Calling International Rescue, the Starship Enterprise, and budding engineers

Inspiration for an engineering career can lie in some unexpected cultural places, as our anonymous blogger recollects

I have heard some engineers mention Meccano sets, or a fascination with steam trains, as the things that sparked their passion for engineering. Now I don’t think I ever got quite as excited by my Meccano set as they did, but I was greatly impressed by the exploits of a few fictional characters.

The first was Danny’s father in Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. Described as a fine mechanic, he chose to stop the young Danny from starting school until he could strip down and rebuild a small engine. His aspiration for Danny, however, is that he will become a famous design engineer; someone who will develop better engines for cars and aircraft. His father also stresses that to be a great design engineer Danny will have to do really well at school.

Meccano has been inspiring budding engineers — and their parents — for decades

Then there was Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott, chief engineer on board  the Starship Enterprise. Scotty’s thorough understanding of basic principles combined with excellent problem-solving skills allows him to come up with innovative solutions to the various dire situations that the crew find themselves in. He demonstrates the essence of engineering and, of course, famously highlights the importance of physics to engineering on more than one occasion.

Ye cannae change the laws of physics, Captain!

My pet guinea pig was called ‘Brains’ after the engineer in Thunderbirds

Finally, my pet guinea pig was called ‘Brains’ after the incredible engineer in Thunderbirds. Brains is acknowledged as having a great intellect. Indeed, he managed somehow, single-handedly and secretly, to design and build the wonderful machines that International Rescue uses to save unlucky individuals from various disasters each episode. What proved equally inspirational is that I imagined I could, one day, make the models and maybe even the puppets in Thunderbirds myself —  a feat that would, no doubt, provide some interesting engineering challenges. Challenges that, as a child, I imagined how I would overcome.

Not the Secret Engineer’s guinea pig.

I have to admit that in a practical sense, it was my high-school physics teacher that told me engineering was about applied physics and he was probably instrumental to my choice of career. Also, when I visited the engineering works where a friend of my father worked, I was fascinated by the machines cutting metal and creating something new and useful out of a lump of raw material.

So, to inspire the next generation, we probably need teachers who understand what engineering is all about and we need to ensure that kids see how we create things that make the world better. However,  my worry is that Scotty and Brains might get lost among the plethora of X-Factor and The Only Way Is Essex ‘celebrities’.