Our university’s benefactor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, was an engineer. He may not have had a formal education in engineering but he used his ingenuity to solve problems faced by society in his time, and he created products and services that added value to the economy.
In this issue of Vanderbilt Engineering, as we begin a yearlong observation of the quasquicentennial of the School of Engineering—our 125th anniversary—we celebrate the past while renewing our vision for the future as a leading engineering school creating and disseminating new knowledge. We are fortunate to have T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, contribute to this significant milestone by writing the feature article, “Vanderbilt was an Engineer”  in this issue.
As with many of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s contemporaries, the Commodore recognized the value of engineering as a means of technological and economic advancement. He, along with Andrew Carnegie, Ezra Cornell, James Duke, Asa Packer, John Rockefeller, Leland Stanford and Stephen Van Rensselaer among others, recognized through their endowments of universities with similarly successful engineering schools that a growing economy required an educated workforce.
The value of an engineering education is echoed across the centuries and a capable engineering workforce is still a topic of great concern, especially in a troubled economy. The National Academy of Engineering President Charles Vest urges, “In the U.S., we must compete in the global economy and maintain our American standard of living. … Prospering in the knowledge age requires people with knowledge.”
Scholars have been stressing the importance of the knowledge economy for decades. But what does this mean? Peter Drucker, the world-renowned management scholar, had a deep appreciation for the engineering profession and defined the knowledge economy as one that focuses on production and management of knowledge. Understanding how to apply knowledge for economic gain requires a highly educated society. This belief is validated by our engineering graduates being sought by organizations in nearly every sector of the market, not just technology companies.
In Science magazine, Norm Augustine (retired CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp.) stated, “More than half of the increase in the U.S. gross domestic product has been attributed to advancements in science, technology and innovation.” I cannot think of a time in our history where this fact has meant more to our global competitiveness than now. Recently Paul Otellini, president and CEO of Intel wrote in an opinion piece, “If we want the next Intel, GE, Google or Facebook to be born and grow up in America, we must begin producing more engineers. These jobs support our future.” Engineering and engineering education have never been more important to the future of our country.
I offer this quote to you as a parting thought: Robert Solow (Nobel Prize in Economics, National Medal of Science) stated, “There is no evidence that God ever intended the United States of America to have a higher per capita income than the rest of the world for eternity.” Work must never stop on American innovation for global economic prosperity.
Please join me, the faculty, the staff and the students of the School of Engineering in celebrating our rich heritage. I hope you find the historical contents of this issue of Vanderbilt Engineering interesting (and possibly nostalgic), as well as the activities in which our students and faculty are currently engaged.