John Topley’s Weblog

No More Heroes Any More?

It's the end of an era. Concorde, that magnificent feat of engineering and that disastrous example of economic planning, has retired. There is no longer a supersonic civilian airliner. In the not too distant future, there will be no one alive who has walked on the surface of the moon. What does this say about the age we live in?

Development work on Concorde started in 1959 and yet over forty years later it's still a technological tour de force in so many ways. The computer-controlled air intakes for the engines remain state of the art. They slow the incoming air down by over one thousand miles per hour in the space of about fifteen feet. The pilot's seat cost £80M to develop, although that probably belongs in the realms of disastrous economic planning.

The BBC have just finished the deeply absorbing “Seven Wonders Of The Industrial World” series. It featured stories about monumental engineering feats such as the construction of the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam. Both seriously large, very difficult and impressive projects. Where are today's great engineering projects to inspire and fill the observer with awe?

Although there are undoubtedly still great works being undertaken in the world of civil engineering (the Channel Tunnel springs to mind as a recent example), I think we have to look to the world of software development for further examples. Much of the software produced today can hardly be said to have been engineered—it is of such shoddy quality—but nonetheless, heroic feats of engineering are being performed every day on large software projects. The efforts of hundreds, if not thousands of software developers are somehow co-ordinated and combined to create operating systems, relational database management systems and other complex software.

Fred Brooks' famous “The Mythical Man-Month ” is about his experiences whilst working as the project manager on IBM's OS/360 behemoth for their System/360 mainframe in the 1960s. It's widely held up as a classic text on the problems faced by large projects. The book “Showstopper” is a good read that details the pain the development team at Microsoft went through over five years to create the first version of Windows NT. It's a tale of long hours, personal conflicts, broken relationships and above all, the almost superhuman effort to create what at the time was probably the most complicated computer program ever written. And Windows NT 3.1 was a lot smaller and less ambitious than its successors were.

We may have given up on supersonic civilian flight or going to the moon for the moment, but engineering in the large is definitely still going on and most of us are touched by it every day, often without realising it.

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Heroic feats of engineering are being performed every day on large software projects.


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