Engineering Economics

I grew up in an engineering family and, having no imagination, followed in the footsteps of my father and grandfather into the refrigeration business. I have therefore always been familiar with the aphorism that an engineer is someone who can do for ten shillings what any fool can do for a pound.

That version of the saying is often attributed to Arthur Wellesley, better known as the first Duke of Wellington— victor over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo and twice prime minister of Great Britain (although the second time was only for a month). This struck me as odd, since Wellington wasn’t well known for his enthusiasm for engineering. So I set myself the task of finding out when, where and why the Duke uttered these famous words. It turns out he didn’t. The true saying is actually subtly much more powerful and even more relevant to the challenges facing us in 2021.

As I scoured the far reaches of the internet it became clear that there were two known versions of the saying. The second version was “Engineering is the art of doing that well with one dollar what any bungler can do with two, after a fashion.” This was also often attributed to “Arthur Wellesley” and sometimes to the Duke of Wellington, or occasionally just “Wellington.” However, this seemed unlikely. The use of “dollar” and “bungler” didn’t sound like the Duke so I assumed that the original British version had been hijacked and taken across the Atlantic. I also found some attributions to “Arthur Wellington” and scoffed at the sloppiness of internet meme writers who didn’t know who the Duke of Wellington was.

Sorry, internet, I was wrong. I take it all back. It turns out that the full version of the saying was written by an American civil engineer, author of a groundbreaking treatise on the economics of railroad development and editor of the New York publication Engineering News. His name was Arthur M. Wellington and his famous book was published in 1887, twenty five years after the death of the Duke. The full version of the saying is right there on page one of the introduction: “It would be well if engineering were less generally thought of, and even defined, as the art of constructing. In a certain important sense it is rather the art of not constructing; or, to define it rudely but not inaptly, it is the art of doing that well with one dollar, which any bungler can do with two after a fashion…but to such engineering as is needed for laying out railways, at least, the definition given is literally applicable, for the economic problem is all there is to it.”

I love the idea of “the art of not constructing” as the goal of the engineer. I also love the fact that whereas the common version only seeks to half the cost of doing a job, Wellington’s original text requires the engineer to do the thing “well” whereas the bungler only does it “after a fashion” for twice the price. His point was really that the cost of poor engineering is more than just the original expense, which is a one-time hit. The operating costs will be with the owner forever and can easily be several orders of magnitude greater than the original cost.

Over the years the ratio between the costs has also varied from Wellington’s original 50% target. In Britain it became “do for a shilling what any fool can do for a pound,” a 5% ratio, and then more recently “do for a penny,” which in old money was a 1:240 ratio. That’s a pretty ambitious value engineering target.

Engineering Economics