National Academy of Engineering
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Charles E. Blue

American Association of Engineering Societies

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Donald Lehr

National Engineers Week

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cell phone (917) 304-4058

Robin Gibbin

National Academy of Engineering

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WASHINGTON — One hundred years ago, life was a constant struggle against disease, pollution,
deforestation, treacherous working conditions, and enormous cultural divides unbreachable with
current communications technologies. By the end of the 20th century, the world had become a
healthier, safer, and more productive place, primarily because of engineering achievements.

Speaking on behalf of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), astronaut/engineer Neil
Armstrong today announced the 20 engineering achievements that have had the greatest impact
on quality of life in the 20th century. The announcement was made during National Engineers Week
2000 at a National Press Club luncheon.[1]

The achievements — nominated by 29 professional engineering societies — were selected and
ranked by a distinguished panel of the nation’s top engineers. Convened by the NAE, this
committee — chaired by H. Guyford Stever, former director of the National Science Foundation
(1972-76) and Science Advisor to the President (1973-76) — worked in anonymity to ensure the
unbiased nature of its deliberations.

“As we look at engineering breakthroughs selected by the National Academy of Engineering, we
can see that if any one of them were removed, our world would be a very different — and much
less hospitable place,” said Armstrong. Armstrong’s announcement of the top 20 list, which
includes space exploration as the 12th most important achievement, covers an incredibly broad
spectrum of human endeavor — from the vast networks of electrification in the world (No. 1), to
the development of high-performance materials (No. 20) such as steel alloys, polymers, synthetic
fibers, composites and ceramics. In between are advancements that have revolutionized the way
people live (safe water supply and treatment, No. 4, and health technologies, No. 16); work
(computers, No. 8, and telephones, No. 9); play (radio and television, No. 6); and travel
(automobile, No. 2, airplane, No. 3, and interstate highways, No. 11).

In his statement delivered to the National Press Club, Armstrong said that he was delighted to
announce the list of the greatest achievements to underscore his commitment to advancing the
understanding of the critical importance of engineering. “Almost every part of our lives underwent
profound changes during the past 100 years thanks to the efforts of engineers, changes
impossible to imagine a century ago. People living in the early 1900s would be amazed at the
advancements wrought by engineers,” he said, adding, “as someone who has experienced
firsthand one of engineering’s most incredible advancements — space exploration — I have no
doubt that the next 100 years will be even more amazing.”

The NAE notes that the top achievement, electrification, powers almost every pursuit and
enterprise in modern society. It has literally lighted the world and impacted countless areas of
daily life, including food production and processing, air conditioning and heating, refrigeration,
entertainment, transportation, communication, health care, and computers.

Many of the top 20 achievements, given the immediacy of their impact on the public, seem obvious
choices, such as automobiles, at No. 2, and the airplane, at No. 3. These achievements, along with
space exploration, the nation’s interstate highway system at No. 11, and petroleum and gas
technologies at No. 17, made travel and mobility-related achievements the single largest segment
of engineering to be recognized.

Other achievements are less obvious, but nonetheless introduced changes of staggering
proportions. The No. 4 achievement, for example, the availability of safe and abundant water,
literally changed the way Americans lived and died during the last century. In the early 1900s,
waterborne diseases like typhoid fever and cholera killed tens-of-thousands of people annually, and
dysentery and diarrhea, the most common waterborne diseases, were the third largest cause of
death. By the 1940s, however, water treatment and distribution systems devised by engineers
had almost totally eliminated these diseases in America and other developed nations. They also
brought water to vast tracts of land that would otherwise have been uninhabitable.

Number 10, air conditioning and refrigeration technologies, underscores how seemingly
commonplace technologies can have a staggering impact on the economy of cities and worker
productivity. Air conditioning and refrigeration allowed people to live and work effectively in
sweltering climates, had a profound impact on the distribution and preservation of our food
supply, and provided stable environments for the sensitive components that underlie today’s
information-technology economy.

