Victor Paschkis Versus Wernher von Braun: Responsibility in Engineering

Victor Paschkis Versus Wernher von Braun: Responsibility in Engineering

Stephen H. Unger
December 5, 2009

"'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun". So go the lyrics of the Tom Lehrer song [1]. They neatly capture the notion that engineers and applied scientists should confine themselves to solving technical problems assigned to them by organizational superiors. Defining the problems and deciding what should be done with the solutions is not something they should be concerned with.

The eminent rocket scientist Wernher von Braun evidently accepted this philosophy. During World War II he led the development of the V-2 missile that was used by the Nazis against the population of London. (He was, at the time, a Nazis party member and an SS officer [2].) In contrast, Victor Paschkis [3], a distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering, cared very much about where the rockets came down. He championed the idea that engineers and scientists should feel personally responsible for the consequences of their work. As one of those influenced by him, I will briefly sketch some of the ideas and achievements of this very interesting man.

Computer Pioneer

Prior to the development of digital computers, starting during the 1940s, one of the most powerful aids to computation in engineering and in the sciences was the direct analog computer. Victor Paschkis was a principal originator of this technology, in which large networks of resistors and capacitors were used to simulate complex problems, usually in the areas of heat or mass flow [4].

Shortly after coming to the US from Austria, in 1938, Paschkis joined the Mechanical Engineering Department faculty at Columbia University and founded the Heat and Mass Flow Analyzer Laboratory. Over the next three decades, this facility was used in the design of industrial furnaces and other facilities and was a valuable tool for researchers dealing with complex heat and mass flow problems. The technology was eventually extended to include the use of vacuum tubes and electrolytic tanks to enable the simulation of more complex processes.

Science and Conscience

At some point after joining the Society of Friends (Quakers), Paschkis began promulgating the idea that scientists and engineers cannot properly ignore their consciences during working hours. They ought, he argued, behave as moral people with respect to their work [5, 6]. In order to disseminate this viewpoint more widely, he instigated the formation, in 1949, of the Society for Social Responsibility In Science (SSRS) [7]. Prominent SSRS supporters included Albert Einstein and Linus Pauling. It is interesting that, at about the same time, Norbert Wiener expressed similar views about the personal responsibility of scientists and engineers for the consequences of their work. In 1947 Wiener wrote, "I do not expect to publish any future work of mine which may do damage in the hands of irresponsible militarists" [8]. I attended an informal talk he gave on this topic at the MIT Graduate House in 1952. I don't know if he came into contact with Paschkis.

Victor did not operate very much via the printed word; his influence was exerted more thru personal contacts. He and SSRS did not attempt to pressure people, or to lobby, or to gain public attention. They tried to educate individuals on a one-to-one basis or by addressing small groups. While his main focus, driven by his pacifist convictions, was on opposition to the use of technology to facilitate violence, his general position was that engineers and scientists should not use their professional skills for purposes conflicting with their own moral beliefs. So, for example, while engineers who regard hard liquor as basically harmful should not, in his view, help design whiskey distilleries, those who felt that, on balance, there were benign uses of whiskey could engage in such activity as responsible professionals.

In line with this position, altho he considered participation in war and preparation for war to be morally wrong, he did not try to impose his views on members of his laboratory and did not prevent them from working on projects that he considered to be in that category. This attitude reflects the concept that engineering ethics is a subset of general ethics, so that two people both behaving as ethical engineers might, on certain matters, sharply disagree about certain issues outside the framework of engineering. For example, some engineers might feel that anti-missile defense systems might help avert war, while others might consider them as threats to peace. He opposed the argument that the end justifies the means, believing rather that the means shaped the ends.

Paschkis was a principal founder of the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) Technology and Society Division in 1972. At about the same time he also participated in the formation of the Committee for Social Responsibility in Engineering (which subsequently evolved into the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Committee on the Social Implications of Technology, and then the IEEE Society on the Social Implications of Technology [9]). In 1986, Victor Paschkis was the recipient of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility [10].

The idea of personal responsibility for the consequences one's work is, I believe, accepted by most, tho certainly not by all, engineers and scientists. As indicated above, there is plenty of room for disagreement among them about many end-use issues. Unfortunately, while many engineers are willing to stick their necks out on matters of principle [11], they have not, in sufficient numbers, been able to band together to defend their rights to practice ethically. This lack of solidarity leaves them heavily outgunned in conflicts with employers over matters of conscience. The same lack of solidarity has also, incidentally, left them exposed to career damage—often career-ending—as employers export their jobs to low-pay countries, or import people from such countries to work here for less pay [12].


  1. Tom Lehrer, "Wernher von Braun Lyrics", Lyrics Website
  2. , "Wernher von Braun", Wikipedia
  3. Glenn Fowler, "Victor Paschkis, 93, A Retired Professor And Pacifist, Is Dead", NY Times, June 20, 1991
  4. Victor Paschkis, Direct analog computers, New York, Interscience Publishers, 1968
  5. Victor Paschkis, "The Scientist's Responsibility: A Pacifist View", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, V 11, No. 7, Sept., 1955, p. 265
  6. Victor Paschkis, "Social Responsibility", Science 2 December 1960: Vol. 132. no. 3440, pp. 1676 - 1678
  7. "Society for Social Responsibility in Science", Science, December 11, 1953
  8. Norbert Wiener, "A Scientist Rebels," Atlantic Monthly, January, 1947, p. 46
  9. "IEEE SSIT Website"
  10. "AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award, 1986. ", AAAS awards and honors
  11. Stephen H. Unger, "Man Rescues Coast Guard", Ends and Means, July 8, 2007
  12. Stephen H. Unger, "Jobs", Ends and Means, August 4, 2007

Comments can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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