Appreciating Engineers

Appreciating Engineers

Great Falls resident writes about the history of engineering in Washington D.C.

Six years ago, Vincent Lee-Thorp went to the United States Library of Congress to see what kind of information they had on the history of engineering. He was stunned at what he found.

"Nothing — absolutely nothing," said Lee-Thorp, who lives in Great Falls. "They did not have anything at all on the history of engineering."

So Lee-Thorp did what any retired engineer would do — he decided to remedy the situation. He spent the next three years putting together a 500-page manuscript on the history of engineering. He sent the completed work to his writer-editor daughter in California, who in turn passed it on to a well-known editor named Mark Levine. When the manuscript was returned to Lee-Thorp, notes and comments were written in red on every single page.

"He had written things such as 'wow!' and 'no, no, no — publishers don't like things like this,'" said Lee-Thorp. "He told me that the bottom line was that I could publish it, but it was too technical."

That was when Lee-Thorp decided to change the angle of his book. Rather than writing a book for engineers, he aimed to write a book for "anybody who wants to know anything about engineering."

"Most engineers don't even know what engineering is about," said Lee-Thorp.

It took him another three years to complete the re-work of his manuscript, but Lee-Thorp said it was well worth the effort. The completed product is "Washington Engineered" which was recently put out by Noble House publishers.

"I LEARNED a tremendous amount, an unbelievable amount," said Lee-Thorp. "It was really a wonderful experience."

Lee-Thorp was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, but moved to the United States in 1951 when he was hired to work as an engineer for General Electric. Lee-Thorp said he never really thought about the fact that he was going to become an engineer, he simply pursued that career path because his father had been an engineer.

"It came time to register for university and he drove me up to the school to register, and when he dropped me off he said 'you'll take the bus home right?' and I said yes, got out of the car and walked straight to the engineering school," said Lee-Thorp. "I often wonder what would have happened if I had walked to the medical school."

Lee-Thorp worked as a mechanical and electrical engineer in Washington, D.C. for 45 years, during which time his consulting firms successfully completed more than 2,000 projects. He and his firms worked on projects in the White House, the Washington Monument, the Capitol building, the departments of Agriculture, State, Labor and Commerce and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

During one of those projects, Lee-Thorp designed an infrared system to monitor the condition of valuable artwork hanging in the Rotunda. The fact that engineers provide this kind of undercover service to society is what Lee-Thorp wants to share with his readers. In his introduction, Lee-Thorp discusses the fact that humans enjoy the conveniences of engineering — airplanes, cars, electricity, etc. — on a daily basis, but never give much thought to how lucky they are to have them.

"I hope a lot of people are going to pick this book up and get that feeling of appreciation," said Lee-Thorp. "It will broaden their whole appreciation for life."

"Washington Engineered" tells the story of engineering in Washington, D.C. from 1740 to 2000. In it, Lee-Thorp examines how important inventions such as telephones, electricity, bridges and public transportation have changed everyday life in the city. He also looks at why people were willing to leave their homes to move to the new and uncharted territory that was the United States.

"Why did it happen?" said Lee-Thorp. "I came to the conclusion that it was a result of the industrial revolution… people were living longer because of medical advancements, food quality was better because of technology — all of these things are the reason why we are here. We're not here because some developer decided to start the city of Washington."

Lee-Thorp is not sure if he will write another book. He said he will wait and see how his first attempt is received — if it is a success, he is not afraid to tackle other subjects that interest him.

"I love to struggle," said Lee-Thorp.