Note: I wrote this “mini-biography,” which is part of an evolving series appearing on my website, to help interested individuals of all ages learn more about engineering. We may know something about engineering because we frequently see or use the results of engineers’efforts. Another way to learn about engineering is to meet some exemplary engineers. The late David B. Steinman, PhD, PE, was an exemplary engineer. Read his story and, if you want to know more, use the sources listed at the end.
- Stuart G. Walesh, PhD, PE
Founder of the National Society of Professional Engineers
In 1934, engineer David B. Steinman invited leaders of the Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania engineering societies to a meeting the result of which was formation of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). He served two terms as the first president and made numerous presentations about the Society and engineering while giving depression-affected engineers hope.1 As summarized by NSPE, Steinman “worked tirelessly for nearly 30 years to build NSPE to the 55,000 members and 53 state societies that belonged to the society at the time of his death in 1960.” 2
Steinman’s leadership must have spurred state adoption of engineering licensure laws. When NSPE was formed, 28 states had licensure laws and by 1947 all of the then states had enacted such laws. 3
Consider some of Steinman’s thoughts about engineering: In 1932, he wrote the short piece “Registration of Engineers – [Objectives] and Advantages” which offered, in no-nonsense fashion, 35 “objectives to be accomplished and the advantages to be gained through registration laws for Professional Engineers.” Five of them, quoted, are:
- Restrict the right to practice to those who are properly qualified by education, experience, and character
- Protect the public against the incompetent, the quack, and the impostor
- Raise the educational standards of the profession
- Establish engineering as a recognized learned profession
- Clarify public conception of engineers and engineering
His “The Story behind Registration,” written in 1949 and excerpted from American Engineer, highlighted what he viewed as the three primary professions. He began by stating that modern civilization must regulate the practices of persons whose activities deal with protection of human life, health, rights, and property. “Three professions – medicine, law, and engineering – are primarily entrusted with the responsibility incident to such activities.” About engineering, he said: “The work of no other profession more truly concerns the safety of life, health, and property.” 4
Bringing engineers together to plant the NSPE idea and then working hard for three decades to cultivate it and licensure would mark a notable career. However, measured by his accomplishments, Steinman went way beyond.
Let’s sample aspects of his life, starting with his childhood, to see how he “went way beyond.”
Steinman was born in 1887 in New York City, the seventh child of a poor immigrant family. He was raised near the Brooklyn Bridge, an experience that influenced his studies, career, and writings.5,6 Steinman’s poem, “The Harp,” follows and reveals how he was profoundly inspired by living in the shadow of the iconic bridge.7
Five stories high above a city street
He dwelt, a child with wonder in his eyes.
For him, through winter cold and summer heat,
The sunbeams danced and stars sang lullabies.
One day as if on wings, a stranger came
And stood within the room, unheralded.
Gently he spoke, calling the boy by name:
“David, play on your harp!” he softly said.
How did the stranger guess the secret dream
That, day and night, within the child’s heart burned?
Outside the window, in the sunset gleam,
Glittered the instrument for which he yearned:
A Bridge! The cables swung across the bay,
The strands that hummed like harp-strings murmuring,
They whispered to the child, “Some day…Some day…”
“There is a harp, sir. I can hear it sing!”
As partial fulfillment of his childhood Brooklyn Bridge-inspired dream, Steinman was chosen to lead a major rehabilitation of the Brooklyn Bridge in the late 1940s. He considered this selection one of the highlights of his career, as might be expected given his youthful hopes while viewing and “hearing” the bridge. 8,9
Over a 25-year period, Steinman’s firm designed hundreds of bridges around the globe, in countries including the United States, Thailand, England, Portugal, Italy, Brazil, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Canada, Korea, Iraq and Pakistan.10 This is his masterpiece, the five-mile long Mackinac Bridge linking Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas—the “Mighty Mack”—which opened in 1957.
Steinman earned a PhD in civil engineering, taught at two universities, held leadership positions in various engineering and technical societies, was honored by various groups, and was awarded 19 honorary degrees. Always the writer, he authored 600 professional papers, 20 books, and over 150 poems. In his late years, he was very philanthropic, especially in helping needy students.
Besides the honorary degrees, Steinman was recognized with awards, plaques, citations, and decorations from many organizations. including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the French government, the American Institute of Steel Construction, the Society of Military Engineers, the Engineering Institute of Canada, the Franklin Institute, and the Chamber of Commerce of Latin America. 11, 12
I discovered David Steinman when I was well into my career and regret not having done so earlier. A rare few like him, can guide us, even after they are gone.
1) Weingardt, R. G. 2005. Engineering Legends: Great American Civil Engineers. Reston, VA: ASCE Press.
2) National Society of Professional Engineers. 2020. “Writings of D. B. Steinman,” NSPE, Alexandria, VA, https://www.nspe.org/sites/default/files/resources/pdfs/AboutNSPE/Writings-of-DB-Steinman.pdf, accessed April 17, 2020.
3) National Society of Professional Engineers. 2007. “100 Years of Engineering Licensure,” NSPE, Alexandria, VA, https://www.nspe.org/resources/press-room/resources/100-years-engineering-licensure, accessed April 17,2020.
4) National Society of Professional Engineers. 2020. “Writings of D. B. Steinman.”
5) Weingardt, R. G. 2005. Engineering Legends.
6) Weingardt, R. G. 2005. “David Steinman: America’s Greatest Native Son Bridge Builder of the 20th Century.” STRUCTURE Magazine, October 2005. https://www.structuremag.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/D-Great-Achievements-D-Steinman-Oct-051.pdf, accessed November 20, 2019.
7) National Society of Professional Engineers. 2020. “Writings of D. B. Steinman.”
8) Weingardt, R. G. 2005. Engineering Legends.
9) Wikipedia. 2019. “David B. Steinman.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_B._Steinman, accessed November 20, 2019.
10) Wikipedia. 2019. “David B. Steinman.”
11) Weingardt, R. G. 2005. “David Steinman: America’s Greatest Native Son Bridge Builder of the 20th Century.”
12) Weingardt, R. G. 2005. Engineering Legends.
Image sources: Steinman, State of Michigan; bridge, Pixabay
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