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Internet and web pioneers win 'Nobel for engineering'

The inventors of the internet and the world wide web have won the first Queen Elizabeth Prize - the Nobel-style award for engineering launched in the UK.

The five engineers, who include the British creator of the web, Sir Tim-Berners Lee, were revealed as the inaugural winners of the £1m prize at a ceremony at the Royal Academy of Engineering on Monday afternoon.

French engineer Louis Pouzin and Americans Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf, whose work led to the protocols that enable the internet to work, and the American creator of the first web browser, Marc Andreessen, completed the group honoured by an international panel of judges.

Engineering is not as well recognised in the Western world as other professions

Robert Kahn

‘These five visionary engineers, never before honoured together as a group, led the key developments that shaped the internet and web as a coherent system and brought them into public use,’ said chair of judges Lord Broers.

The already well-decorated Kahn, who appeared with Pouzin in person to receive the award, told The Engineer he couldn’t compare it to other prizes he had won.

‘This one is special because it’s the first award specifically to promote engineering,’ he said. ‘The more engineering is promoted, the better it will be for society. Engineering is not as well recognised in the Western world as other professions that are seen as more lucrative fields like finance.’

But, he added, strong science education was ultimately what made people good engineers, so more investment was needed in schools.

Berners-Lee appeared — appropriately — via the web to give his thanks, as did Cerf, who commented that the increasing recognition of engineering was like waking up to find the geeks were winning.

The Queen Elizabeth Prize was launched last year a way to promote engineering, inspire young people to enter the profession and cement Britain’s image as a world-leading centre for engineering.

The international spread of winners reflects the desire of the prize organisers to establish the prize as a prestigious global award but also the inherently collaborative nature of engineering.

‘We had originally planned to award this prize to a team of up to three people. It became apparent during our deliberations that we would have to exceed this limit for such an exceptional group of engineers,’ said Broers.

Fellow judge Paul Westbury, CEO of civil engineering consultancy Buro Happold, said picking a winner had been very difficult despite the obvious impact of the internet.

‘One of my worries was not finding something worthy of this accolade but having to sift through the wealth of engineering innovations,’ he told The Engineer. ‘There is so much to celebrate that it was so hard to know what would float to the top.’

He added that the many technologies that made up the internet was one of the reasons the winners were chosen. ‘Bringing technology together to create a product is what engineering is all about,’ he said.

The prize is run by a charitable trust based in the UK chaired by former BP boss Lord Browne, who announced the winner alongside HRH the Princess Royal.

It will be awarded every two years to up to three engineers responsible for a ground-breaking innovation that has been of global benefit to humanity.

The judging panel chaired by former Royal Academy of Engineering president Lord Broers included eminent academics and professional engineers from Britain, China, Germany, India, Japan and the US, as well as physicist and TV presenter Prof Brian Cox.

The prize is due to be officially awarded to the winners by HM the Queen in a ceremony this June, mirroring the Nobel Prizes, which are awarded by the King of Sweden.

Readers' comments (15)

  • What a nice gesture if the Queen might offer the award (and letters) QE for Queen's Engineer to those honoured in this way. As I have told my students for many years: ours is virtually the only profession which has as its primary role to keep its clients OUT of trouble/problems. Most other professions only start to act when their clients are already in pain, hurting from a writ! or trying to 'get-off' something they are accused of (and probably are guilty of) doing.
    perhaps that is why up to now, we have been so poorly paid, rewarded and recognised. But hopefully no more.

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  • We need more recognition (and more understanding of what Engineers actually do) and this can only help. However, until the description "Engineer" is protected by law (as in other countries) we will never get the recognition we deserve. Then more young people may want to become Engineers.

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  • When I see "Version (service pack 3)" engraved on a bridge I will believe all engineering disciplines to be equal.

    Until then - there are engineers, and there are programmers.

