Distinguished Member David P. Billington, who inspired generations of engineers by championing artistic expression under the practical constraints of engineering, has died at 90.
An emeritus professor of engineering at Princeton University, Billington, P.E., Dist.M.ASCE, NAE, merged a historian’s breadth of knowledge with an engineer’s disciplined focus. His 10 books and scores of journal articles explored the works of builders and innovators with a particular focus on bridges and thin, graceful structures.
“He asked big questions about engineering, how it fit into society and how it changed the world,” said Michael Littman, Ph.D., a longtime colleague who now teaches Billington’s course Engineering in the Modern World at Princeton. “I thought it was a perspective … usually absent from most engineering education.”
A Life Member of ASCE, Billington joined the Society in 1954. Six years later he joined the Princeton faculty. In a 2003 interview, he recalled how early in his teaching career, bored students asked him if they could “study something beautiful.” They showed him photos of bridges that swept ribbonlike across gorges in Switzerland.
Billington was fascinated, and began a seminal study of the work of Swiss engineer Robert Maillart. Thus also began a lifelong effort toward recognition and appreciation of engineering as an artistic as well as a technical discipline.
He adopted an approach inspired by art historians, building lectures around the works of individual designers with a clear understanding of the context of their development. The force of his arguments and breadth of his cultural references – spiced with a joking wit – had his students spellbound. It’s said that to this day, about one in five Princeton students attends either Engineering in the Modern World or another course he introduced, Structures in the Urban Environment, during their time at the university.
Billington moved to emeritus status in 2010. He was named one of the top five educators in civil engineering since 1874 by Engineering News Record in 1999. In 2003, he received the National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars. Besides ASCE, he was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.