All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1970

Fifty Years of Engineering

This article by Admiral Moreell, Civil Engineer Corps, United States Navy, Retired, is reprint­ed by permission from the July-August ¹970 issue of The Military Engineer. Copyright ¹970 by The Society of American Military Engi­neers.

In 1844 the United States Commis­sioner of Patents declared that our economy was “substantially ma­ture” and predicted “the arrival of that period when human improve­ment must end.”

Forty-two years later, in 1886, Carroll D. Wright, the first United States Commissioner of Labor stated:

Industry has been enormously de­veloped, cities have been transformed, distances covered, and a new set of economic tools has been given in pro­fusion to rich countries and, in a more reasonable amount, to poorer ones. What is strictly necessary has been done. There may be room for further intensive but not extensive develop­ment of industry in the present area of civilization.

In 1933, forty-seven years later, President Roosevelt said:

We have enough factories to supply all our domestic needs, and more, if they are used. With these factories we can now make more shoes, more textiles, more steel, more radios, more automobiles, more of almost every­thing than we can use…. Our indus­trial plant is built…. Our task now… is not producing more goods… it is the soberer, less dramatic busi­ness of administering resources and plants already in hand.

Thus spoke the cultists of the “mature economy,” with firm con­viction and, as proved by later events, with maximum error. Even as recently as 37 years ago, it ap­pears that our government officials were not aware that man’s wants are insatiable. Man has certain basic needs, but once these are tak­en care of, men seek the things of culture—goods of the mind and spirit, and the leisure to enjoy them. And when men are free to exercise their ingenuity and skills, they find ways to produce fantastic luxuries which soon become com­monplace necessities. Those proph­ets of economic stagnation whom I have quoted were convinced that our sole problem was to devise equitable methods of “dividing up the pie” already on hand. They were wrong. The mainspring of our economic progress consists in making an ever larger pie by ex­panding the scope and variety of our technological, social, and eco­nomic resources.

It is pertinent to note an im­portant difference between the statement of Commissioner Wright in 1886 and that of President Roosevelt in 1933. The former was offered as an opinion for public consideration, to be acted upon as individual judgments might dic­tate; the latter was derived from the President’s conclusion that:

… in our generation a new idea has come to dominate thought about gov­ernment—the idea that the resources of the Nation can be made to produce a far higher standard of living for the masses if only government is in­telligent and energetic in giving the right direction to economic life.

All the power and prestige of the Executive Branch and, so far as the President could influence them, of the Legislative and Judi­cial Branches, would be directed toward maximizing consumption as opposed to increasing produc­tion; encouraging widespread dis­tribution as against capital forma­tion; promoting dependence on gov­ernment-guaranteed security as against freedom of competitive enterprise.

Cumulative Achievements

My subject is “Fifty Years of Engineering.” This might imply that one can draw a sharp line of demarcation between engineering developments prior to 1920 and those which came later. This is an impossible task. For all human progress is founded on the cumula­tive achievements of countless toilers who, over the ages, have contributed to the vast store of knowledge from which we engi­neers draw our intellectual inspir­ation and our technological suste­nance. Were it not for the labors of those predecessors, our progress to date in science and technology, as well as in many other areas, would have been impossible. Start­ing with the invention of the wheel about 4,500 years ago and proceeding through the ages to our present era of sophisticated tech­nology, the record of material progress constitutes an accounting of our debts to our scientific and technological forebears.

I freely concede that during the period from 1920 to 1970 the cum­ulative efforts of our professional ancestry have come to fruition in far greater profusion than during all of prior recorded history. Nor would I detract from the great credit due our contemporaries and those of the preceding generation for their contribution to this achievement. We are fully justi­fied in pointing with pride to such developments during the past half century as the harnessing of the atom; jet propulsion; greatly im­proved communication by means of telephones, radio, television, satellites, laser beams, and others; computer science and electronic data processing; space and ocean exploration; transportation by air, land, and water; development of new materials and revolutionary improvements of old ones; mis­siles and rockets; advanced tech­niques in the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of en­gineering structures; and vastly improved management procedures which make possible the effective applications of these and many other developments.

