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Holding out for a hero

Ask a member of the public to name a great British engineer and you’ll probably get one name: IK Brunel. Ask for a living person and you’re more likely to get a blank face. While pure science boasts multiple prominent figures leading debate in popular intellectual and media circles, engineering remains in the background, seen as functional, important but not particularly exciting.


Great, but not exactly current

The public perception and image of engineering was a key topic of debate at this week’s UK Manufacturing Summit at the IMechE. The institution’s chief exec, Stephen Tetlow pointed out that while many engineers know Britain is the world’s sixth largest manufacturing nation (or seventh, depending on your league table), all you hear in the pub is how we don’t make anything any more.

Business minister Mark Prisk highlighted the fact that 43 per cent of graduates have a STEM related degree but only five per cent go into manufacturing. Perhaps there isn’t so much a shortage of skills as of one of enthusiasm. The session’s conclusion was that we need a better supply chain of young people, grabbing their attention while still in primary school, and nurturing their interest through A levels, degrees and apprenticeships.

We’re still left with the well-worn question of how to get young people (and the population in general) more excited about engineering. And one of the more interesting ideas of the day was a call for a TV show promoting the sector. Given the wealth of activity and innovation that goes on in Britain alone, this stuck me as a genuinely interesting proposition that really could work.

There are countless projects that could capture the imagination of the public. As a journalist for The Engineer, I frequently find myself explaining stories I’ve covered to friends who have no technical background but are fascinated nonetheless. (There’s always the possibility they’re just humouring me but my friends are generally pretty ruthless).

An engineering TV programme could reveal to the public how much manufacturing work still goes on here, and highlight the need to preserve and build the sector. Factory floor visits wouldn’t make for thrilling viewing, true, but testing the latest engine prototypes or seeing spacecraft with British-made components in action would get people tuning in.

Modern computer graphics can bring potentially dry and difficult subjects to life, as witnessed by the multiple well-received physics programmes of the last few years. And meeting the people whose lives are changed by technology, whether patients of robotic surgeons or developing world communities benefiting from new energy solutions, would hammer home the impact of engineering ideas on the real world.

Vital to any successful factual TV show are its presenters. You need intelligent, charismatic and entertaining guides to keep the pace, make people smile or gasp and explain the difficult bits without sending everyone to sleep. Engineering needs a TV champion. And at the moment there isn’t one.

Sure, there are journalists and presenters who occasionally cover the topic. Former Scrapheap Challenge presenter and sometime Red Dwarf star Robert Llewellyn has navigated Channel Five viewers through a reworking of Discovery Channel show How Do They Do It? and produced his own YouTube series (as well as hosting The Engineer awards for the past two years).

But what’s really needed is a voice that resonates with a younger audience and can connect the predominantly middle-aged white male world of engineering with our more plural, modern society. And that’s why no member of the Top Gear team should be considered. The last thing that’s needed is a badly dressed, conservative motormouth making jokes based on crude stereotypes.

And that’s not to say a middle-aged white man couldn’t do the job. Just look at Prof Brian Cox, the man who’s made science, if not quite cool, then mainstream, accessible and current. Indeed the words used at the IMechE summit were ‘a Brian Cox of engineering’. Cox is seemingly everywhere at the moment, so if he were given the role his fame would probably overshadow the whole project. But this should be the model.

Given the dearth of famous engineers or even famous people with engineering degrees, the field is open to suggestions. Dr Mark Miodownik, presenter of last year's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, is currently working on television projects. And there are certainly plenty of science writers out there who could have a great stab.

The Engineer’s features editor, Stuart Nathan, suggested author and journalist Angela Saini, apparently described as the person who 'makes geeks cool'. An engineering graduate and former BBC reporter, she’s just published a book about the rise of India as a scientific superpower, entitled Geek Nation.

Unless we can find someone who can help grab the attention of young people and the wider public, we’ll just have to get working on a time machine so we can bring back Brunel.

Readers' comments (32)

  • Try Richard Noble, whose heading up the fantastic Bloodhound programme, endeavouring to excel 1000mph in a land vehicle.
    The project is also designed to attract the attention of as many schools as possible, with a view to create a desire in young people to become Engineers!

    Check out the website!!

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  • I suggest Tim Smit of Eden Project fame. He was interviewed on Radio 4's Saturday Live a few weeks back and genuinely seemed in touch with the world of the Engineer. I haven't ever heard that level of enthusiasm before, it was wonderful.

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  • My nomination is Dr Carmen Torres-Sanchez

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  • It could be called "Tomorrow's World, Today"

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  • The Discovery Channel has been thinking along these lines too, specifically female. Try Konnie Huq or Susie Perry (sensible and knowledgeable when not 'entertaining' on the Gadget Show). Agree with the Top Gear problem - entertainers (clowns) rather than knowledge-givers (William Woolard or the late, great Raymond Baxter they ain't!) How about Sqn Ldr Andy Green? Certainly better dressed than James May...

