Top 20 engineering achievements of the 20th century

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.

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.