This has been an epoch of bril­liant advances in science and tech­nology. And just as we cannot draw a sharp line to mark its be­ginning in 1920, so should we not assume that it will end in 1970.

But we must be aware of cer­tain hazards which accompany this progress and which seem to be multiplying.

The “American Way”

Our American productive ma­chine is highly mechanized. This is true not only of the business and industrial sector but also of our agricultural production. This system provides livelihoods for 205,000,000 of our own people and helps support and protect much of the rest of the world.

How does one account for this nation’s amazing capacity to pro­duce? Our people are no more tal­ented than those of the countries whence they came. Our country is no more favored with natural ad­vantages than many others. Fur­thermore, our resources lay for centuries relatively unused, sup­porting fewer than a million in­habitants. Now, our 6 per cent of the world’s people produce about 50 per cent of the world’s goods. Wherein do we differ from others? The significant difference is that there was established here a governmental system whose mechanisms were designed to min­imize coercive force and release the creative energies of individ­uals.

The fundamental of fundamen­tals of the plan for living in these United States, which has become known as the “American Way of Life,” was an economically independent citizenry supporting and controlling a government so lim­ited and confined by a written Con­stitution that the age-old political trick of controlling people’s lives under the guise of a concern for their welfare could never be pulled in America. There was to be a new order of things in which men should be free. But this reckoning failed to take into account some of the loopholes in that Constitution and the ingenuity of demagogues in taking advantage of them. The result is erosion of productivity.

Men Who Would Be Free Must Limit Government

This nation was founded on the principle of a limited government. And judging from the costs of government, it operated that way throughout all of its earlier his­tory. But progressively more and more of the people’s incomes have been taxed away by government, especially over the past several decades. This reduces the area over which the individual can exercise his freedom of choice to spend his income as he pleases. An increas­ing percentage is spent as official­dom dictates.

The opposite of freedom is slav­ery; and everyone declares in fa­vor of freedom. But, “What is es­sential to the idea of a slave?” asked Herbert Spencer in his great book, Man versus the State. Hegoes on to answer his own ques­tion:

We primarily think of him [the slave] as one who is owned by an­other. To be more than nominal, how­ever, the ownership must be shown by control of the slave’s actions—a con­trol which is habitually for the bene­fit of the controller. That which fund­amentally distinguishes the slave is that he labors under coercion to satis­fy another’s desires… the essential question is—how much is he compelled to labor for other benefit than his own and how much can he labor for his own benefit?

When our country was young, its citizens worked for their own benefit. Now that the tax take on the average is 42 cents out of ev­ery dollar earned, the average cit­izen works only 58 per cent of the time for his own benefit. And the trend is continuing.¹

Threats to Progress

Today the greatest threat to personal liberty everywhere arises, not from aggressions by other na­tions, but from encroachments by governments upon the rights of their own citizens. If, overnight, all governments were compelled by some higher power to confine their activities solely to the protection of the lives, limbs, liberties, and honestly acquired property of their own citizens, the world would enter upon an era of peace, productivity, and spiritual and material pros­perity. It is when those who con­trol governments induce their citi­zens to support ambitious schemes for extension of their power on the international scene that con­troversy and wars result. It is clear that to avoid such disasters the constitutional limitations on the powers of government must be strictly enforced by the weight of an informed public opinion.

The great conflict of our day is between coercion of the individual and suppression of his creative en­ergies by his own government on the one hand, as opposed to free­dom of the individual acting vol­untarily in obedience to the re­strictions of God’s moral code on the other.

In this conflict engineers have a unique responsibility because their education, training, and experi­ence teach them the importance of fixed principles and immutable laws and the dangers which flow from ignoring or disobeying them. For example, the engineer knows that in electricity he is dealing with a powerful force which oper­ates according to certain laws. It is his duty to know those laws. He knows that electricity, uncon­trolled, can destroy and kill. But when controlled and directed in conformity with the laws of nature it can be a powerful servant to mankind.

The engineer is, therefore, espe­cially qualified to understand and to help others understand the great fundamental truth which is being ignored in human affairs today: that there are similar fixed and unchanging principles gov­erning human nature and human relations in life on this planet. The forces of human nature, like those of the physical world, may be con­structive, creative, and so directed that they will help build a better life for all; or they can be destruc­tive and disintegrating, even to the extent of destroying the phys­ical as well as the spiritual struc­ture of a great civilization.

