The Engineer, a figure who evolves between hope and delusions of grandeur

Engineers and workers sat proudly on a turbine in a hydroelectric plant in Zurich around 1930. ETH-Bibliothek Zurich, Image archive

It is more than a job. A utopia, the belief that all problems can be solved through technology. The figure of the engineer mutates over time, from the hero Jules Verne to Elon Musk. Interview with Robert Leucht, specialist in the case.

This content was published on December 25, 2022 – 11:30 am

David Eugster

In a cafe, near Zurich’s main train station, where I meet Robert Leucht, professor of modern German literature. Zurich and its polytechnic school that dominates the city, an institution that since the 19th centurye century, tirelessly produced these engineers (and engineers of late) who tamed the land by launching bridges, rails and cables of all kinds.

But engineering history is not only made of concrete results. They are also stories and myths. Professor at the University of Lausanne, Robert Leucht, uncovers them in his latest book, which tells about the cultural history of the engineer figure. The term engineer refers to very broad realities. In your book you talk about bioengineering, social engineering and so on. What is the essence of this profession?

Robert Leucht: Engineers are technical experts who take responsibility for technical as well as organizational tasks. They provide infrastructure, such as bridges, tunnels, rail networks, but also smaller results. Engineers are especially active when it comes to planning, designing and testing things.

When does this character appear in the story?

It is clear that among the ancients some activities were carried out that we can attribute to the engineer today. Construction of ships or fortifications for example. But it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th centurye century, that educational institutions and interest organizations appeared, which gave the engineer a clearer professional and social profile. At the same time, literature and culture also began to play their part in shaping this image, e.g. with Jules Verne’s novels.

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In these stories, this figure suddenly appears – always male – who imagines projects – small or large – and gathers people who make them happen for her. We find one of the first German-speaking engineering heroes in the work Altneuland (“Old Earth. New Earth”) by Theodor Herzl in 1902, undoubtedly inspired by Jules Verne’s stories.

But this figure obviously has much older precursors. The literary engineer echoes an ancient figure like Prometheus. In a way, Robinson Crusoe, who in his solitude builds a civilization on a wild island, is also a kind of literary engineer before the letter.

You’ve noticed this constant of “always masculine”…

As far as I know, there are hardly any female engineers in the literature of the 19th centurye century. And even in that of the 20e, you only come across them in rare cases, mainly in GDR literature, which form a colored spot on the map of literary history. The figure of the engineer today still remains strongly stereotyped as masculine, even outside of literature. In 2020, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) still announced its engineering program with resolutely male protagonists.

What kind of masculinity is attributed to the engineer?

Masculinity is here synonymous with rationality, clear ideas but also audacity, a specialized adventurer, a go-getter equipped with technical expertise.

An adventurer?

In interwar novels, for example, the engineer is almost never a paper pusher, but rather someone who opens up unexplored territories, intercepts them with precision, and helps to conquer them. The engineer has a brutal, violent, colonialist side to him. It opens up new living spaces – the watchword of the time – but it always comes at a price.

There are popular science fiction novels where engineers somewhere in the Australian outback make new territories viable, build cities, develop advanced technologies – and where the local population is at the same time being used or displaced. Science fiction translates these types of scenarios to other planets and galaxies.

After the Second World War, the engineer increasingly imposed himself as a figure of destruction. He goes from the status of a shining character to a character with a strong potential for violence.

Elon Musk talks about cities on Mars and traveling to this planet at the 67th International Astronautical Congress. Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg via Getty Images


Of course, the brilliant, immaculate, problem-solving engineer lives on in science fiction novels thereafter. But in the age of catastrophes, especially the Second World War, technical development shows its ugly face. After 1945, confidence in the idea that technical progress leads to social progress eroded. It has to do with the mass extinction planned by the Nazi regime, but also with the atomic bomb.

We can read this development in the career of the German engineer Wernher von Braun. After the war he was recruited by NASA and seen as a brilliant man, a technical genius. Later, it is mentioned more and more often how much he was prepared to put his work at the service of the Nazi dictatorship.

In his work Homo Faberin the late 1950s, Max Frisch turns his engineer into a heartthrob who unknowingly falls in love with his daughter, all ending in disaster.

This post-war reluctance is inscribed in Homo Faber. It is no coincidence that the text opens with a plane crash. The man sits next to the broken machine in the middle of the desert, and he is gripped by doubt. He experiences an identity crisis, he detaches himself from his profession. In this novel, another face of the engineer also emerges, the boring bureaucrat who measures anything and everything, who sits at his desk between 9 and 17.

The global counterculture of the 1960s attacked the engineer, seen both as a weak person and as an important figure. She refuses to seek salvation in technological prowess, but also rejects the boredom of office work.

This criticism of boredom still exists today. The hero of our time’s technologies is often staged in the form of a student who has given up his studies, tired of academic training and the pedagogical curriculum. This anti-academic positioning, this myth of the garage, is consistent with these biographical legends that confirm the man of action in the thinker.

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For example, when we see Apple’s commercials, we tell ourselves that this criticism of technology from the counterculture has won over the whole society to form a new technology myth…

Yes, and I would say that Apple is taking this criticism into account and reframing it. The technology remains a promise, but it does not have to appear so gray and totalitarian, it can be colored and individualized. Steve Jobs was clearly inspired by the counterculture. Apple’s products claim to make everyday life easier, but they also have a poetic dimension – they look good, they are beautiful to look at, they will not only be functional, but also intuitive and emotional. This reformulation of the technique is very successful, although it is reprehensible from the point of view of ideological criticism.

But can we still talk about technology?

Engineering is an elastic term. Today there is genome engineering, vaccine engineering, climate engineering. This, in my eyes, is proof that the destiny of this hopeful figure remains. We imagine being able to change genetic information or the climate through conceptual and creative approaches. Steve Jobs has always been the subject of a multitude of stagings. With his promise to improve the world through technology, the myth of the engineer lives on.

Does the engineer in the classical sense still exist?

This assimilation of the engineer with the man of stature as we have known him since the interwar period, I see it embodied by Elon Musk. Two examples, perhaps. His Hyperloop project, in the US and Europe, which promises the possibility of getting from point A to point B at a speed close to the speed of sound, sounds like a repeat of dreams from 1900 – at the time Bernhard Kellermann’s novel “Der Tunnel” predicted a safe and direct route under the Atlantic after the sinking of the Titanic. Elon Musk plays with this kind of imagination, he lights the fire of possibilities as well as the need to open up new worlds, he wants man to become a multiplanetary species. It is with him that we most clearly hear these echoes from the interwar period. We can distinguish in Elon Musk this virile and supported figure of the conqueror, of the one who wants to change the world and does not back down from anything.

Translation from German: Pierre-François Besson

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