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.