What makes an engineering hero?

Senior reporter

A new list of Britain’s engineering heroes reveals how our attitudes towards scientific achievement are changing

You can tell a lot about people from the individuals they most admire. So a recent poll to find the public’s top engineering heroes paints an interesting picture of Britain’s view of engineers.

For one thing, the survey conducted by the organisation behind the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering shows a recognition of how wide a discipline engineering really is, taking in civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical and computer engineers – including many who probably wouldn’t achieve chartered status today. But the poll also reveals some things about how we view engineering achievement.

Firstly, it’s clear that some things never change. Isambard Kingdom Brunel has probably been Britain’s most famous engineer since well before his death in 1859 and his number one position in this list comes as little surprise (especially given that he was also voted the second greatest Briton ever in 2002). His infrastructure changed the physical shape and appearance of the country in a way that helped make Britain the most advanced nation of the 19th century and that can still be felt today.

The presence of fellow Victorians James Watt, George Stephenson and Joseph Bazalgette show just how associated this period in Britain remains with engineering. There’s also the continuing dominance of people like Leonardo Da Vinci and Archimedes who have little connection to our lives today but who have become mythical figures that represent engineering on an archetypal level.

But much of the rest of the list actually shows how attitudes and fashions are changing, not so much in terms of the outcomes and inventions we value but the kind of people, their experiences and what they represent.

Computers and the internet have made arguably the biggest change in society during the last century so it’s no surprise to find Tim Berners-Lee and Alan Turing on the list. Perhaps of more interest is that the other computing pioneers on the list are arguably lesser-known females.

Ada Lovelace: today an engineering hero for many

Ada Lovelace, considered the world’s first programmer, has become a figurehead for attempts to encourage more women to take up computer science in recent years, and she now makes it into fourth place on this list. Charles Babbage – the man who invented the computer Lovelace programmed – on the other hand is nowhere to be seen.

Even Turing’s position at number six represents something of a rehabilitation of a man whose pioneering work setting out the principles of modern computing had arguably limited impact on his contemporaries and who is believed to have killed himself after a conviction for homosexuality but recently received a royal pardon.

The list also shows the results of work to give greater recognition to those who weren’t white, Western males. Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont comes in at seven while the Wright Brothers are left languishing at 20. And the Bengali radio pioneer Jagadish Chandra Bose who beat Guglielmo Marconi to a demonstration of radio by two years is now rewarded with a higher placing despite Bose’s lower public profile.

Much of the order of this list probably has to do with the way it was put together: on Twitter. A wider poll of a more general sample of the public may well have yielded different results than a method that relies on a self-selecting sample of people who are keen to have their opinion heard.

Still, the poll reminds us that sometimes what you do isn’t as important as how you do it, the circumstances you do it in or the adversity you face along the way when society has stacked the odds against you.

The list in full:

1. Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), civil and mechanical engineer who built the Great Western Railway and over a hundred bridges, dock systems and ships

2. Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) Renaissance artist and inventor whose designs included a helicopter, concentrated solar power and flood defences

3. Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), pioneering electrical engineer who helped develop radio, radar and invented alternating current transmission

4. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), mathematician who developed the first computer algorithm

5. Archimedes (287 BC – 212 BC) Ancient Greek mathematician, astronomer and inventor

6. Alan Turing (1912-1954) mathematician and war-time code breaker who laid out the principles of modern computing and helped develop the first computers

7. Grace Hopper (1906-1992) computer scientist who designed the first ever English-like data processing language

8. Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932), aviation pioneer who designed and built the first dirigible and flew the first powered aeroplane in Europe

9. James Watt (1735-1819), mechanical engineer whose improvements to steam engine technology were fundamental to industrial revolution

10. Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937), scientist and pioneer of radio communication

11. Frank Whittle (1907-1966), engineer and air officer who invented the the jet engine

12. George Stephenson (1781-1848), civil and mechanical engineer considered the “Father of Railways” for building the world’s first public inter-city railway line to use steam locomotives

13. Elijah McCoy (1844-1929), one of the first African-American engineers and famous for work on steam-engine lubrication

14. Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891), civil engineer who deisgned the London sewer system

15. Tim Berners-Lee (1955-present), engineer and computer scientist who invented the World Wide Web

16. Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923), first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899 famous for research on electric arc

17. Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), electrical engineer who developed the first long distance telegraph and broadcast the first transatlantic radio signal

18. Carl Bosch (1874-1940), industrial chemist known for engineering synthetic fertilizer through the Haber-Bosch process

19. Thomas Edison (1847-1931), a prolific inventor whose most famous devices include the motion picture camera and a long-lasting electric lightbulb.

20. Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur (1867-1912) Wright, aviation pioneers who built the first working airplane and developed the first practical fixed-wing aircraft

Who’s missing? Tell us who your engineering hero is.