|For Immediate Release ||Diane Kaylor |
ASME Public Information
George Washington - The First US Engineer
NEW YORK - "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," George Washington has also been described as America's first engineer. That his birthday, on February 22 (observed February 20), is celebrated during National Engineers Week, February 21-27, is no coincidence.
A gentleman farmer of inherited wealth and limited formal education, Washington acquired credible surveying skills early in life, but excelled as a manager, strategist, and leader.
Washington directed a growing nation toward technical advancements, invention, and education. He promoted construction of roads, canals, the Capitol, docks and ports, water works, and new efforts to extract coal and ores and develop manufacturing resources.
Around the world, technology was gaining equal footing with pure science. Washington's contemporaries included James Watt (Scottish steam-engine inventor); Joseph Priestley (British chemistry pioneer); Richard Arkwright (British cotton-spinning inventor); John Fitch (American steamboat inventor); and the Montgolfier brothers (French aeronauts).
First in Washington's heart, it seems, was agriculture. As a young surveyor, his first sight of the Shenandoah Valley reportedly inspired the vision of an agricultural empire. As an adult, Washington settled into Mt. Vernon as a tobacco planter and experimented with the innovative agricultural techniques of crop rotation, soil fertilization, and livestock management. He had accurately predicted the valley's fertile farming potential.
As the foremost American general, Washington promoted at least one engineering marvel ahead of its time. During the Revolutionary War, he sent David Bushnell's hand-operated submarine into New York Harbor to sink a British warship. The Turtle's lone operator attempted to attach a timed bomb to the British Eagle's hull. The mission failed when the bomb floated away before exploding. The technology just wasn't advanced enough for Washington's vision, and submarines didn't become a force in navies for the next 100 years.
On June 9, 1778, at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, General George Washington issued a call for engineers and engineering education. This order is considered the genesis of a US Army Engineer School, which found its permanent home at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where Washington had practiced surveying. As President (1789-97), Washington pushed for the passage of the first US Patent Act in 1789, and signed the first official US patent to Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for his process of making potash and pearl ashes. In 1794, President Washington established a Corps of Artillerists and Engineers to be educated and stationed at West Point in New York, which later become the US Military Academy at West Point.
From transportation to education, Washington's engineering vision proved to be ahead of its time. After his death in 1799, many of the technologies he supported provided an impetus to the American Industrial Revolution. New York's Erie Canal (1817-25) was built, and canals soon crisscrossed America east of the Mississippi. By the 1830s, the nation's population tripled, traveling west through canals, along rivers, and across new roads and bridges. The Army Corps of Engineers began many of these projects.
By the middle of the century, the railroads become the favored mode of transportation. As a result, America had gone west and Washington's vision was realized.