Going from erector sets to chemical plants and beyond

By Mark Rosenzweig

Sure, you can find almost anything on the Internet. “Google” a word or two and more often than not you’ll see a listing of a massive number of web pages, often including some pretty surprising ones. A search for “chemical engineer + career” leads to 1,860,000 entries from Google. Suffice it to say, I did not check out the entire roster.

Almost all of the citations given first point to web pages that describe in general terms what a chemical engineer learns and does and typical career paths. This is pretty dry stuff and not compelling reading for those of us already well along in our careers.

However, the Web also contains at least one site that should appeal to many chemical engineers, particularly those working in industry: www.benjaminhorwitz.com. This is the personal site of an experienced chemical engineer named, not surprisingly, Benjamin Horwitz.

I have dealt with literally thousands of chemical engineers over the years, ranging from the most exalted figures in industry and academia to tired veterans toiling inconspicuously and inauspiciously at dilapidated sites to new graduates brimming with tremendous enthusiasm to make their mark in the field. Among all these engineers, Ben holds a special place.

I have known Ben literally for decades. I have edited most of the technical articles that he has written. These articles combine engineering insights with a bit of humor, which, unfortunately, is all too unusual. (He now has decided to focus his writing efforts in areas other than technology and, for instance, has written a number of plays and books.) He also doesn’t steer clear of controversy. For instance, he has railed for years against what is happening in academia. He bluntly asserts that most professors don’t have a clue about the real world of chemical engineering and, so, ill-serve their students bound for industry. Working as an adjunct professor at Cleveland State University and Case-Western Reserve certainly did not change his view.

Ben has had an interesting career, starting at an old Standard Oil of Ohio plant, serving a stint in the Peace Corps in Bhopal, India (well before the chemical-plant disaster there), then joining the H.K. Ferguson Co., a moderate-size engineering firm, rising to manager of the process group there, and, for the last 13 years, doing consulting.

This year Ben turned 60, and, full of introspection from reaching that milestone, he finished writing a book about what led him into chemical engineering and the adventures that he has had as a chemical engineer. Titled “Portrait of a Chemical Engineer (As a Young Man Growing Older)”, with the subtitle “From Gilbert Chemistry and Erector Sets to Bhopal and Beyond,” the 272-page opus is now available free on his Web site. Already, almost 100 people have downloaded the file, he says.

What makes the book particularly enjoyable to me is how it puts chemical engineering on a truly personal level. Ben focuses on the people and events that have shaped his life and provides lots of colorful detail, sometimes humorous and sometimes poignant but always engaging. I don’t want to give away anything, so let me just say that he has worked with some interesting characters over the years and honed his engineering skills the hands-on way.

So, if you are looking for some summer reading that really puts a human face on chemical engineering, this is the book for you.

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