Hollywood is rife with engineering stereotypes. Sometimes the depictions of engineers are outright wrong. But other times they’re on point.
I’m going to go over the most common engineering stereotypes Hollywood throws at us. I’ll then discuss how accurate I think each is. You can then form your own conclusion and also get a good laugh.
#1 Instant product or device creation
The countdown to the end of the world begins. All the while, the tech doesn’t exist to save the world from an imminent doomsday. But lo and behold, there’s a brilliant group of engineers standing by who race to the rescue.
They all huddle into a dimly lit backroom filled with random junk. You then hear the banging of tools going to work, with a hammer pounding away. Coffee is also poured endlessly keeping the engineers alert and energized.
Then soon thereafter, the engineers suddenly reemerge with some ready-to-use crazy invention. The entire engineering process didn’t even take a week.
The crazy thing is, these engineers make Elon Musk’s bold timelines look tame.
The reality is, this isn’t even close to the engineering process of new designs. There’s an entire deeply intertwined creative engineering process that first needs to unfold.
The brainstorming stage alone to come up with a design direction can take years. Then, throw in the timetable for the engineering design and development work. So, quickly it becomes clear how ridiculous movie timelines are.
#2 Expert in countless contrasting fields of study
An engineer is one-day solving differential equations on a chalkboard. Then the next thing you know, they’re doing all of the following:
- Playing politician
- Single-handedly designing and developing the tech to combat global warming
- Reverse engineering the biological effects on humans from global warming
To say this story is a stretch is the biggest understatement.
Engineers aren’t anywhere close to this flexible, in their abilities. Mastery of a single engineering subject alone takes MANY years.
You simply don’t have the time to master many diverse subjects at a peak level. Plus, your brain just doesn’t have the processing power to pull this off.
It’s only in movies where a single engineer juggles countless differing responsibilities. Like doing high-level engineering design work, and becoming a global peacemaker to boot.
#3 The one-person show
One engineer does everything from A through Z singlehandedly.
For example, the U.S. President orders the development of a weather fighting device.
So then, an engineer comes up with the design concept and manufactures the device alone. All the while, the engineer doesn’t even once ask for outside help. And frankly, there’s no need. Because engineers are insanely brilliant and they’re a master of all trades…
Hopefully, you caught my sarcasm.
In real life, a single engineer NEVER will do everything. Especially, when we’re talking about developing a high-tech device. Instead, every discipline of work will have its own expert engineer leading the way.
#4 Inventing in the garage
Decades ago, Bill Hewlett and David Packard founded HP in their garage. Ever since then, it has become sexy for Hollywood to show engineering work in garages.
What’s lost in translation are the products Bill and David worked on. Sure, their garage was a research lab and workshop. But their first product was an audio oscillator. NOT a fusion reactor.
Yet, Hollywood shows engineers building all types of advanced tech in their garages. And these garages are by no means state-of-the-art. Rather, they’re plain old vanilla garages found all over suburban America.
What’s more, somehow, inside the garages are millions of dollars of advanced equipment. Plus, let’s not forget about all the following unexplained attributes of the garages:
- High power requirements
- Ventilation considerations
- Cleaning and safety measures
#5 Repairing unfamiliar tech in a jiffy
When you have the ‘engineer’ title, you can instantly repair everything, right? That’s what Hollywood wants you to believe.
It’s always amusing when the government hands an engineer an alien spacecraft. The engineer then does a little head-scratching with curiosity flooding their face. Then next thing you know, the engineer is knee-deep into the spacecraft. They’re taking things apart and playing with all the screens.
All the while, the engineer is carefully puzzling together how everything precisely works. They do this without any documentation or manuals too. So that’s some serious wizardry going on!
In reality, engineers need documents to reverse engineer foreign equipment and devices. Unless you give them years of time to TRY to learn how something works.
On the same token, I’m always amused when people think I can fix everything. Yes, I’m an engineer, but I’m not an expert in taking apart all your home devices and fixing them for you.
#6 Hacking into computers
Many action movies have an engineer staring deeply into a blue screen. And background music intensely blazes on as distressed onlookers stand by in fear. All the while, time ticks down with the fate of the world resting in the fingers of the engineer.
In more detail, the following sequence of events typically play out:
The engineer calmly takes a seat scoping out the data and the lines of code. You then see the cracking of knuckles before the intense hacking begins.