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  • What about Andrea Rodney of Hone-All Precision? Andrea was a panel member at the Summit and seems to couple a real passion for manufacturing and engineering with an apparently down-to-earth approach that would be great for a television programme such as this.

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  • What about a link with areas of popular culture that already hold sway but expanding the engineering links e.g. Formula One where we lead the world with a number famous names such as Adrian Newey or the British Cycling team and the engineering that went in to developing the track bike, or ...

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  • Take a look at the work of the Bluebird Electric land and water speed records and you will see an exciting and relevant engineering project as well as over 100 years of engineering pedigree from the Campbell family now in its third generation with Don Wales (who also holds the world record for Steam Cars). I was so inspired, as a teenager, by the accomplishments of Donald Campbell I went into design and innovation and now run the Bluebird Project with Don Wales and try to get young engineers involved at every stage. The project has spawned manufacture of electric vehicles and boats.

    Richard Noble's Bloodhound project is incredibly exciting, but Bluebird Electric is dealing with technologies the next generation will be utilising in their every day lives.

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  • I think the biggest issue the programme needs to tackle is to overcome people's indifference to engineering.

    To this end, the point of such a programme should maybe not be to highlight flagship engineering projects but rather to highlight all the things that we take for granted in our everyday lives that would not be possible without engineering.

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  • Here's one for you: a documentary series covering one of the nuclear new builds. How many boxes would this tick? All engineering disciplines are on site throughout the duration of the project. Visually, the site is rammed with the sort of very large equipment needed for a big civil project (and the shiny stuff too prior to going live). The entire thing is deadline driven, adding to the tension that a skilled documentary maker could convey. Mix in some 'human interest' elements, like young people doing their first job a long way from home and you've surely got a BAFTA winner in the making.

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  • "Factory floor visits wouldn’t make for thrilling viewing, true, but testing the latest engine prototypes or seeing spacecraft with British-made components in action would get people tuning in."

    Do we know this to be fact? I personally am fascinated by how various manufacturing processes are done ... but I'm an engineer (by education).

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  • What about Dr Sue Ion, late of BNFL well qualified and an excellent communicator

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  • "Vital to any successful factual TV show are its presenters. You need intelligent, charismatic and entertaining guides to keep the pace, make people smile or gasp and explain the difficult bits without sending everyone to sleep. Engineering needs a TV champion. And at the moment there isn’t one."

    Do we know this to be true? The History Channel and Discovery Channel cover their topics and we never see the commentator.

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  • Top Gear snobbery is not required.
    How about Dyson, Sinclair, Whittle, Cosworth or Chapman?

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  • For my choice I feel James Dyson would be a great inspiration and should be well known to most.

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  • I know Angela Saini and she is a great - she truly 'makes geeks cool' while enthusing about the power of engineering and technology to change the world.

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  • Mark Williams and Chris Barrie have both presented engineering programs in a knowledgable and informative manner and been entertaining too. Similarly Dick Strawbridge. Yes, I watch too much Discovery Channel!

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  • I think Mr. Neale has the right approach. (American talking here, hope I'm not intruding). There's a show over on this side of the Pond called NCIS, about the Naval Crime Scene Investigation teams. While fictional, it promotes the use of science and engineering in the solution of crimes or odd situations. A weekly show that highlights a problem, then shows how engineers go about tackling it, with actors - because we all know how well we engineers do in a public setting! - and a few special effects for the kiddies, might be very helpful. I know when I do volunteer lectures at the local schools, everyone knows who Special Agent Gibbs is - the team leader on NCIS.
    With the right syllabus, Discovery or some other channel might be interested?

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  • I read this article with interest and agree with the conclusion it comes to, including the mention of my good self.
    However an important part of this debate is the broadcasters themselves and the enormous fear and resistance to make a TV series about what they would describe as 'such a dry subject.'
    In many ways I am in a very good position to get a show which covers engineering on the telly but it is incredibly difficult. I've been trying week in week out for the last 3 years.
    Cooking, home decorating, singing, dancing or covering unknown celebs in insects is easy to get on the box. A show about engineering is very very difficult.
    Scrapheap had a very big impact and I'm very proud of my involvement in it, we did cover a great many engineering concepts over its ten year history and I know from many people I've met it fostered a life long interest in this vitally important area. There is no way we'd get a show like Scrapheap off the ground now, and as some readers may know, I am now aiming my energies toward online distribution, thankfully with some success. for more details

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  • I would take a different approach and not use one person, but a team of engineers from all backgrounds to give a wider scope of engineering. In addition I would be promoting engineering among the young, particularly in schools to stimulate the youngsters. At this age they are more receptive, and ask poigniant questions as most have inquisitive minds. Stimulating youngsters would be beneficial for the future understanding of all aspects of engineering.

