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Two biography books for engineers

May 1, 2011
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The F-117 Nighthawk, designed by the Lockheed 'Skunkworks'. (Image in public domain from Wikimedia Commons)

I have just finished reading ‘Skunkworks’ by Ben Rich and Leo Janos and it should be one of those books that engineers, students of engineering and those that like technology should read. The book details the secret Lockheed Martin aircraft design branch, set up and run by Kelly Johnson, which became known as the ‘Skunkworks’. Out of this special projects group came the F-104 Starfighter, the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk (also called the stealth fighter), amongst other aircraft.  The book starts out with the development of the Nighthawk which was developed by a team led by Ben Rich, who replaced Kelly Johnson as the head of the Skunkworks.  After telling that story of the stealth fighter development over the first few chapters it goes back in time to when Ben Rich first joined the special projects unit and how he became involved in the development of some of the most advanced military aircraft of the 20th Century. The book is an exciting insight in to how advanced engineering projects can be run.  ‘Skunkworks’ was allowed to be free from the usual corporate bureaucracy and therefore it could move quickly in development. There was also a philosophy of using off-the-shelf parts as much as possible, including engines, so reducing delays from manufacturing new parts that would then need to be continued to be produced.  Although this philosophy was challenged with the development of the Blackbird which was designed to achieve Mach 3 speeds and so needed to be constructed with large amounts of titanium.

Combining details of how the planes were developed, the challenges and uses of the planes, as well as some insight into management styles and how to obtain multimillion dollar contracts make the book extremely interesting. When you read about the uses of the U-2 in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the shooting down of Gary Powers, and the use of the F-117 in Iraq you can see these aircraft had influencial and important roles in the the Cold War period and beyond. It was also interesting to read about the irony of how a relatively obscure Russian paper on electromagnetic theory  lead a young mathematician at the Skunkworks to propose how they could devise an aircraft that was almost invisible to radar.

Check out your library or bookstore to find a copy of ‘Skunkworks’ and read about engineering at its best.  To illustrate the performance of the U-2 here is a video from the BBC where presenter James May gets a flight in the two seater version of the U-2.  You can see how the U-2 could fly so high it was out of range of fighter jets and missiles (although there is a report of an English Electric Lightning F3 intercepting one at 88,000ft during a NATO excercise in 1984).

Onto the second engineering biography book to read.  This is ‘iWoz’ by Steve Wozniak and Gina Smith, which I read a year or two ago and should have written about sooner.  This is the story of Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and the real technical brains behind the development of the first Apple computers, including the massively successful Apple II.  This is a very personal account, and more like a traditional autobiography than ‘Skunkworks’, but there are some interesting insight into how ‘the Woz’ come come up with the design for computers that effectively started the microcomputer revolution. It is fascinating to read how in high school he collected minicomputer manuals and with the help of catalogues and datasheets of newer components he would redesign the circuitry of those computers to use fewer components. Also interesting is his interest in using components in more than one way on the same board.  Here you can see the real engineering genius coming through. Below is a short clip of Wozniak talking about the ‘economy’ of the design of the Apple II at book signing event for ‘iWoz’.

Summer is not far away so chase down one or both of these books for your Summer vacation.  Lots of engineering inspiration is contained within the both books.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Elwood Downey, WB0OEW permalink
    June 8, 2011 11:51 pm

    Picked up Skunkworks on your recommendation. Enjoyed it greatly, thanks much.

    • va3stl permalink*
      June 9, 2011 5:16 am


      Good to hear you enjoyed it too.
      Quite amazing to read about how those engineering achievements were made.


  2. AA7EE permalink
    July 6, 2011 5:37 pm

    The James May video was absolutely brilliant. Thank you!

    • va3stl permalink*
      July 6, 2011 6:21 pm

      Glad you liked it Dave.


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