21 responses to “Engineering Celebrities”

  1. AS

    Well, there is Widlar, Williams, and Pease… but they’ll be engineering no more on this mortal plane. (I’d link the lovely picture that sums up Mr. Widlar but I’m not sure how… If you’d like to see it head over to the Amp-Hour blog).

    Burt Rutan is a good one to list. But he’s not quite in the thick of it as much any more.

    I’d also list Howard Johnson as the current dark sorcerer of high-speed digital.

  2. Wesley

    Citing Steve Jobs as an engineer is not just a stretch, but a pretty huge stretch. Steve Wozniak, sure – he was arguably one of the best half-dozen computer engineers of his generation. Jobs wasn’t really even an engineer at all.

    A famous engineer today that a lot of people might know (so long as they’re interested in science or science news in any way) would be Elon Musk, even if he never formally trained as an engineer (physics is close enough!). His achievements are fairly noteworthy: Ebay co-founder (via merger), Tesla (head of product design), and SpaceX (CEO and CTO).

    If you’re looking for famous engineers from history, I would choose Watt and Edison over Hewlett or Packard. da Vinci, Alexander Graham Bell, Bombardier, Seymour Cray, Sir Stanford Fleming (maybe only in Canada!), Eli Whitney, Michael Faraday (arguably both scientist and engineer), Brunel, Kalashnikov and the Wright brothers are others that come to mind.

    I’m not arguing your point that people on the street don’t know current ‘superstar’ engineers. It’s pretty rare for people on the street to know *any* ‘superstars’ who aren’t pop media stars, politicians, or athletes. I’m a scientist, and I can’t even name more than two Nobel laureates from the last five years without looking them up. And aside from people near the end of their careers (or dead) who started as engineers in the tech industry, I can’t name many at all.

  3. Chris Gammell

    I am a big fan of Dean Kamen because of his work with FIRST. I think we’ll see many more kids recognizing the name as they come through that program, which I love.

    The tough part is not asking engineers to name engineers. If they can’t do that, they’re not paying attention. It’s the public and people that they know are engineers. Someone who defines themselves as an engineer first and a ‘whatever’ second. I think in modern day science field we see that in someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I think engineering needs someone like that as well. The problem is that as you move up in the ranks–either the public eye’s ranks or in a corporate structure–you’re less and less likely to define yourself as an engineer.

  4. Dave Jones

    Like it or not, the general public don’t give a toss about engineers or engineering, and as much as I’d hate to say it, likely never will.
    For an engineer to actually become publicly famous is possible, but it will almost certainly be for the something other than actual engineering they have done.
    For instance, Bill & Dave might be noteable, but not because of their engineering, but because of the huge company they created, which then eventually went into mainstream stuff like computer equipment which got them noticed by the general public. No one in the public knows then for engineering. Likewise with the Woz, he’s “just the guy that co-founded apple” according to Joe Public.

    Closest I can think of off-hand are the Mythbusters. Famous for doing actual engineering type stuff on a daily basis, even though people wouldn’t actually use the term engineering when it comes to them, more likely the term science would be used.
    They are so famous in fact that Obama was on their show and asked them to bust a myth. The only greater height of fame in the US in Oprah right? :->

    You pretty have to be on mainstream TV consistently these days to gain that famous tag.

    And can you continue to be famous in the eyes of Joe Public by doing actual engineering? That’s a tough gig indeed, unless it’s fun stuff like mythbusters. Because once again, like it or not, engineering work is not the least bit exciting to Joe Public.

    I just asked the wife to name a famous engineer and she wasn’t able too.


  5. Robin Debreuil


  6. Tobias F

    Famous historical Engineers include all engineer who have something common named after them:
    Nicolaus Otto,Rudolf Diesel,Werner von Siemens.

    There are also people who often get school, streets and so on named after them, or who are local celebrities in their home town. You would expect most people from those areas to know them.
    For Example: Oscar von Miller, Konrad Zuse, Sakichi Toyota, Lothar Rohde.

