Times Past

Dan Krieger: We’ve engineered some marvels

‘The bridge is a marvel of beauty viewed from the level of the river. In looking at its vast stretch, not only over the river between the towers, but also over the inhabited, busy city shore, it appears to have a character of its own far above the drudgeries of the lower business levels.”

The editors of Scientific American, the super geeks of their day, waxed almost poetically at the beauty of the structure when it opened on May 23, 1883.

During the Great Depression, the American poet Hart Crane wrote a book-length set of poems inspired by New York City’s “poetry landmark.”

We Californians share many of those same sentiments about the Golden Gate Bridge. There is clearly a sense of beauty in the way we perceive outstanding examples of classic and modern engineering.

The Achievers: The Art of Engineering (Making Stuff that Works), a new exhibit at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, demonstrates the link between technology and beauty.

The exhibit, co-curated by Tod Rafferty and Cal Poly graphic communication professor Brian Lawler, has its origins in a book they produced in 2004, “The Achievers: Central California’s Engineering Pioneers.”

The exhibit features the inventions and designs of San Luis Obispo County companies and residents and Cal Poly graduates, including Burt Rutan, Craig Vetter, National Guitar, Mike Spangler, Next Intent’s Mars Rover wheel, Truvativ’s bicycle components, master mechanic Vic Hickey’s off-road vehicles, land-speed bikes and human-powered aircraft by Cal Poly students, and more.

The beauty of the Mars Rover wheel reminds me of when at the age of 6 or 7, I was taken by my great-aunt to see a beached whale.

The unfortunate leviathan was looming over me when I picked up a small, scallop-shaped heart cockle shell.

The wonder of that tiny mollusk held my interest for days. My frustrated Aunt Gertrude reminded me how far we had traveled to see the whale. But then she had the wisdom to add that the beauty of life was really in the small, often unnoticed details.

Viewing the myriad of designs and inventions emerging from our region provokes a question: How did so many ideas emerge in a relatively isolated part of the Pacific Coast?

Part of the answer can be found in Dayton, Ohio, where the Wright Brothers turned to bicycle making and repair as a means of shortening the distances in America’s Middle West.

The leap from bicycles to aeronautical engineering was not that far.

San Luis Obispo County was essentially remade first by the railroad and then by highways and the automobile.

The technology of rails and internal combustion engines, steering mechanisms and streamlined vehicular bodies for highway travel quickly gained the interest of young minds.

Cal Poly, a state school as far removed from the urban centers as it possibly could be, wasn’t established until the rail link between the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin was completed in 1901.

The Polytechnic School was charged with teaching agriculture, engineering and domestic science, all of which were in rapid flux at the beginning of the twentieth century.

By the 1930s, Cal Poly was training young men in the practical aspects of aeronautical science. Despite the isolation, or perhaps because of it, exciting things were happening here.

Bob Kennedy, the recently deceased past-president of Cal Poly, told me about an instructor who was building a predecessor of Jack Northrop’s flying wing aircraft in the late 1930s.

The exhibit continues at the museum in Mission Plaza until June 12 and is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Daily and admission is free.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.