A student from 50 years ago: paper aeroplane races and drafting machine disasters

Alumnus Sangiovanni Vincentelli, now an IT guru, tells us about the time when his career came all too close to sinking in a drop of oil

One of the most authoritative experts in systems and integrated circuit design, not to mention an international pioneer in computing, had his start at the Politecnico di Milano. His career kicked off with a trauma at the drawing board. Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli - an alumnus of Electronic Engineering who graduated in 1971 - celebrates 50 years since his graduation this year and tells us how it all began...

I think I must be the only person who graduated with honours who had to resit two exams: Drawing 1 and Drawing 2.

I was a real mess: I had got to the point that for the drawings they gave us to do at home, I enlisted my mother’s help. She was an artist and I still remember her - now I look back and laugh, but at the time I was in despair - helping me with a drawing of a facility in perspective, as all the while I kept thinking “I’m never going to manage it!”. And I was nearly right. In my first Drawing 1 exam, the assistant walked over to me, looked at my work and said, dishearteningly: “Sangiovanni, what are you doing at the Politecnico? You can’t even draw”.

In the Drawing 1 exam, we had to draw a trampoline in perspective on the drafting machine, but five minutes before handing it in I realised that I had run out of paper... and I completed the drawing on the desk. That time, I was one of just five people who failed out of the 2000 people who took the exam.

In the Drawing 2 exam, meanwhile, they gave you a mechanical part to draw, picked at random out of a hat. Mine was an oil sump. I did the drawing, and it even came out pretty well... I was nearly finished... and then I took the piece and turned it upside down to take a look at it. But guess what was in the oil sump? Oil, obviously. A single drop of black oil dripped onto my paper. Failed again. Professor Zucchelli - Professor of Drawing and all-round great person - took my case to heart and in September, gave me private drawing lessons in his office. In the end, I managed to earn a solid 28, and then didn’t want to hear another word about it for the rest of my life. Since then, I have built up my career in a way that ensures that the graphic side of all my projects is done on the computer!

vincentelli anniversario
Credits: galileo.eu

In my day, we had professors who were masterful thinkers. One whom I remember was Giuseppe Grandori, who taught Construction Science, which didn’t really have much to do with my course of study, but I followed his teaching meticulously because his lectures were splendid, both in terms of technical content and for their implications on engineering in a wider sense. Given that he was 50 years ahead of his time, even back then he was already talking about the ethical value of the decisions that you make in engineering - how any decision you make has an impact on people’s lives

Nowadays, this has become quite the burning issue all over the world. And then there was Mario Silvestri, Professor of Technical Physics. I admired him a great deal because, aside from being an excellent chemical physicist, he was also a renowned historian, widely considered to be the leading expert on World War I. My career is also rooted in these lessons in culture and ethics - lessons that could only be found at the Poli - not to mention Francesco Carassa’s lessons, which were perhaps the ones that drove me to seek out industrial values in my inclination for theory.

I remember the Department fondly. The professor who supervised my thesis was named Vito Amoia: in a way, he was the one who would ultimately determine what I would do ‘when I grew up’. Amoia had noticed that my classmate Santomauro - who became one of my best friends - and I were both interested in a university career, so he asked us to teach the exercises in his Network Theory course.

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Prof. Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli and Prof. Mauro Santomauro on their graduation day

That’s how we ended up as assistants in the fourth year and I realised that I really enjoyed teaching, but I didn’t feel that I was any good at it: in fact, I thought I was pretty terrible. In a way, this experience taught me that in everything, you have to really commit yourself and make all the sacrifices until you reach a satisfactory level.

In fact, after having taught since 1976 at Berkeley, I had my lectures filmed and studied ways to make my exposition more fluid and engaging. As a result, in 1981 I won the “Distinguished Teaching Award” at the University of California, Berkeley: the most prestigious teaching award at my university.

But the thing I remember most proudly is my triumph in a much less formal competition: throwing paper aeroplanes from the top floor of the Nave building, a competition that took place before the afternoon exercises in the two-year course.

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