    I can’t think of a current engineer I would expect a lot of people to know.

  7. pt

    i work with limor fried so of course i am going mention her, she was the first female engineer on the cover of WIRED magazine, she won an EFF pioneer award for her work in open-source hardware, she’s an EE from MIT and runs a successful electronics business in NYC. she’s an engineer’s engineer.

    dean kamen has said “we are what we celebrate”. in the pages of MAKE and at maker faires you can see this happens, but we all have a lot of work to do.

    there are tons of engineers out there, they’re usually just overlooked, or simply too busy doing engineering 🙂

  8. Eric

    Here’s an interesting list: http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Stu/hnaseer/interest.htm

    My favorite on that list is Rowan Atkinson.

    1. Cherish The Scientist

      I adore Rowan Atkinson. 😀

  9. UnabashedNerd

    The last true super-star, household name engineer I can think of is Wernher von Braun.

    However, most of the names mentioned so far are either scientists, or owners/founders and de facto spokesmen for their own companies. Both of those groups have direct incentive to be well known, either to get funding or to sell their product.

    How many engineers have an incentive to invest all the time and money required to build a “brand” presence across the country or world? Very, very few. It is amazing how widespread the effects of someone’s invention/design can be, and how unknown the engineer. I’m going to strech the definition of engineer a bit here for the best example I know:
    Norman Borlaug. He’s credited with saving a BILLION lives, and is yet a name no one recognizes. The American news cycle doesn’t consider improvements in quality of life and food security for a significant portion of Asia, Africa and South America to be worth reporting, partly because it happens slowly and gradually, and partly because it doesn’t effect the news cycle’s target market.

    1. Katie

      Haha! My first degree was from Texas A&M and my major (biochemistry) fell under the Agricultural College so we learned quite a bit about Borlaug. I even had many classes in the building named after him 🙂

  10. Carmen Parisi

    There’s a few other “analog rock stars” still going strong today, Barrie Gilbert over at ADI and Bonnie Baker (TI maybe?). Of course they’re only well known within engineering circles rather than to the public at large. I agree with Dave’s point above for the most part, the famous engineers listed are only known because of the companies they started as opposed to their work as engineers (Also what’s Dave doing reading a site Chris is on? I thought he didn’t do things like that.).

  11. Jed Sutherland

    Joseph Bazalgette
    From Wikipedia:
    “In 1858, the year of the Great Stink, Parliament passed an enabling act, in spite of the colossal expense of the project, and Bazalgette’s proposals to revolutionise London’s sewerage system began to be implemented. The expectation was that enclosed sewers would eliminate the stink (‘miasma’), and that this would then reduce the incidence of cholera.”

    And so it was. Not glamourous, not sexy, not cool. Truly a Son of Martha.

  12. Moiety

    Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be pretty well known in the British Isles. Engineers tend not to be noted as their inventions usually encompasse large projects which leadcs to anominity. Exceptions who have made individual projects or product families like Dyson and Ferguson (tractors) were not necessarily engineers.

  13. Pramod

    Zuckerberg is a tech visionary now? For a building a silly photo-sharing site?

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  15. JG

    Re: Myth Busters. Only one on the entire show is actually a degree-holding engineer: [Grant Imihara](http://uscnews.usc.edu/science_technology/hit_and_myths.html)

  16. Mikeinthedirt

    I can’t (can) believe that Buckminster Fuller does not appear here. Then again, he consciously eschewed self-promotion, rightly recognizing that the time could be much better spent.

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  18. Erika Watson

    I’m a college student who believes that without the great engineers of past and future history the shape of our world would be much different. Mostly good with lots of bad mixed in.
    As part of one of my engineering projects in a class I need to interview a prominent engineer.
    I would like to try and contact Norman Borlaug for this project.
    I’m at the tail end of dual degree engineering and sustainable energy and would be interested in the work that he has done.
    He sounds like a great man and would love to talk to him of ways that I could have as profound affect to the betterment of the worlds overall well being.