Electrical engineers from Princeton have built the smallest microchips and the biggest companies. Civil engineers, embracing "design and discovery at the planetary scale," have built “structural art” that combines high functionality with dazzling beauty, while demonstrating sustainable paths forward. Here’s a little about the departments currently known as Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“Failure is an essential component in innovation and invention. If you know it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.” – Jeff Bezos ‘86
He’s known as the world’s richest person, the man who founded the e-commerce company Amazon, and the person who recently made headlines (in The Washington Post, which he owns) for blasting into space with the exploration company Blue Origin. But Jeff Bezos’ journey led through Princeton Engineering, where he took his early love of computers to study computer science and electrical engineering, graduating summa cum laude in 1986. After Princeton he had a lucrative job on Wall Street, but in 1994 he took a risk, leaving to start his own company – an online bookstore — on the young Internet. The company grew fast, went public in 1997, and gradually diversified into other areas, like clothes, electronics, and later, streaming video and we hosting. Today you can buy anything you want on Amazon, which will rush an item you bought on your smartphone right to your door, using an extensive logistics network. In 2011, his family announced a gift of funding for a center for neurological disorders at Princeton. In a video conversation with Princeton Engineering in 2010, he talked about the culture of risk taking, advice he echoed in a Princeton graduation speech that same year. “If it’s their freshman week and starting at Princeton, I think the advice as to what to focus on is pretty simple, which is try to figure out what you’re genuinely interested in and then pursue those things. Alternative techniques might be to try to figure out what is most lucrative, and those techniques tend not to work. It’s very difficult to chase after a wave. What’s better is to plant yourself in the middle of something you genuinely love, and wait for the wave to come find you.” In 2018, Princeton Alumni Weekly named him the most influential living Princeton alumnus. (Sources: Engineering After Princeton video, 2010; Biography.com profile)
Which 1976 grad switched from architecture to electrical engineering and went on to lead a search engine giant?
In May of 2015, a 1976 electrical engineering graduate of Princeton Engineering returned for a lecture to students about the relationship between humans and computers, noting that they had a division of labor where one excelled: Humans were better at emotion and intuition, whereas computers had far better recall, he said. By that time, he was the leader of the world’s preeminent search engine, and that company, he said, made it possible for everyone to have more access to information. “You’re just smarter now because you can search and answer the question rather than making an answer up, like I used to,” he said to laughter. “People say things, and you check. What’s the fact, what’s the history, what went on here. I’m just more knowledgeable. I don’t know if I’m more insightful, but I’m certainly more knowledgeable.” Who is this businessperson?
Eric Schmidt arrived at Princeton to study architecture, but by his own admission, “I was a terrible architect. But I turned out to be a pretty good engineer, and this was at a time when computer science didn’t exist. At Princeton, I walked in and I said, ‘Look, I think I’d rather do computers.’” He got a degree in electrical engineering, which put him on a path to become CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011, then executive chairman of its parent company until 2018. All the while, he has remained a big booster of Princeton, as he and wife Wendy Schmidt in 2019 endowed a new home for the Department of Computer Science (more about that later in this series). “When I thought about where to go to college, everyone assumed I would go to a technical school, someplace where people with my interests would go. But I was attracted to Princeton precisely because engineering was not its primary focus. I believe the value of a liberal arts education just in general, just learning about the world, learning about other people, would serve me in some inchoate way, some way in which I didn’t really know. And that’s proven true. The skills, and in particular, the social experiences and exposure to the nontechnical part of the world as a young person made a huge difference for me…. It was the combination of critical thinking, and the fact that you had such good access to professors who you could really talk to, that as a very very young person had a huge impact on me.”
“If you think of an algorithm that is not optimal, don’t discard it; hold onto it and find out how good it could be.” – Stuart Schwartz
After the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science split into two separate departments in 1985, there was some fear that EE would be seen as old fashioned and fade away. But thanks to the vision and hard work of its new chair, Stuart Schwartz, it grew and thrived. The department had 13 faculty members after the split with Computer Science, but Schwartz grew the department to 24 by the time he stepped down as chair nine years later. Today the department has 35 faculty. Along the way, he built two major new research areas, including photonics. The other was computer engineering, an area that continued to flourish as reflected in the department changing its name this year to Electrical and Computer Engineering. He also introduced an unprecedented focus on entrepreneurship and working with industry. From Ed Zschau’s High Tech Entrepreneurship course came the seeds of the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, which now has nine faculty focused on entrepreneurship. Schwartz’s talent in identifying, recruiting and then supporting new faculty members became legendary. He was also a pioneer of mathematical methods that led to techniques for efficiently transmitting information, as well as a beloved instructor and mentor. He died in 2011 at the age of 72.
What were David Billington’s ‘Three E’s’?
David Billington ‘50, the Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor of Engineering, was a beloved lecturer and a pioneer of “structural art.” The concept evaluates artistic expression under the practical constraints of engineering. His work was an inspiration to a generation of scholars, redefining how people looked at great works of engineering like bridges and buildings. In his classes, which were estimated to be attended by one in five students during their time at Princeton, he challenged students to evaluate “structural art” in terms of three S’s: scientific, social, and symbolic contributions. And he taught them to apply three standards to each work, combining technical design and creativity, each of which started with the letter E. What were they?
In his many books and journal articles, David Billington ‘50 explored the works of builders and innovators with a particular focus on bridges and thin, graceful structures. He would often extol the virtues of certain pieces of structural art — bridges and buildings, mainly — which he said gave them greater artistic merit under the practical constraints of engineering. He would speak of three qualities of these works, each of which started with the letter S: scientific, social, and symbolic merit. And he spoke of three standards, each of which started with the letter E: efficiency, economy, and elegance. “The disciplines of structural art are efficiency and economy, and its freedom lies in the potential it offers the individual designer for the expression of a personal style motivated by the conscious aesthetic search for engineering elegance,” Billington wrote in his 1983 book “The Tower and the Bridge.” Using an approach inspired by art historians, he built his lectures around the works of individual designers, explaining the context of their development. Billington, who joined the faculty in 1960, died in 2018.
“You need courage to let your students and postdocs take your ideas and to develop them and take ownership of them.” – Eric Wood
Eric Wood, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering emeritus, had an enormous impact on the field of hydrology, not only through his research, but in the students he taught and mentored. Hydrology is the study of the Earth’s water in relation to the land. He developed hydrology models to observe drought in areas of the world that are not served by other systems, working with UNESCO and regional organizations to deploy flood and drought monitoring systems in Africa and South America. Wood, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1976 and retired from the faculty to become a senior scholar in 2019, received many of the world’s top honors in hydrology. In his remarks on the occasion of accepting the Robert E. Horton Medal in 2017, he said: “A young colleague asked me ‘What does it take to have an impactful career?’ and after some thought I said ‘courage.’ Courage to be creative. Courage to think in ways that others aren’t thinking. Courage to persist but also courage to sit down and listen. You need courage to let your students and postdocs take your ideas and to develop them and take ownership of them. Since mentoring is central to our craft, I try to have this courage.” Indeed, no fewer than nine faculty members in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering carry on work in hydrology and the atmospheric environment today. They work to understand how hydrologic and atmospheric processes interact to shape our environment, a key challenge for environmental engineers. Eric Wood died on November 3, 2020 at the age of 74.