Referring to achievements that may escape notice by most of the general public, Wm. A. Wulf,
president of the National Academy of Engineering, said, “Engineering is all around us, so people
often take it for granted, like air and water. Ask yourself, what do I touch that is not engineered?
Engineering develops and delivers consumer goods, builds the networks of highways, air and rail
travel, and the Internet, mass produces
antibiotics, creates artificial heart valves, builds lasers, and offers such wonders as imaging
technology and conveniences like microwave ovens and compact discs. In short, engineers make
our quality of life possible.”

Selection Process

The process for choosing the greatest achievements began in the fall of 1999, when the National
Academy of Engineering, an autonomous non-profit organization of outstanding engineers founded
under the congressional charter that established the National Academy of Sciences, invited
discipline-specific professional engineering societies to nominate up to ten achievements. A list of
105 selections was given to a committee of academy members representing the various
disciplines. The panel convened on December 9 and 10, 1999, and selected and ranked the top 20
achievements. The overarching criterion used was that those advancements had made the
greatest contribution to the quality of life in the past 100 years. Even though some of the
achievements, such as the telephone and the automobile, were invented in the 1800s, they were
included because their impact on society was felt on the 20th century.

The Achievements

Here is the complete list of achievements as announced today by Mr. Armstrong:

1) Electrification — the vast networks of electricity that power the developed world.

2) Automobile — revolutionary manufacturing practices made the automobile the world’s major
mode of transportation by making cars more reliable and affordable to the masses.

3) Airplane — flying made the world accessible, spurring globalization on a grand scale.

4) Safe and Abundant Water — preventing the spread of disease, increasing life expectancy.

5) Electronics — vacuum tubes and, later, transistors that underlie nearly all modern life.

6) Radio and Television — dramatically changed the way the world received information and

7) Agricultural Mechanization — leading to a vastly larger, safer, less costly food supply.

8) Computers — the heart of the numerous operations and systems that impact our lives.

9) Telephone — changing the way the world communicates personally and in business.

10) Air Conditioning and Refrigeration — beyond convenience, it extends the shelf life of food
and medicines, protects electronics, and plays an important role in health care delivery.

11) Interstate Highways — 44,000 miles of U.S. highway allowing goods distribution and
personal access.

12) Space Exploration — going to outer space vastly expanded humanity’s horizons and
introduced 60,000 new products on Earth.

13) Internet — a global communications and information system of unparalleled access.

14) Imaging Technologies — revolutionized medical diagnostics.

15) Household Appliances — eliminated strenuous, laborious tasks, especially for women.

16) Health Technologies — mass production of antibiotics and artificial implants led to vast
health improvements.

17) Petroleum and Gas Technologies — the fuels that energized the 20th century.

18) Laser and Fiber Optics — applications are wide and varied, including almost simultaneous

worldwide communications, non-invasive surgery, and point-of-sale scanners.

19) Nuclear Technologies — from splitting the atom, we gained a new source of electric power.

20) High Performance Materials — higher quality, lighter, stronger, and more adaptable.

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Editors Notes:

Additional information and visuals are available at

Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century is a collaborative project led by the
National Academy of Engineering, with the American Association of Engineering Societies, National
Engineers Week, and 29 engineering societies.

The National Academy of Engineering was established in 1964, under the charter of the National
Academy of Sciences, as a parallel organization of outstanding engineers. It is autonomous in its
administration and in the selection of its members, sharing with the National Academy of Sciences
the responsibility for advising the federal government. The National Academy of Engineering also
sponsors engineering programs aimed at meeting national needs, encourages education and
research, and recognizes the superior achievements of engineers.

Since its founding in 1951 by the National Society of Professional Engineers, National Engineers
Week, a consortium of more than 100 engineering, scientific, education societies, and major
corporations, has helped increase public awareness and appreciation of technology and the
engineering profession. National Engineers Week 2000 co-chairs are the American Consulting
Engineers Council (ACEC), a national organization of private engineering firms, and CH2M HILL, a
global engineering company specializing in water and wastewater, environmental management,
transportation, telecommunications, industrial facilities, and related infrastructure.

American Association of Engineering Societies is a federation of engineering societies dedicated to
advancing the knowledge, understanding, and practice of engineering whose membership
represents more than one million engineers in the United States.

[1] National Engineers Week 2000 is held February 20-26. National Engineers Week always falls
around the birth date of George Washington, who was a surveyor and is often cited as America’s
first engineer.