Engineering Art from 1928

Yesterday I received a set of large drawings from my cousin that were executed by our great grandfather in 1928. He was an engineer, and these are designs for a sewage plant in Florida, drawn in colored inks on paper-covered canvas. They must be seen in person to be fully appreciated, but I’ve included the photo above so you can get an idea what they look like.

Having viewed little graphic work of this sort from that era, I don’t know whether it’s typical of the times, or whether this was exceptional. I do know that I’ve never seen any comparable contemporary work that comes anywhere close to these in visual impact. This man was clearly an artist, as well as an engineer, and he must have been exceptionally dedicated to his work, since these certainly took months and extreme patience to complete.

Viewing these drawings, I find myself comparing the manual process that brought them into being with the process employed currently by draftsmen and engineers, inevitably involving computers. Obviously our way of doing things now is quicker and possibly easier. I say “possibly,” because the overhead expense and labor involved in maintaining computer systems, and keeping workers up to date on software changes, has a way of at least partially canceling out supposed advances in efficiency.

Beyond the consideration of overhead expenses, when I compare the process that begot these 1928 graphics  with the current graphic processes, both of which I’ve had personal experience with, I become acutely aware of what we’re losing and have already lost as we replace manual and mental skills with computer expertise. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be making such changes, but I do believe we should be thinking carefully about what exactly is being lost, asking ourselves whether we’re OK with losing it, and, if not, how we can preserve at least some of the traditional qualities of mind and talent that brought these manually generated drawings into existence.

We’re planning a gallery show whose theme will be the presentation of information. These drawings of my great-grandfather’s will be included in the show. No doubt we will include provocative material comparing traditional methods of production with current ones. Check back with us later for more specifics.

Kevin Jones