Undue Reliance on Technology

Jose Ortega y Gasset, the great contemporary Spanish philosopher, has pointed up the peril of ignor­ing the great moral and spiritual laws of which I speak. He said:

I wish it would dawn upon engi­neers that, in order to be an engineer, it is not enough to be an engineer. While they are minding their own business, history may be pulling the ground from under their feet. People believe modern technology more firm­ly established in history than all pre­vious technologies because of its sci­entific foundations. But this alleged security is illusory.

Indeed, it is just this feeling of se­curity which is endangering Western civilization. The belief in progress, the conviction that on this level of history a major setback can no longer happen, and the world will go the full length of prosperity, has loosened the rivets of human caution and flung open the gates for a new invasion of barbarism.²

Ortega has thus described the issue dramatically. We are too sure of ourselves, too complacent in a time of great danger. We place too much reliance on our technical skill, our command of natural phys­ical forces and energy, and our matchless ability to produce. In­toxicated with pride in our achievements, immersed in the in­teresting problems still unsolved, we have left unguarded the gates through which are pouring those destructive hordes and forces of that “new invasion of barbarism” to which Ortega refers.

The Answer

The laws, the fixed and basic principles governing the develop­ment of the individual and his so­ciety, are as old as civilization. Some of those principles had to be discovered and practiced before man could start on his long jour­ney from his status as a preda­tory animal toward the still far distant goal of human perfection. Those unchanging spiritual and moral precepts designed by the Creator, discovered by inspired prophets of mankind, stated and restated for man’s guidance through the ages, include the fixed moral absolutes of the Ten Com­mandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Golden Rule. These, in turn, require that if a man wishes to be free to use his faculties as he may choose he must accept personal moral responsibil­ity for the manner in which he uses them.

The creative urge, implanted by God in all normal human beings, thrives under liberty. But liberty is possible only when individuals are self-reliant and conduct them­selves toward each other in a cli­mate of mutual respect and en­couragement of those human qual­ities and forces which stimulate growth and maximum individual development. Dr. Felix Morley, political economist and author, states the case thus:

When the American people have been self-reliant, mutually helpful and considerate, determined in their mistrust of political authority, this nation has been “in form”; its tradi­tion alive, its contribution to civiliza­tion outstanding.³

It is clear from the foregoing that the material blessings we Americans have been enjoying are not self-perpetuating. They are premised on certain spiritual and cultural values which this genera­tion did not create, which it in­herited, and, as the record clearly shows, which it is losing. We are living off our capital. That is the quickest way to go bankrupt. And I am sure the stability of our so­cial structure cannot long outlast the exhaustion of our spiritual and cultural capital.

I have spoken to you as an en­gineer. I have stated that the en­gineer’s responsibility to the social order is magnified because of his education, training, experience, and his indebtedness to his profes­sional forebears. I have voiced my conviction that only as we contrib­ute to the creation and mainten­ance of a climate conducive to social progress can we discharge the responsibilities imposed upon us when we entered our profes­sion. In the larger sense, when we accept the emoluments and perqui­sites of that profession, we enlist as servants of society. If we are true to our heritage we must dis­charge our obligations as engi­neers and as citizens and, by our example, show the way for others who cry out for moral leadership in this time of national peril.

Without such dedication to the eternal verities of a free society, the tourist guides of some future generation may well recount, with traditional professional boredom, to their wide-eyed charges the story of how “pyramids” of great cost and no utility, were built by the engineers of the twentieth century!



James Madison

Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own…. That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where the property which a man has in his personal safety and personal liberty, is violated by arbitrary seizures of one class of citizens for the serv­ice of the rest. 

  • Admiral Ben Moreell (1892 – 1978) was the chief of the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks and of the Civil Engineer Corps. Best known to the American public as the Father of the Navy's Seabees, Moreell's life spanned eight decades, two world wars, a great depression and the evolution of the United States as a superpower. He was a distinguished Naval Officer, a brilliant engineer, an industrial giant and articulate national spokesman.