What Engineering Has Meant to Me

In celebration and support of Engineers Week, Design News invited its engineer contributing writers to tell their personal stories. In this installment, contributing writer RP Siegel reveals his late-blooming relationship with engineering.

February 23, 2016

4 Min Read
What Engineering Has Meant to Me

[Editor's Note: In celebration and support of Engineers Week 2016, Design News invited its engineer contributing writers to tell their personal stories. And don't forget to read our special readers submission series: Why I Became an Engineer.]

I was not a born engineer. At least, I wasn’t the kid who was always taking things apart and putting them back together. As a young person, I enjoyed music and literature as well as the outdoors. I played rock and roll. In college, I started off in Liberal Arts as an English major.

When I took a break to “find myself,” I ended up with a job as a washing machine repairman. I was surprisingly good at it. So a few years later, when I got married and my first child was born, it was time to get a real job, and I thought about engineering. It was the late 1970s, and Jimmy Carter was president. There was the oil embargo and this new thing called solar energy.

I decided that what I wanted to do with my life was to be a part of a clean energy revolution. I asked around, and people said engineering was the way to go. I had been good at math and surprisingly mechanical, so I decided to give it a try. I went to school at night at first to be sure it was right for me. It was.

I would never have guessed how exciting it was to learn so much about how things work. I felt the power of that knowledge and quickly saw how much good could be done with it. I never looked back. It was hard work, but coming up with answers to really interesting problems made it all worth it. But by the time I finished my Master’s degree (my thesis was on alternative energy), Ronald Reagan was president and solar energy had been shelved.

So I embarked on a career in R&D at a Fortune 500 company, making office equipment instead. It was not my dream, but it was still a thrill to see an assembly line as long as a football field produce parts that had started as equations in my head. Before I was through, I had traveled the world, shepherding technology I had developed into products on multiple continents. I had a great time, learned a tremendous amount, made a decent amount of money, and been awarded dozens of patents and tons of satisfaction. Oh, and along the way I had finally “found myself." After 20 years, I decided it was time to go it alone.


Now I write about technology (including solar energy), sustainability, design, and materials while pursuing and tinkering with a few product ideas. During my years with the aforementioned Fortune 500 firm, I taught science to inner city youth as a volunteer and encouraged my nephew to go into engineering, which he did.

What I told him then, I still firmly believe now. Studying engineering was one of the best things I ever did. It taught me how to think more clearly and how to break down what seemed like insurmountable problems into approachable terms. It gave me insight into all the machines and devices that comprise our modern world that I never would have had otherwise. Engineering has made me a better writer and a more effective human being.

Today, we need engineers more than ever -- not just number-crunching wunderkinds but people who appreciate the beauty in the world and are passionate about protecting it for future generations. We need people who want and are able to make valuable, life-changing contributions to this tremendous human experiment of an ever-improving world. Engineering gives us that.

RP Siegel, PE, has a master's degree in mechanical engineering and worked for 20 years in R&D at Xerox Corp. An inventor with 50 patents, and now a full-time writer, RP finds his primary interest at the intersection of technology and society. His work has appeared in multiple consumer and industry outlets, and he also co-authored the eco-thriller Vapor Trails.

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