Top 10 Engineering Quotes
Ralph Sprang posted on March 24, 2017 |

I’ve always enjoyed witty quotes, and witty quotes that succinctly express key engineering principles are even better. 

With that in mind, I offer my top ten engineering quotes.

Many of these quotes are common in the profession, often attributed to various sources.  Where possible I have determined the original source but I also discuss other variants that occurred along the way.

 

10. “At its heart, engineering is about using science to find creative, practical solutions. It is a noble profession.” 

– Queen Elizabeth II

 Engineers find practical solutions to complex problems. That’s the heart of engineering, regardless of discipline, isn’t it?  Even royalty have recognized the importance and contributions of engineers, as this early quote shows.

 

9. “Science is about knowing, engineering is about doing.” 

– Henry Petroski

Henry Petroski is a professor of civil engineering at Duke University and a recognized expert in failure analysis. The author of such classics as To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design and The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems, he often writes on the difference between engineering and science.

His explorations of the processes required to manufacture simple objects like paper clips and pencils are informative for engineers and the public alike. With this quote, he drills down to the key difference between science and engineering–science seeks knowledge for its own sake, engineering uses knowledge to make things happen.


 8. “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like.  Design is how it works.” 

– Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is best known as one of the founders of Apple, as well as Pixar and NeXT.  More than anything, he emphasized and pushed the concept that functional design is not enough–products have to be designed to be aesthetically pleasing as well as user-friendly and usable in order to satisfy customers.

To Jobs, Design with a capital ‘D’ was all about how the product worked as a whole. Apple is well known for its attention to detail at every level, even those the customer never experiences. This quote from Jobs captures that ideal.


7. “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” 

– Albert Einstein

The process of conceiving a new and innovative idea is very different from transforming that idea into a viable and usable product. Few individuals freely move between those two realms. The stereotype of the startup founder who has limited management skills but refuses to relinquish control as the company grows is sadly well-founded.

With this quote, we’re reminded to be cognizant of those differences and to concentrate on what we can best do with our own skill set.

 

6. “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” 

– George Box

George Box was a British statistician known for his work in quality control and experimental design. This quote is actually more of a paraphrase. Box’s 1976 paper published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association is generally considered the earliest source. The full quotation is:

“Since all models are wrong, the scientist cannot obtain a "correct" one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary, following William of Occam, he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist, so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity.”

This quote captures the idea that a simplified model of a process or component can provide useful information and insight even if it’s not a perfect representation. As engineers, we seek to look beyond the “noise” and extraneous information to focus on what’s important. A model can help us do that.


5. “Shoot the engineer and ship the product.” 

– Anon.

There comes a day in the development of any product when its time to go to market and make some sales. As engineers, we often want to make one more improvement, one more tweak to make the product The Best EVER. Left to our own devices, we may keep improving and never complete the product. This quote reminds us that the time comes where the product has to ship.

 

4. “Perfect is the Enemy of Good.” 

– Voltaire

This is another quote that has been improved in the retelling.  The quote that French writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire actually popularized is likely “Better is the enemy of good”.

Similar in theme to the prior quote, this thought suggests doing enough to make a product or design good, but not “overspending” to make it better than necessary.


3. “Others dream of things that were, and ask 'Why?'  I dream of things that never were, and ask 'Why not?'" 

– Cardinal Saint-Saens

As a teenager, I had a poster on my bedroom wall with this quote. It inspired me to think beyond what I was taught and to be creative and innovative. In the process of researching this article, I was surprised to learn that the quote may have been attributed incorrectly.

The earliest reference I could confirm for this idea is a quote from the play “Back to Methuselah” by George Bernard Shaw:  “You see things, and you say ‘Why?’  But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not.’”

 

2. “Your test equipment is lying to you and it is your job to figure out how.” 

– Charles Rush

As an undergraduate student, I jumped at the opportunity to join a lab developing test equipment for physics research.  Charles Rush was the director of this lab and was a very hands-on leader.  I spent many wonderful days learning about the science and application of metrology and about engineering troubleshooting.

This quote was a frequent Rush refrain–observe the results from the test equipment, then think about what it was telling you and evaluate if and how that information was distorted.  Be a little skeptical, question what you observe, and look for the truth in what you observe.

 

1. “Keep it simple, stupid.” 

– Kelly Johnson

The “KISS” principle was apparently cited by Kelly Johnson in the early 1960’s.  Johnson was lead engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works, challenging his team to develop products that could be serviced with basic tools and equipment so they could be repaired by an average mechanic in the field under combat conditions.  It’s a good reminder to us all to keep our designs simple and serviceable.

 

That’s my top ten list. Did I miss your favorite?  Please share your favorites in the comments below.

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