Michael Bloomberg

One2Ten - Closet Engineers

E&T looks at the influence of engineering and technology on the lives of ten high-profile people who became celebrated for something completely different

1. Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg financial information company and the current Mayor of New York, graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins. He then took an MBA at Harvard and became a banker at Salomon Brothers.

For his first 10 years, he lived in a one-room studio apartment, working 12-hour days. He became head of equities trading, then head of systems development.

In 1981, he was fired by Salomon Brothers after a merger. He used his $10m severance pay to start a financial information company, which later became Bloomberg. He favoured open workspaces and open minds. He sold price and data feeds, a newswire and a magazine. He was, before the World Wide Web, an electronic publisher, and became a billionaire by using computers and networks to distribute information to banks and investors.

Though he made his fortune from digital information, he believes that computers should not be allowed in classrooms until after elementary school (about age 14).

Tenth-richest person in the US, with a net worth of $18bn, he takes a salary of just $1 a year for his job as Mayor.

2. Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer, who became US President.

He graduated from Stanford in 1895 with a Bachelor of Science degree in geology. He joined British-owned mining company Bewick, Moreing & Co, which sent him to Australia, where he became manager of a gold mine and, in 1901, was made partner.

In 1905, he found a way of using the froth flotation method to extract zinc from waste ore. He then founded the Zinc Corporation, which later became part of Rio Tinto Zinc.

In the mid and late 1920s, he was US Commerce Secretary, closely involved with many infrastructure projects. He became President in 1929.

Engineering influenced Hoover's political ideas, but unfortunately proved utterly ineffective in dealing with the economic effects of Wall Street Crash of 1929, and some historians think he accelerated the onset of the Great Depression. He encouraged volunteer efforts, but took no government action to stimulate the economy.

3. Lech Walesa

Former Polish President, co-founder of Solidarnosc, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Lech Walesa trained and worked as an electrician.

He entered military service, becoming a corporal, and worked at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk. He became a trade union activist, but as unions and strikes were at that time illegal in Poland he was arrested several times by the communist authorities. His home was bugged and he was fired from several jobs.

In 1983, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he was looking for work as an electrician at the Gdansk shipyard. He did not travel to Sweden to collect his Nobel as he feared the Polish authorities would never allow him back into the country.

In 1990 he was the first democratically elected President of Poland and led it from a communist to a post-communist state.

Walesa has a fascination with technology. He has assembled several computers and likes using smartphones, palmtops and laptops. He is a registered user of the Polish instant-messaging service Gadu-Gadu, which has given him the special user number of '1980', the year he became chair of Solidarnosc. He is also a registered user of Skype, with the handle lwprezydent2006.

4. Mikhail Botvinnik

Russian grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik was three-time World Chess Champion, but he also worked as an electrical engineer. Born in St Petersburg in 1911, as a schoolboy he passed the entrance exam to study Electrical Technology at the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute.

This course was very popular, and the authorities had a policy of admitting only children of engineers and industrial workers. But his parents were dentists and Jewish. After the intercession of the manager of his chess team, he gained admittance and graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering.

One of the greatest chess players ever, his games are notable for their logic and appreciation of structure. He was important to the Soviet Union as the communist state's first world chess champion and enjoyed the support of Stalin. He held the title for 15 years from 1948.

He continued his work in engineering, and, though a talented engineer, his innovative projects were not always successful. He tried to design what would have been the world's first chess-playing computer, but his algorithm was too 'human' and the first chess software, which came much later, used instead a 'brute force' method that relied on the processor's calculating speed.

He was a lifelong communist, and in later life tried to develop a computer programme to manage the Soviet economy, but the authorities did not adopt his ideas.

There are a few chess player engineers, including Milan Vidmar (1885-1962), who was a founder of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering at the University of Ljubljana.

5. Ludwig Wittgenstein

The most influential philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein studied engineering before he studied philosophy.

Born in 1889 into one of the wealthiest families in the Austro-Hungarian empire, he went to Berlin in 1906 to study mechanical engineering at the Technische Hochschule.

