It’s often said that pop culture fails to provide inspiration to aspiring engineers. While movies and television shows routinely depict cops, doctors, and lawyers, they seldom show engineering professionals.
We’ve attempted to capture a few exceptions to that rule. In truth, Hollywood occasionally writes engineers into movies or television plots. In some instances -- such as The China Syndrome, Flash of Genius, and Apollo 13 -- engineers serve as central characters, or even as stars.
From James Stewart and Jack Lemmon to Ed Harris and Leonardo Dicaprio, we provide a look at some of the most notable. Click on the photo of Jack Lemmon below to start the slideshow.
Jack Lemmon was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of nuclear engineer Jack Godell in the 1979 movie, The China Syndrome. The film was met with backlash from the nuclear power industry, but Lemmon’s attempt to distill a technical problem into a brief soundbite near the end of the movie is unforgettable. (Source: movieactors.com)
I knew you would do a great job with this, Chuck! Well done...but...Elvis as an engineer???? You're right, that is indeed one of the strangest castings ever. He was much better cast just being cute, wooing the ladies and hanging out on the beach playing guitar. :)
Many great movies here. My favorite in the bunch was "Flash of Genius." The story really pulled me in, especially as Greg Kinnear's character slowly had a mental breakdown during his fight with Detroit automakers.
Chuck, you got the wrong guy from Apollo 13. The real hero was TK Mattingly, who devised the scheme to get the astronauts back to earth. I had the honor of meeting him a few years back (and no, he never did get the measles).
Charles I wish you would have included the real person's photo. Thanks for giving me two movies to watch. I wish more movies to be like "October Sky" Speaking of Oct "Red October" is another favorite. This reminds me of my friend and past co-worker Kim. He was into radio controlled model planes. He said one of his models cost more than his car — $15K. He built a square tunnel A/P and put in a piston powered fan. There is a real A/P that is similar. He lamented that it barely flew. I'm an EE and don't know much about aerodynamics, even with 20 yrs. in aerospace, but I noticed there was no intake constriction nor nozzle. We talked about an internal profile to speed up the flow. He went to the NASA site and applied scaling factors to determine an internal profile he could do in 2D. I believe he only did the sides and not the top or bottom. He reported the A/P flew much better.
So speed ahead ten years through 3 years out of work and I'm in B Flight Test and talking about turbofans. Some have a solid axle — shaft that the fan, compressor and burner blades are attached too. Please forgive me I'm sure I'm not using the correct terminology. One manufacture uses 3 separate coaxial shafts: one for the fan, one for the compressor, one for the burner. How does that work? Air as a working fluid. The same way the A/P flies. I had an epiphany. Note you can see the fan blades are serpentine for the different air flows.
wbswenberg: that's a great story. Thanks for sharing.
GTOlover: that's my favorite show, and Wolowitz gets no respect. As a fellow engineer, that kills me. Sidenote: I got to meet Mayim Bialik (aka Amy Farrah Fowler) earlier this year. It was a real treat.
I felt the same way about The Aviator, notarboca. I was surprised that they focused so much on his efforts in aircraft engineering. I had assumed Hollywood would gloss over that aspect of his life, but they didn't.
Fred MacMurray's portrayal of Professor Brainard would seem to count, although our judging committee (me) is not sure whether the good professor was a chemist or an engineer. As for Hedy Lamarr, whose real-life engineering contribution was an amazing one, we included her in "18 People You Didn't Know Were Engineers" back in April. See link below.
Because even talking to an engineer they may not have the background. Certainly when I've had to explaining to managers which may or may not have any engineering you have to be somewhat cautious too much detail and you can bore them or loose them in the details.
I remember a story from the cruise missile ALCM. We all had to stand up and reply we were good to go or the reason not. I just wrote launch and jettison test procedures for B-52 and AGM-96. However one engineer had problems. In his explanation he started with F=MA. Ended up proving to himself and every one that had not gone asleep that the missile was safe to release. I just verified what someone else figured out. In general terms the airplane has to be in safe level flight. We don't want the missile coming back to hit the A/P. Since I'm an EE it was pretty interesting to see the calculations. Now did I bore you?
You should have see the one that did a barrel roll when launched. The range safety officer just about had a cow. The case pilot took so long to find the terminate swith that the navigation system unscrewed its self from the one full extra torque value. Petty embarsing for some softeware guy.
Brainstorm (Natalie Wood) was one of the few movies that actually showed the process of engineering a product. Successive designs appear (a subplot) through the course of the film. It also deal with unexpected features and their problems. Another featured female engineer. Loved the film.
