Why Engineers Paint

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

(Image credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

by Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research staff
Photos courtesy of U.S. government

A curious book explores why certain pet cats paint paintings. The book is called Why Cats Paint (Ten Speed Press, 1994, ISBN 0898156122). But there is an even more curious question, which deserves a book of its own: the question of Why Engineers Paint. Engineers, of course, do not paint paintings. They paint everything else.

A Question. An Answer.
Why do engineers paint? Engineers paint because there is paint on hand. Once purchased, the paint would go to waste if not used.

Purchasing agents understand this. It is no simple thing to purchase paint, not if the paint is to be purchased economically and in a timely fashion. And it is no easy thing to purchase paint in a timely fashion if the engineers who ordered the paint have not specified when they need it, or for what. Generally the order comes in written form, the engineers specifying in fastidious detail what kind of paint they need, and how much, and that they need it as soon as possible and in a particular quantity.

(Image credit: U.S. Air Force)

Many a purchasing agent has been able, upon retiring at the age of sixty-five, to look back on a career filled with adventures that sound like tall tales, each one beginning “Let me tell you about the time one of our engineers said, ‘I need some paint...’” Each of these stories is true, and can be backed up with manila folders full of documentation, should anyone be daring enough to ask for proof that the paint was asked for, and ordered, and duly purchased and received and accounted for.

Why, then, do engineers paint? The experts say that you’d need to ask an engineer. Many purchasing agents have tried just that -- have asked an engineer, “Why do engineers paint?”

(Image credit: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The question is a good one. Engineers agree that you cannot appreciate the answer unless you are, or have been, an engineer, or have lived or worked intimately with engineers on a day-by-day basis and seen the world as engineers see it. Why do engineers paint? The answer gets to the heart of what engineers think about when they think about what they do.

Engineers paint because there are buildings, and because those buildings need paint. Engineers paint because there are bridges, and those bridges need paint. Engineers paint because there are cars, and those cars need paint. Engineers paint because they are engineers, and their careful training has taught them that when you have ordered paint, or when you become aware that someone, it does not matter who, has ordered paint, and when the paint has been duly purchased and received and accounted for, then it would be a waste not to use the paint to paint something.

For these and other, similar reasons, engineers paint. And humanity is the better for it.

(Image credit: U.S. Army)


This article is republished with permission from the March-April 2006 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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