When Barack Obama uttered this line before 1.6 million Americans on the National Mall in January, he was speaking directly to millions of U.S. engineers: "In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that ... the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things ... have carried us up the long road towards prosperity and freedom."
Engineers are the makers of things, and they love the challenge the president poses. Historically, engineers have stepped up. Adversity has fueled innovation.
The Great Depression didn't stop them from innovating. In 1935, DuPont created the first synthetic fiber, nylon, enabling the company to sell 64 million pairs of stockings in the first year. Nylon soon went into parachutes and tents for World War II and is still the second-most prevalent synthetic fiber in the world.
A few years earlier, the Galvin brothers, who sold current converters for battery-operated radios, put a radio in a Studebaker, parked it on a pier in Atlantic City and turned up the volume. Orders flowed in for the first "car radios." Galvin Manufacturing became Motorola.
In 1937, Hormel developed the recipe for canned spiced ham. By 1994 Hormel had sold 1 billion cans of SPAM. Funny food, serious success.
The recession of 1969–1970 didn't stop engineers from innovating, either. That was when engineer Bill Hewlett of HP committed to a far-fetched idea — building a calculating machine that could fit in your pocket.
The dot-com bust of 2001 shattered a lot of dreams, but it didn't stop the creation of JetBlue, or the iPod.
Today's circumstance — call it a recession, depression, disruption or collapse — is no different. Though painful, it will redistribute talent around better ideas and lay the groundwork for a robust recovery.
Those who show courage now will be in the best position to thrive. Colleagues of mine, for example, are working on ideas every bit as audacious as putting ham in a can or 5,000 songs in your pocket.
A Burlington, MA company led by Tufts-educated entrepreneur Michael Easton (MicroWind Technologies) is about to test a roof-mounted turbine capable of generating 60 percent of a home's electricity with a mere 10 mph wind.
Engineers in Ontario have designed and built a system that harnesses UV light — not dangerous chemicals — to disinfect as much as 2.2 billion gallons of New York City drinking water every day.
Local engineers and doctors (Design that Matters of Cambridge and Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology of Boston) are developing a sub-$1,000 infant incubator made from car parts. Headlights provide the heat. Every year more than 4 million infants in the developing world die within a month of birth, many of whom could be saved with a warm, clean and easy-to-repair environment.
Although "innovate or die" is a bombastic way to put it, the concept is true. As always, it's survival of the fittest. "Economic downturns just speed up the process," writes investment strategist Andrew Mickey. "It's accelerated Darwinism."
So, my fellow makers of things, back off your R&D commitment at your peril. Rather, let the urgency of today's dire economic conditions intensify your innovation efforts. Step to the fore, generate new ideas, support the good ones and execute them. While politicians can inspire, we can get the job done.