Our brains have a layered architecture where primitive parts interact with more recently evolved functions. Nature seem to favour this type of incremental approach where the new never replaces the old but simply adds to the complexity.
Counter to popular perception, engineering is a lot like that too. It might appear to represent a monolithic body of knowledge but in reality the toolbox of modern day engineering contains a motley mix of approaches.
Long before engineering was even coined as a term, there were tinkerers. Self taught curious individuals who built stuff, got them wrong and tried again until they arrived at something that worked.
They could be seen as crafts people, but as such they were outliers. Where craft is centred around reverently passing down recipes through the ages, tinkering is all about breaking rules to see what happens. Think of them as the punk rockers of maker culture, trying new things for the sake of it, solving problems nobody knew they had.
A good tinkerer tend to adhere to a method we’ll call structured parameter manipulation. What that means is, you pick apart a design into its many constituent components, and then methodically tweak one of them at a time to see what happens to the whole. You keep doing that until the job-to-be-done gets done.
The 18th century boat builder Fredrik Henric av Chapman was a pioneer in the field of structured parameter manipulation. Going to sea at age 15, he subsequently learned the craft of ship building as a journeyman on shipyards around Europe.
Eventually returning to his native Sweden, he must have had a good understanding of how ships were *supposed* to be built. He was not, however, satisfied. Ships needed to carry heavier loads while at the same time being able to navigate shallower waters. New designs were called for, but the recipes of craftsmanship were optimised for continuity, not innovation. Here’s Fredrik Henric in a note (liberally translated by me) describing the state of the art in 1775:
The way we do things is: each designer tries his best but every new ship is bound to have some wicked quality. When we try fixing it in the design of the next vessel, a new problem pops up, or else the original one persists, or is even worsened. There’s no way of knowing whether it originates in the design of the ship, or was caused by some other unknown circumstance. The sources of success or failure seem arbitrary. We must draw the conclusion that designing ships based on experience in combination with random trial and error, simply won’t cut it. We need to find a better way.
The alternative approach, such as it evolved at the military shipyard where Chapman was in charge, was tinker-based.
Systematically studying blueprints of ships with proven excellent qualities, Chapman set about experimenting with tweaking discrete parameters. Whenever something looked promising, he’d establish a new baseline and keep iterating from it.
(To speed up the cycles, he also introduced the methodology of testing new designs by means of building small scale models and in doing so gained an insight which latter day engineers take for granted: just because something looks promising in the lab doesn’t mean it will work when scaling up).
This new take on ship building was generously rewarded. Chapman got knighted and his methods were copied all over Europe. Structured parameter manipulation could celebrate one of its first triumphs.
It was thought at the time that Chapman brought the scientific method to ship building, but the historian Gunnar Wetterberg – who recounts Chapman’s story in his book Ingenjörerna – disagrees. However efficient the new approach might have been, he points out that Chapman never really understood *why* a particular design worked.
According to Wetterberg it was only centuries later, with the advent of the electrical revolution, that engineers started making real progress based on deep scientific insights.
These days of course, science is so pervasive it can often feel synonymous with engineering. The last seventy plus years progress towards a functioning fusion reactor – the holy grail of every technologist – would be unthinkable in a tinker-based paradigm. As would the Apollo program or the Webb space telescope.
But if the scientific method is getting all the limelight, that doesn’t mean it replaced what came before it. In fact when you start looking, tinkerer’s are everywhere.
They’re the pragmatic doers training deep learning models without really understanding its internal logic. They’re the ones who guesstimate protein folding; who probe in the darkness for the right DNA sequence; who piece that crashed experimental drone back together with gaffer tape. They’re the MacGyvers of engineering, and they still abound.
So in the end, even if science has made a huge impact, that doesn’t mean engineering is ever going to rid itself from its roots in tinkering, and the fact that trained engineers have access to both modes is of course a wonderful thing.
But just like turmoil can occur when different parts of our brains have conflicting agendas, engineering too can get confused about itself. How we think of entrepreneurship provides a good example.
Technology has been such a strong business driver for so long that we’ve started looking at entrepreneurship as a branch of engineering. That’s fine, as long as we acknowledge the fact that entrepreneurship is anything but scientific. It’s not reproducible, there aren’t any universal laws governing its dynamics, it’s squarely rooted in tinkering and we should never pretend otherwise.
What that means is, no two journeys are ever the same, at the end of the day you’ll have to figure out the particulars on your own. But then that’s what’s so infinitely intriguing, what makes entrepreneurship so much like life itself.
So step into the fray. Do it your way. Tinker. It’ll be good.