Structures, water, computers, languages and people (not necessarily in this order)

Hardy Cross and the sin of arrogance

Once a student named Alford told [Professor Hardy] Cross that he thought one of the problem solutions in their text was wrong. Cross paced back and forth, staring hard at the student, and pointing at him fiercely. "Can you, a graduate student, actually have the temerity to accuse the internationally known engineer who wrote this book of making a mistake? Can you really believe that the publishers would allow such an alleged error to be printed? Can you show us the error?".

Alford seemed unable to answer.

Still pacing, Cross said, "Can anyone help Mr. Alford? Do any of you see a mistake in problem four?"

The class was silent.

"Well, Mr. Alford," Cross said sternly, "would you care to retract your accusation?"

"It's just that I can't..."

"Speak up!" Cross thundered.

"I still believe it's wrong!" Alford shouted, his face red with embarrassment.

"Then kindly come to the board and prove it to us," Cross taunted. "We shall be pleased to see the proof of your unfounded allegation."

Alford labored at the board without success for the rest of the period.

Cross began his next lecture by saying, "In our last meeting Mr. Alford raised a serious and unfounded charge against the author of our text." Staring at Alford, he said, "Have you reconsidered your accusation?"

"No, sir," Alford replied. "I still believe he is wrong."

"To the board, then. We still await your proof."

Alford's labors were again unsuccessful.

The third time the class met, Cross said, "Mr. Alford, are you ready to withdraw your ill- considered accusation about problem four?"

Moments later Alford was at the board. Within a few minutes he managed to show the solution to the problem in the book was incorrect, and he returned to his seat. Cross's pleasure was evident from his expression. 

"You must always have the courage of your convictions," he said. "Mr. Alford does; apparently the rest of you do not, or you are not yet sufficiently well educated to realize that authority — the authority of a reputation or the authority of a printed page — means very little. All of you should hope to someday develop as much insight and persistence as Mr. Alford."

Reference: Kingery, A., Berg, R. D., & Schillinger, E. H. (1967). Men and ideas in engineering: Twelve histories from Illinois. College of Engineering, University of Illinois.

Picture: Civil engineering lecture at University of Illinois.

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