Blockley D, Engineering: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Auyang SY, Engineering – an endless frontier, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Little W, Fowler HW & Coulson J, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, C.T. Onions (editor), London: Guild Publishing, 1983.


Hell’s harmonies fade in the twilight

WP_20150730_005As I write, it is evening in Liverpool and the daylight is fading. ‘Minds exhausted by the toils of the day settle, and their thoughts bathe in the tender half-tones of the twilight’.  This quote is from a translation of a piece of Charles Baudelaire’s prose poetry, called ‘Evening Twilight’ published original in French in 1855.  Although it’s a short piece the translation is copyright so I can’t reproduce it here.  Baurelaire continues to describe two friends who were made ill by twilight.  One who saw coded insults in everything and was unable to enjoy twilight as the prelude to feasts of pleasure; and the other who was frustrated by ambition and became increasingly ‘sour, moody, short-tempered as [the] day waned’.  He contrasts the reaction to twilight of his friends to the calm induced himself, the stilling of his thoughts, thoughts startled by hell’s harmonies.

Perhaps today’s hell’s harmonies are the constant stream of digital communication and information transmitted to us by our constantly-connected devices and so many of us read, write and think deep into the night after our friends and colleagues have settled from the toils of the day and ceased to communicate (at least those in the same time zone).  Perhaps nothing changes except the form of hell’s harmonies.


Baudelaire, C., ‘No. 22 Evening twilight’ in Paris Spleen, Martin Sorrell (trans.), Richmond, UK: Alma Classics Ltd, 2010.