In the 11th century, the Emerald Isle was full of Celtic harps. Called cláirseach in Gaelic, a Celtic harp was a stunningly beautiful handcrafted instrument gracefully carved from a hard type of wood, like maple, and strung with brass metal strings.
The sound it produced was a bright, resonant, ringing collection of notes requiring prodigious skill to coax from the instrument with just the player’s fingernails. The Celtic harp was Ireland’s soul, its voice, the baseline around which stories were woven and myths were crafted. Ancient Irish Celts believed the instrument had the power to literally enchant its listeners.
Until the Celtic harp disappeared.
About 200 years ago, the Celtic harp died out. No one made them. No one heard them. The music that had only been passed from harpist to harpist, the stories that had only been told from mouth to ear for a century, vanished in the wake of a smaller, gut-stringed harp, and newer instruments like the fiddle. More than 1,000 years of music and history were lost, apparently forever.
Until, in the 1970s, an aerospace engineer named Jay Witcher decided that wasn’t good enough.
Traveling through Ireland, Witcher came across a collection of ancient Celtic harps, far too fragile to play. Enchanted by these moldering instruments, Witcher drew upon his years of engineering experience and decided to make his own. He took extensive, minute measurements of every single piece of the harps, traveled back to his home in Maine, and got to work.
Suddenly, a vibrant, lilting, resonant sound that had not been heard for two centuries existed again, thanks to one engineer who decided to reach back in time and bring a vital, beloved piece of Irish history back into being. A cherished skill — harp building — that had once been done by hand, Witcher completed with engineering.
Re-Engineering the Lost Sound of a Nation
Jay Witcher is the perfect example of the myriad applications of an engineering degree. Like what happened to the Celtic harp, gone are the days when engineering means being stuck in a lab or behind a computer. With a degree in engineering, the career paths available are, quite literally, endless.
Engineering encompasses all the letters of STEM simultaneously. It combines essential 21st century skills like project planning, critical thinking, and problem solving with math, science, and technology to design and then create the entirety of our human-made world. Everything from bridges to airplanes to chairs to smart phones to yes, musical instruments, are conceptualized and brought into being by engineers.
What if Jay Witcher hadn’t studied aerospace engineering? The Celtic harp may never have been heard again. He would have walked into that room, seen the relics of a faded piece of Irish history, perhaps sighed wistfully, and left. Instead, engineering allowed him to dream, measure, create, and ultimately lift a veil into the past.
Taking Action and Changing the Story
Perhaps you or your child thinks engineering is just for those right-brained people who can find the square root of any number in their head. Perhaps the word “engineer” conjures those images of stuffy rooms with low lighting and too many cups of coffee. Perhaps your child shudders when asked to construct a bridge out of popsicle sticks.
It’s time for a new approach.
Tell your child a story. Tell them the story of how an ancient musical instrument that captivated an entire country was all but lost until an engineer saw those neglected yet cherished Celtic harps and decide to save them. Tell them the story, play them the music, and watch how their faces light up when they realize “engineer” is not a limiting label — it’s the space between the strings where the notes linger, singing.