British engineering has been in the news this week, with the death of an automotive hero and the recognition of the achievements of a prosthetics research effort. Both, in their way, symbolise the strengths and potential of engineering, and have a touch of a peculiarly British character.
The name Trevor Wilkinson might not be immediately familiar, but abbreviate his first name to three letters — TVR — and bells will surely ring. Wilkinson, who founded TVR in 1949 and ran it until 1962, was the archetypal ‘man in a shed’, building his first road-race car with a mixture of inspired engineering and equally inspired improvisation: the basis of the car was an innovative lightweight tubular steel chassis, but the front suspension came from a bumper car off Brighton pier. Even the first production car, a long-bonnetted, sporty little number called the Grantura, used a Ford Zephyr windscreen and suspension components from a VW Beetle.
But although Wilkinson sold his stake in the company in 1965, he carried on in the automotive sector through a composites company, named after the Grantura, until 1980. Combining inspired engineering with business savvy, Wilkinson exemplified the entrepreneurial spirit which educators are so keen to encourage in today’s schoolchildren and engineering students.
And that spirit is still alive today, as the winner of this year’s MacRobert award, the top prize from the Royal Academy of Engineering, shows. Touch Bionics’ i-LIMB Hand— the world’s first commercially available advanced bionic hand — is the product of years of patient research, starting within the state sector and ending up in the commercial sphere.
Working by detecting the trace electrical signals from the remaining muscles of lost limbs, the i-LIMB Hand has independent motors operating each finger and can adopt a variety of grips. A computer in the back of the hand interprets the muscle signals and translates them into control algorithms for the fingers. Originating from research in the 1960s to develop prosthetics for children affected by Thalidomide, the i-LIMB Hand comes from the National Health Service’s R&D programme, with the Edinburgh company spun off from the NHS in 2003. Its CEO, Stuart Mead, began his career in the defence sector: he says that after working on ‘things that blow things off people’, he wanted ‘to use engineering in a way that would help individual people.’ Fittingly, the i-LIMB Hand is now available on the NHS in some parts of the country; notwithstanding its £10,000+ price tag, it’s the sort of thing we’d hope to see available everywhere.
While Wilkinson embodied the amateur approach, Mead’s team shows that the public sector is an equally promising pool for the best in innovation and technology. We’ve always needed both. With economic conditions looking stormy and possible cuts on the horizon, it’s important to remember that individual and collective effort both need encouragement and attention.
Special Projects Editor