Though a rarity, there were a few more than I remembered. I might include the fairly recent first section of Atlas Shrugged. The first Dagney Taggert fit my imagination pretty well - not so much the in the second.
And for out of the box, maybe the classic Forbidden Planet.
You're right, BrainiacV, testing isn't a suject that gets shown in the movies. No Highway in the Sky with James Stewart includes testing as kind of a sub-text, but even in that movie, you don't see much actual test.
Great slide show Charles. I don't know if I should be embarrassed or not but I have seen all of those movies and then some. My three favorites--Apollo 13, Highway In the Sky and October Sky. You are correct in that Ed Harris really "looked the part" in Apollo 13. I suppose the interest for me was living through the Apollo 13 problems and desperately hoping the crew returned home safely. I actually bought and carried a portable radio to hear the latest. You will notice that each of these movies indicate what a remarkably valuable profession we are participants in.
Yes, bobjengr, the three movies you chose do show what a valuable profession we're in. I like Apollo 13 for that exact reason. And I like October Sky because it didn't give in to the cliche of showing the young science student as a social clod.
I read the book, but never saw the movie. I guess that the one character was an engineer but that seemed just incidental to the plot.
The problem with accurately depicting engineers in movies is that either they would be boring or come across as know-it-alls, neither of which would be accurate. And in other instances they are depicted as being horribly unfeeling in the name of efficiency. At least that has been my recollection.
Yes, engineers have been inaccurately depicted in movies on a regular basis, William K. Surprisingly, the movie industry is aware of this problem. A few years ago, the American Film Institute hosted classes in script writing for scientists and engineers. I don't know if any of the scripts from those classes ever made it to the sliver screen, though.
THAT is an interesting concept, Charles. But I suspect that writing screenplays and scripts is a lot harder than writing screens and functions for control programs. For starters, nobody would ever want to spend an hour starting a process or a machine. But the two do have some simularities.
But I think that I will keep my writing on the technical side. I can do that fairly well, I don't know how I would do with scripts and screen plays.
I can't forget Dr. Holly Goodhead who was in Moonraker as a CIA agent, astronaut and scientist. Maybe not a full engineer but an example of the whole line of Bond films (and some Bond girls) who were very accomplished technically prior to their meeting James.
Its a bad line but do remenber "Q" at the end of the film as they establish video of the two of them in a weightless environment saying "I believe he's attempting re-entry". Engineers do have libdos, too.
Actually, I have been wondering how close a screenplay is to the very detailed functional specification of a human interface controls program. That is, the specification that describes each screen, what the choices are, and what the program does, for each step of operation. That may be a liitle like the description of what each scene should look like, and what happens as each line is said. Or possibly not.
The movies seldom show engineers doing tsting because the assumption is that everything works the first time. That is probably why a lot of people think that engineering is not such a big deal. And of course one does get "a bit spoiled" when things do work right the first time. But I did have a boss who explained to me that it was expected that every design would work right the first time, that was why I was there. It was certainly flattering but also it did add to the pressure quite a bit, knowing what the expectations were.
Charles, we did have an excellent track record of our machines being just what the customer needed, so you could be very at ease purchasing one of our test systems. Of course, when you sell equipment to the auto companies and the army they do come to the progress meetings and they do help to avoid errors in the specification. One big portion of getting it right was always the sales letter, which mine always described exactly what the equipment would do for the customer. The big advantage of designing custom equipment is having somebody tell you just exactly what it is that they need to achieve, and how fast and accurate the machine needs to be. So having clearly defined performance targets makes designing a system much simpler. NOT EASIER, but simpler. And on occasions I would have to tell them that what they asked for would not work, and then suggest an alternative that we could certify would deliver what they needed. I did make us a few friends that way, since it saved them from wasting both money and time. When you can make your customers engineers look good to their bosses you have made a friend indeed. A great way to get more business.
Charles, that things work right the first time were not the bosses goals, they were his demands. It was really flattering to find that they believed that it could happen, and the good news is that we usually did get things right the first time. But on occasions it was only right the first time the boss saw it.
The question of whether engineers could have foreseen the shortcut maintenance procedures that led to the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 in 1979 will probably linger for as long as there is an engineering profession.
More than 35 years later, the post-mortem on one of the country’s worst engineering disasters appears to be simple. A contractor asked for a change in an original design. The change was approved by engineers, later resulting in a mammoth structural collapse that killed 114 people and injured 216 more.
If you’re an embedded systems engineer whose analog capabilities are getting a little bit rusty, then you’ll want to take note of an upcoming Design News Continuing Education Center class, “Analog Design for the Digital World,” running Monday, Nov. 17 through Friday, Nov. 21.
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