“The majority of the top 20 achievements would not have been possible without electricity. Electrification changed the country’s economic development and gave rural populations the same opportunities and amenities as people in the cities. It provides the power for small appliances in the home, for computers in control rooms that route power and telecommunications, and for the machinery that produces capital goods and consumer products. If anything shines as an example of how engineering has changed the world during the twentieth century, it is clearly the power that we use in our homes and businesses.
So, there you have it, the top 20. My descriptions have been sometimes trite, and it’s likely that I missed some of the most important societal contributions from the nominees. And, without question, I did not even mention the work from those nominations that did not make the top 20 list, yet in many cases were of enormous importance to certain sectors of society or certain parts of the world. And in all honestly, I am guilty of a bit of subterfuge. Certainly the nominations were worthy and the committee was honest and diligent in evaluating them. And certainly you have been given their well-reasoned conclusions. The subterfuge is that my purpose was not to promote the competitive nature of the event, or to congratulate the winner, or to convince you that electrification was the most important technical activity of this past century. All of you have your own opinions on the importance of various technical developments to our society. What I really hoped to do was shamelessly use this occasion to remind you of the breadth, and the depth, and the importance of engineering as a whole to human existence, human progress, and human happiness.
There are perhaps, even more far-reaching consequences of this exercise. The likelihood of today marking the end of creative engineering is nil. The future is a bit foggy, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the twenty-first century will enjoy a rate of progress not unlike the twentieth. And a century hence, 2000 may be viewed as quite a primitive period in human history. It’s something to hope for.
For three decades I have enjoyed the work and friendship of Arthur Clarke, a prolific science and science fiction writer, who back in 1945 first suggested the possibility of the communications satellite. In addition to writing some wonderful books, he has also proposed a few memorable laws. Clarke’s third law seems particularly apt today: Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Truly, it has been a magical century.
About the Author: Neil Armstrong, NAE, is a former astronaut and chairman of AIL Technologies. This article is an edited version of his remarks delivered at the National Press Club, 22 February 2000.