He then travelled to England in 1908 to study for a doctorate at the department of engineering at Manchester University, where he researched aircraft engines. He studied the behaviour of kites in the upper atmosphere and conducted experiments at the meteorological observatory at Glossop, near Manchester.

He became interested in the foundations of mathematics and read Bertrand Russell's 'The Principles of Mathematics', which had been published a few years before and which tries to unite mathematics with logic. Wittgenstein then went to Cambridge and studied under Russell. He took to following Russell after lectures to talk more philosophy, and at first Russell thought he was a crank. Later, he decided Wittgenstein was a genius.

6. Alexander Calder

Artist Alexander Calder became famous for his 'mobiles' – kinetic abstract sculptures. But, trained as a mechanical engineer, he was also skilled at mathematics.

He received a degree from Stevens Institute of Technology, New Jersey, in 1919 and had several engineering jobs, including working on a ship. The nature he saw while travelling stimulated his imagination, and he eventually decided to become an artist, studying in New York and then moving to Paris.

Engineering influenced Calder not only in his ability to sculpt metal, but also in his aesthetics. He said: 'How can art be realised? Out of volumes, motion, spaces bounded by the great space, the universe. Out of different masses, tight, heavy, middling – indicated by variations of size or colour – directional line – vectors which represent speeds, velocities, accelerations, forces...'

7. Rowan Atkinson

Comedian Rowan Atkinson, born in 1955, took a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Newcastle University. He then took an MSc in Engineering Science at The Queen's College Oxford in 1975. At Oxford, he met future screenwriter Richard Curtis, and began writing and performing comedy.

After he found fame in the 'Not the Nine O'Clock News' comedy series on the BBC, he is said to have still listed his profession in his passport as 'engineer'.

His net wealth is estimated at £100m. He has a passion for cars and trucking, and has written for motoring magazines. He got a category C+E lorry driving licence to ensure work as a struggling young actor.

His acting is highly physical, recalling Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Is Mr Bean what many people think engineers are like?

8. James Joule

James Joule, born in 1818, is best known for giving his name to the standard unit of energy, the Joule. But for much of his life he was regarded by the scientific establishment as merely a brewer.

He was born in 1818 in Salford, Lancashire. As a teenager he studied under John Dalton, who laid the foundations of modern atomic theory. He was also fascinated by electricity.

He managed the family brewery and contributed papers to the Annals of Electricity. He developed new theories of heat and experimented on the conversion of work to heat, but his theories were not initially accepted. They depended on measurements which, for their time, were extraordinarily precise.

The accuracy, with which he claimed to be able to measure temperature to within 1/200th of a degree Fahrenheit, was greeted with scepticism. His skill may have been assisted by the importance of sensitive measurements of temperature in brewing. Eventually, his work was accepted by Lord Kelvin.

Joule's devotion to science led to his neglecting his brewing business, leading to its closure in 1878. However, he was able to continue his scientific work thanks to a civil list pension of £200 per annum.

His gravestone is inscribed with '772.55', his measurement of the mechanical equivalent of heat, the energy required to raise a pound weight, by 1ft in height, represented in British Thermal Units.

9. Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1452, is one of the most famous artists of all time, painter of the Mona Lisa. But he was also a military engineer.

Forced to flee Milan in 1499 after the invasion of the French and the fall of the Duke, he found employment in Venice as a military engineer and devised mobile barricades to defend the city from attack.

His notebooks are filled with drawings for a variety of mechanical inventions, including hydraulic pumps, crank mechanisms, steam cannons, mortar shells, tanks, submarines, a hang glider and a mechanical helicopter. He was also a skilled architect, anatomist and mathematician.

10. Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C Clarke (1917-2008) is best known as a science-fiction writer, especially for the novel '2001: A Space Odyssey'. He was, however, also a talented engineer. During the Second World War he served in the RAF as a radar technician, working on a blind landing system.

In 1949 to 1950, before becoming a full-time book writer, he worked at the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), now the IET, as assistant editor of the journal Physics Abstracts, which later became the INSPEC database.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them