Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Engineer and the Chalk

In Charles M. Vest's speech at MIT in 1999 attributes the parable of The Engineer and the Chalk (or The Handyman's Invoice) to electrical engineering expert Charles P. Steinmetz:
I want to tell you a story about an incident in the career of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the great electrical engineer.
In the early years of this century, Steinmetz was brought to General Electric's facilities in Schenectady, New York. GE had encountered a performance problem with one of their huge electrical generators and had been absolutely unable to correct it. Steinmetz, a genius in his understanding of electromagnetic phenomena, was brought in as a consultant -- not a very common occurrence in those days, as it would be now.
Steinmetz also found the problem difficult to diagnose, but for some days he closeted himself with the generator, its engineering drawings, paper and pencil. At the end of this period, he emerged, confident that he knew how to correct the problem.
After he departed, GE's engineers found a large "X" marked with chalk on the side of the generator casing. There also was a note instructing them to cut the casing open at that location and remove so many turns of wire from the stator. The generator would then function properly.
And indeed it did.
Steinmetz was asked what his fee would be. Having no idea in the world what was appropriate, he replied with the absolutely unheard of answer that his fee was $1000.
Stunned, the GE bureaucracy then required him to submit a formally itemized invoice.
They soon received it. It included two items:
1. Marking chalk "X" on side of generator: $1.
2. Knowing where to mark chalk "X": $999.
Thus Steinmetz left his mark in more ways than one in early 20th century technology and business. You will do the same in the early 21st century.
Because you too will know where to put the "X."
But Steinmetz lived in the age of iron machines. Your careers will play out in the age of knowledge and information.
Fifteen years ago, shortly before his untimely death, the author Italo Calivino wrote Six Memos for the Next Millennium. In his memo entitled "Lightness," he put it simply:
"I look to science to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears. Today, every branch of science seems intent on demonstrating that the world is supported by the most minute entities...
The iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits."
The iron machines obey the bits.

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