    How could this be done? speakers at school careers classes would be a start, then make it interesting but not gimicky. Show how engineering influences all spheres of life from what they wear to the everyday items they take for granted. Explain the wide ranging scope of engineering from electronic to mechanical, and how it interacts with science, technology, and everyday commodities.

    Such discussions need engineers with wide ranging skills, and it should be a two way interaction rather than a talk. This means no agenda or schedule, rather let the children lead the discussion and let it develop.

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  • I'd give it a go!

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  • Perhaps the fact that the UK's current poster boy for STEM, Prof Brian Cox, is a middled aged (yikes!) white male is an indication we don't need to necessarily look outside that demographic for our engineering hero.

    Sorry to call you middle-aged Brian. Things can only get better.

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  • Fascinating debate through these comments. Just wanted to raise awareness of an initiative that we're working on as part of MACH 2012 ( - the centenary of the UK's premier manufacturing show.

    The idea - to bring teachers and students into direct contact with the industry at a large trade show.

    The machinery, technology and processes are already at MACH, so this is an ideal opportunity to showcase this to youngsters.

    The key, of course, will be to identify how these machines contribute to our every-day life and create a story that captures the interest.

    For what it's worth, I'd like to volunteer Denzil Lawrence, Adrian Allen and the team at the AMRC as representatives for our industry. As well as being passionate advocates for the sector, they have harnessed the cream of UK engineering talent, along with the knowledge and know-how of our top companies, to create a powerful model which is now being copied across the world.

    If it wasn't such a competitive industry, this would surely make a fascinating documentary series.

    If you've not already seen it, their MANufacturing TRAnsporter (an HGV with on-board Mori Seiki lathe and 3D cave) provides an opportunity to take some of these technologies direct to schools.

    BLOODHOUND SSC, whilst hugely impressive and inspirational, has a limited life cycle and it's not clear how it will be run once the record is broken...

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  • what's needed is a fictional series, look what Silent Witness has done for forensic science recruitment. As a non-engineer, and female, I've watched rough science, bang goes the theory, and that thing about recreating bits of the titanic with equal pleasure. But all time favourite has to be 'It'll Never Work'.

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  • When not on Top Gear James May has some credible engineering knowledge.

    The guys from Bang Goes The Theory are pretty cool as well:

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  • A good starting point might be getting the younger generation to realise that all the wonderful gadgets that now seem to run their lives, Mobile Phone, iPod, Facebook etc. would not work without the equally wonderful Engineering & science and behind these now everday things.

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  • Whilst he may not fit the criteria described, I think if he were to read this article he would be disappointed not to have been, at least, acknowledged. He researched many and went on to present several excellent Science and Engineering based programs. Step forward Mr Adam Hart-Davies.

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  • The other point is, were people like IBK considered 'Heroes' at the time? Sure they led big projects and paved the way for the future, but how many people at the time actually knew about them outside of their fields?

    I believe it is the same for today, in 50 or 100 years there will be names known from these times, such as Jonathon Ive - for Paul Wickens example that will go down in history...

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  • How about Jem from Bang goes the Theory? An experimenter, and enthusiast, and an engineer...

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  • Catch 'em while they're young - get into Primary Schools with a good presentation of practical science. I remember a guy at school from NASA doing amazing things with liquid oxygen! Did we leave the session wanting to be astronuats and rocket builders? You bet!

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  • @ Graham Field, that is exactly what I was doing last year with my project - Top Of The Form, we were trying to promote STEM subjects in schools around our work in Farnborough...

    See for more details. Sponsorship is needed for this year if anyone is interested in advertising...

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  • I read this article with interest.

    I work as a Development Producer, mostly focussing on engineering orientated TV. Credits include Scrapheap Challenge, Bang Goes The Theory etc.

    I am always looking for the new 'Jem Stansfield' (Bang Goes The Theory) for positions on Nat Geo, Discovery and terrestial broadcasters shows.

    The difficulty is an awful lot of engineering isn't TV friendly. I get applications from engineers who spend all day on Solidworks, which is hardly condusive to being am outgoing communictor.

    This is also why fabrication tends to play such a big role on Mythbusters, Scrapheap etc. It's much more engaging than working out the load bearing characteristics of a beam.

    Another issue is it's very hard for engineers in full time positions to find the time for TV - it may be five or six weeks of filming, often away from home. That's a big ask for familys and employers.

    If anyone can fill the shoes of Jem Stansfield, Dick Strawbridge - a youthful Fred Dibnah would be ideal - get in touch.

    You need to be a big character, outgoing, who's got a credible background.

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