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  • I explain the professional status of Engineers to my students by comparison to the "brokers of human misery" (BOHM) professions - doctors, lawyers, accountants, bankers etc - in terms of: what engineers do benefits society generally, whereas a BOHM professional attends to the self-interest of individuals, which in Darwinian terms is always a more powerful, and lucrative, modus operandi. Science and Engineering underpins every single advance in the standard of living over the past few centuries (along with universal suffrage), and yet to most people it is "transparent" because by nature Engineering is a many-to-many transaction of benefit (unless you are a consulting engineer, of course).

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  • This is a great awarding for the first time and sets a benchmark for the award as well as linking it to something so universally valued. Hopefully the thread of awards over the coming years will lead and educate people through the wealth of engineering development that underpins the progress of society. A great choice.

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  • The publicity this award has generated is priceless, though I do question whether this is really "engineering" as us engineers know it! That aside, the 5 awardees are well worthy of it, having made a contribution that really has changed the world. One thing I can't see the sense in is limiting the prize to 3 engineers - most of us work in large teams these days, and it would be grossly unfair on the vast majority of projects to only recognise 3 engineers. Why not recognise companies or teams, otherwise I can see that the award will mostly be won by those in academia.

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  • Given these individuals are already well known, recognised and awarded, and what they achieved is hardly recent, I think this was a wasted opportunity. This is an annual award and should recognise genuine and recent success within engineering. Nick's comment above sums it up nicely.

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  • After an initial reaction of "What a dull, safe, uncontroversial, and PC choice of winners", (no disrespect to any of them,) I'm coming around to the idea that it was good choice of initial awardees.

    There's an unreasonable distinction between 'proper engineering' and 'IT engineering'. Any IT field is definitely an engineering field:
    ~ have you tried to engineer anything serious without a computer recently?
    ~ The BCS, The Chartered Institute of IT are licensed to award IEng and CEng by the Engineering Council UK.
    ~ Fundamental computer science has exactly the same mathematical underpinning as 'proper engineering'.

    It's incredible to thing that building a global communications network and building structured protocols to operate it is somehow less 'engineering' than 3D printing replacement organs for transplant.

    IT just iterates over the design process faster. Much faster. Equally, 'proper engineering' has its release cycles too. Exactly how many London Bridges have there been? And it took how long to get to v5.0? Come on proper engineers, pull your finger out!

    So all in all, the winners are decent Engineers in an engineering discipline on a par with any other. That the winners are globally recognised as inventors of technologies in use by everyone all the time can only be good for the prize and the perception of Engineers generally.

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  • I am a civil engineer. I used computers, and their software, from the early 70s on and even did some coding, to help me design highways, drainage networks and structures. I also used the inevitable spreadsheets for quantities. The arrival of the web in the early 90s made finding information about my specialism a whole lot easier. I was even able to source a driver for a new printer by using the internet at that time [it was a portable HP bubblejet!]
    There will be few professional engineers working today who do not use some part of what these men produced, to do their own jobs.
    It might not be my kind of engineering, but I think the award is well-deserved and I will avoid the debate about whether or not what the winners do/did is 'engineering', save for the following observations:
    Marc Andreesen and Robert Kahn have Computer Science degrees; ComSci is regarded as an appropriate base for CEng qualification by the Engineering Council, through its licence to the British Computer Society. Tim Berners-Lee is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Robert Kahn has an Electrical Engineering degree and Louis Pouzin is an engineering graduate from the Ecole Polytechnique.
    No major project today is the domain of a single engineering specialism. I will be happy to use the story of this award to talk up all branches of engineering.

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  • I appreciate and agree totally with the comments about Computer Engineering and software development being 'proper' Engineering. I returned from the USA in 1970 having worked in the textile machinery industry there. I joined the firm that made the machines that put the 'crimp' into Crimplene. I will always remember the comment from the MD when in early 1971 I arranged for a time-share telex operated (that puts it into context) computer system to be installed in the Boardroom to educate staff and management.
    "Get that new-fangled rubbish out of here: we have been doing well without it" For a firm that three years later went belly-up losing about £100,000,000 to stakeholders and 1800 jobs..quite an assertion.

    To strong to allow change, but too weak to resist it.
    Mike B

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