After a few minutes with sweat pouring down the engineer’s face, the job is suddenly complete. You then hear a huge sigh of relief from all the bystanders. The engineer has done the impossible of hacking into the national security system. Incredible, right?!
I actually find this all to be pretty gnarly, given how this all unfolds in a matter of minutes. What’s even more amusing is how the engineer had no prior familiarity with the system. Yet, the system parameters are all somehow magically baked into the engineer’s mind.
In reality, you need to spend months figuring out vulnerabilities in a network. Only then, you can hope to make even a dent in a system.
#7 Zero social skills
Most commonly, engineers have an antisocial personality in movies. They can’t look people straight in the eyes, and they speak like robots. In other words, they’re painfully awkward and strange in appearance.
I see this portrayal often in movies. And I find it to be one of the most potent engineering stereotypes around. It has most definitely shaped the public’s perception of engineers negatively.
In reality, though, many top engineers have great social skills. Because you need to be able to communicate and sell your ideas.
To point out though, there are many great engineers who lack social skills. Because brilliance often has some connection with Asperger’s syndrome.
So there’s some truth to this depiction no doubt. And many introverted engineers do exist. BUT, it’s not a blanket stereotype for all engineers.
#8 Speaking technical gibberish
In movies, you’ll often hear someone tell an engineer to speak in plain English. It’s because the engineer is using all these big words to explain a complex technical subject.
In real life, most engineers have some level of social awareness. Especially great engineers who’ve been around the block. So, they can read their audience and adjust their vocabulary accordingly. As a result, their speaking won’t sound foreign to everyday people.
For example, say they’re speaking with a non-engineer. They’ll strip out the complexities and speak in everyday English. Then, when they speak with other engineers, they’ll ramp up the complexities. And the latter is how they problem-solve to address the hairy technical details.
As the saying goes, if you can’t explain something in simple words, then you don’t understand it. Hollywood seems to forget this tiny little tidbit.
#9 Encyclopedia of facts
Engineers are often walking encyclopedias according to Hollywood.
You ask them anything, and like Rain Man, they spit the answer right back at you. Even detailed technical specs for foreign equipment, they know right off the bat.
What’s more, they know every last detail in every discipline of engineering too. I’m talking about, electrical, mechanical, nuclear, petroleum, and so on and so forth.
I will say though, I have come across some engineers with photographic memories. I’m talking about 10x engineers who I’ve worked with.
If you ask them almost anything, they’ll give you a near-accurate response each and every time. It’s incredibly amazing.
BUT still, they don’t know everything under the sun. Let’s face it, it’s impossible to know everything. There’s just too much to know. Yet, this is one of the engineering stereotypes the public clings on to the hardest.
#10 Ability to instantly retrofit existing designs
We discover an alien piece of technology on Earth.
An engineer then without hesitation sticks the newfound tech in his manmade invention. And forget about the absurdness of the instant reverse engineering of the alien tech.
For example, an engineer installs an alien spacecraft engine into a manmade jet craft. The jet then all of a sudden has 1000x the power and operates without a hitch.
All the while, the other existing jet components aren’t reviewed and retrofitted. Because it’s common sense that all manmade jet parts can handle new alien engine tech…
In reality, reverse engineering foreign equipment without documentation can take years. Then throw in the fact the tech is new to humans. So we probably wouldn’t even understand the underlying physics at work.
And then even forget about retrofitting our existing tech with alien tech. Without a doubt, our tech would be a bottleneck.
Just remember one thing about aliens. I’m talking about any lifeform that has the ability to travel to Earth from another star system. In comparison, our brightest minds would probably be nothing more than apes to them.
Engineering stereotypes in Hollywood movies wrap up
I’m not trying to knock Hollywood movies. Maybe just a little.
Overall, I greatly enjoy the movies even when engineers aren’t accurately portrayed. Heck, many times movie producers paint engineers as genius wizards. So I doubt any real engineer would complain in these instances. Until of course a family member asks them to fix a faucet and they can’t…
The truth is, the stretching of abilities is what makes movies entertaining. Then sprinkle in some stereotypes, and you’ll have a good ol’ time with a bucket of popcorn.
In the end, it’s just amusing to pick apart engineering stereotypes and fallacies. Because engineers in the real world are for the most part nothing like in the movies.
Which engineering stereotypes in movies rub you the wrong way the most (if any)? What’s your favorite movie with an engineer who has a lead role?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.