History of Systems Engineering

Engineering is about overcoming challenges. As society, technology, and human life have gotten more complex over time, so too have their challenges. The need for systematic solutions, in which general practices can be replicated for success, has led to modern systems engineering. Let’s see how systems engineering evolved into the discipline it is today.

(Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stone_Tools_from_Skorba.jpg)

Stone tools are some of the earliest examples of engineering. Tools like arrowheads, spearheads and querns were invented to help early humans make food, through hunting animals and grinding grain. Another prehistoric achievement was the control of fire. When they learned to create fire and keep it controlled, early human suddenly had a source of warmth and light, a method for cooking food, and the ability to create more advanced hunting tools. These early innovations set into motion the long history of engineering.

Soon, early humans made two concurrent developments: permanent settlements and agriculture. With plants and animals domesticated, hunting and gathering became less necessary, and so humans could settle down, tame the wild, and cultivate crops. Techniques like irrigation made sedentism viable.

Settlements grew into cities, which then grew into civilizations, and with the civilization, systems engineering emerged. Structures like the Pyramids of Giza, the Ziggurat of Ur, and the Great Wall of China are complex achievements that took first-rate systems thinking to pull off. If you want a good idea of how the Pyramids of Giza were constructed, check out Derek Hitchins’ video that discusses the Great Pyramid of Khufu from a systems engineering perspective.

Cities eventually grew into megacities, e.g., Rome. Systems engineering was a big deal for the Romans – their conception of “architecture” involved not just buildings, but also aqueducts and the overall planning of a cities – and the megacity offered new, more complex challenges to them. One of the best examples of Roman systems engineering is the Pont du Gard in France. Erected in the first century AD, this aqueduct is 31 miles long, snakes through the winding hills of Nîmes, and was built primarily underground. It also crosses the gorge of Gardon, where the Romans built an aqueduct bridge. Estimated to have cost over 30 million sesterces, the Pont du Gard was a significant achievement.

(Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pont_du_Gard_BLS.jpg)

Rigorous planning was required to build this aqueduct. Using tools for sighting and measuring, a surveyor designated the route, while figures were modeled on wax tablets. It has also been speculated that builders may have used templates to get a high degree of precision, such as in carving blocks. The actual construction saw extensive use of cranes, tripods, and pulleys to lift stones into places, and the bridge was supported by a complex scaffold throughout the project. Once the project was finished, the end result was an engineering marvel, which continues to impress to this day.

The Industrial Revolution and the Machine Age saw rapid technological advancements, which meant that the challenges grew even more complex. Transportation systems and large-scale assembly plants required new holistic thinking. All of a sudden, products such as skyscrapers, automobiles, power plants and modern war machines were now possible.

The Cold War was the defining event for systems engineering. The Second World War saw complex challenges (such as the logistics of multinational land, sea, and air forces) that required the best of systems thinking, and these challenges (including those added by the space race) continued into the Cold War. The United States invested heavily in advancing principles and practices for military defense systems. It was at this point that, for the first time in history, people were pondering and theorizing about systems. Operations research and systems engineering were codified, and theories of system behavior were pioneered in cybernetics, system dynamics, general systems theory, and mathematical systems engineering theory. In other words, systems engineering blossomed into its own distinct discipline.

The Systems Age saw four major systems engineering projects: the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, the Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the Big Dig, and ARPANET. Let’s look at each of them separately.

(Source: https://computerhistory.org/blog/gambling-on-whirlwind-how-the-us-navy-spent-3-million-and-got-a-computer-game/photograph-of-jay-forrester-with-whirlwind-staff-and-computer-b/)

The Semi-Automatic Ground Environment’s (SAGE) role in air defense was crucial. As the nucleus for the US and Canada’s automated air defense, SAGE oversaw the protection of North America from Soviet air attacks. Systems engineers had to make sure that the environment’s network of computers could effectively address the challenges of air defense.

SAGE was originally conceived to address challenges like intercepting missiles, handling air traffic, and displaying radar data. The Air Defense Systems Engineering Committee (ADSEC) envisioned a centralized computer system, to which radar data was automatically transmitted, with the hope that tracking planes and controlling weapons could be improved. While criticized for technical shortcomings, SAGE operated for three decades and remains an important landmark in systems engineering.

The Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) was another milestone, in part because during its development, people started to discuss the meaning of the word “system” for the first time. It was also the point where the “Systems Engineering” approach to management was established. Because of this, key challenges were identified early in the planning process. The first operational ICBM, Atlas required long preparation times, which made quick launches unfeasible. However, it was still able to be used for planned space launches and served in that function into the twenty-first century.

Boston’s Big Dig, also known as the Central Arter Central Artery/Third (CA/T) Harbor Tunnel, was more complex than either SAGE or Atlas. Intended to redirect Interstate 93 into a 1.5-mile long tunnel, the project was undoubtedly a massive undertaking. Unfortunately, it left much to be desired. The tunnel had serious design flaws. Water leaks caused damage to steel supports, fireproofing systems, and drainage systems. The materials used for the project failed to meet the contract specifications. And in 2006, the tunnel ceiling collapsed, resulting in a motorist’s death. The Big Dig also ballooned in cost, overrunning at about 190%. The Big Dig therefore serves as an example of systems engineering done poorly.

Last but not least, let’s take a look at the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). ARPANET was made to enable access between remote computers. While using ARPANET, someone could connect to computers at certain universities, RAND, MITRE, and the Department of Defense, as well as satellite information systems. Spawned in part by SAGE, ARPANET made use of TCP/IP protocol suites and packet switching between hosts over a network. It was also a prime example of scalable architecture.

(Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Arpanet_logical_map,_march_1977.png)

ARPANET was a significant achievement for systems engineering. As the first wide area computer network, it laid the foundation upon which the Internet was constructed. TCP/IP protocol suites and packet-switching are still used today. Because of this, the innovations of ARPANET are among the most important in modern technological history.

As with every era, the modern age has seen a new wave of challenges. In the next blog, we’ll dive further into the complexities of systems engineering in the present, as well as the challenges faced by technology in the future.