Engineering Circle

Fragments from

The Engineering Circle:

A Disanthropic History

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You stand on a concrete circle; the circle is a concrete locale.

If you were to turn back and look east toward the Wasatch foothills of Utah and the year was 1963, you would see a 112-space parking lot. No Warnock Building would disrupt your view. Federal Way would cut past you, into what is now a pedestrian part of campus, and across the street, the Merrill Building would be half construction site. No bridge would span the road behind you, and the Kennecott Building would still be the Kennecott Research Lab. The network of pedestrian paths that, in the present day, you followed to this spot would still be under construction. The College of Engineering (COE) would only have four departments; it now has seven. The COE would have about 1,200 enrolled students and, like the rest of the University of Utah, would be preparing to grow exponentially in the coming decades.

The word “concrete” derives from the Latin concrētus, past participle of concrēscěre, meaning “to grow together.” Something concrete is the result of a growth, a binding, a gathering. It is a concrescence. At the University of Utah we walk mostly on these hugging and clasping particles, these sheets of anthropic rock. Here at the northern tip of the Mining/Engineering Mall, the circle is a concrete locale insofar as it has been assembled. It is now an actual, existing place, but each element came into existence slowly, laboriously, alone or in pieces.

The sociologist Bruno Latour has written about the construction of scientific facts in laboratories, where an “object” is “achieved through the superimposition of several statements or documents in such a way that all the statements were seen to relate to something outside of, or beyond, the reader’s or author’s subjectivity.” By layering statements, documents, charts, and observations, scientists assemble an independently existing object. The “object” is no less real for having been assembled, but like concrete, it achieves its reality through a gathering. Once the layering has been effected and the fact established, “a statement becomes incorporated in the stock of taken-for-granted features which have silently disappeared from the conscious concerns of daily scientific activity.” Like a fact, this site of the Engineering Circle has gradually been assembled, and once assembled, it disappears from conscious view. Like gravity, or microbes, or entropy, it simply is. “Nothing,” was the reply of one computer science student, who claimed to cross the circle every day, when I asked what she noticed about the place. Something that becomes concrete coheres; when it coheres completely enough, it disappears from view.

One goal of this essay is to bring the lines of force that have constituted this site into view. The circle literally gathers flows of people as they come from the Merrill parking lot, the Kennecott Building, the Warnock’s bottom floor, and south campus, releasing them to their destinations. As a central absence on the Engineering Campus, it is a useful point from which to figuratively gather the flows of people, ideas, materials, words, desires, credentials, plans, and funds that have constituted the College of Engineering. The circle arranges the movement of bodies through space, as I have tried to arrange the human-inhuman history that built the physical and institutional space of the COE.

The construction of a concrete space begins with mining. In 1860 copper deposits were discovered in Bingham Canyon, twenty-eight miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Within seven months of the 1869 Golden Spike ceremony in Promontory, Utah marking the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, the Utah Central Railroad connected Salt Lake City to the transcontinental line, making Utah minerals available to the national and international markets. In 1891 the University of Deseret added a Department of Mines, which was the first nascent institutional bud of what would become the College of Engineering.  Through the collaboration of geological processes, the university’s Mines Department, the railroad, and global mineral markets, Utah became a source of massive “natural” wealth.

A concrescence is also a congregation. The elements that congregate here are bound into a coherent whole. In 1894, two years after the University of Deseret changed its name to the University of Utah, the LDS Church, through its subsidiary The Salt Lake Literary and Scientific Association, endowed the financially struggling university. This endowment included a $60,000 provision for a new chair in Geology, $15,000 for some of the finest scientific equipment in the state, and $45,000 to lease a building, then in use by the LDS College, as a Geology building. They knew the value of education and knew, already, of the value of Utah’s mineral deposits.

These were just the foundations. Now the program in Mining Engineering is a part of the School of Mines and Earth Sciences, but there is a push to remove Mines from the school’s title; only twelve universities in the United States still have Mining Engineering programs. Even if mining has become institutionally precarious, it is central to the history of the University of Utah and its home state. Today, Bingham Canyon Mine, operated by the Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation (a division of Rio Tinto), is the largest human excavation on the planet, a hole in the earth two-and-three-quarters of a mile across the top and three quarters of a mile deep, and providing seven percent of U.S. annual copper output. As the Utah Mining Association asserts, “Utah’s growth from a desert wilderness to a thriving, populous commonwealth is a story of determined men subduing the earth and learning to use its treasures.” Bingham Canyon Mine is a gaping memorial to this legacy, a mark of pride on an industrious state. The mine is an exemplar of Utah’s narrative about itself.

The language of engineering now dwells in the particular, in cartilage mechanics and conductive properties, lithium and carbon fiber, double-threading and friction coefficients, but gazes ahead into a perpetually better future, toward the ever-receding telos of a perfectly efficient and innovated future. Even as it is speaks of material properties, it dreams of the value, the solutions, the innovation, that lies ahead. In kind, my language announces itself, folds back on itself. Language as a building material. Like electricity and water and stone, we live inside and alongside and entangled in language. Jeffrey Cohen writes that, “Language is inhuman, exerting its own resistance, slide, material force.” Language takes cues from the world and shapes the world in turn.

The Engineering Mall becomes of the Mines/Engineering Mall, and that has an effect, even if no one registers it. We could not speak of friction coefficients if objects did not drag against one another, but the words let us take control of friction and build worlds on its back. Language guides us along the paths it has laid out for us, from concrēscěre to concrete to concrescence to congregation. We can yank language, as we grab the world, to redirect it to our own ends, but we do not master language, as language does not master us. When the Wasatch Fault bucks and turns the ground to Jell-O, perhaps this will all look much less durable.

~ Zak Breckenridge (Spring 2018)



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For further reading:

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, “Geophilia, or the Love of Stone.” Continent 4, no. 2 (2015): 13.

Gehmlich, Dietrich K. A History of the College of Engineering: Historical Notes Relating to the Teaching of Engineering at the University of Utah. Salt Lake City, UT: Engineering Department, 2003.

Latour, Bruno. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

“Operation.” Rio Tinto Kennecott.

Utah Mining Association. Utah’s Mining Industry: An Historical, Operational, and Economic Review. Salt Lake City, UT: The Association, 1959.

Photo credit:

Cover of the May 1980 issue of the Communicator (University of Utah Vice President for Administrative Services records, Acc. 545, Box 200. University Archives and Records Management. University of Utah, J. Willard Marriott. Salt Lake City, Utah.