Will any of our era’s achievements in engineering and technology still have significance 150 years from now? Jon Excell examines 10 that might.
Take a walk through any UK city and beneath the flashing, bleeping veneer of modernity the past is rarely hard to find: our buildings, stations and much of our infrastructure a daily reminder of the contributions our ancestors made to the modern world.
Throughout this year we have been celebrating the 150th anniversary of The Engineer. This milestone has frequently led us to our archives. And, among the engineering curiosities and glimpses of a very different world, what is striking about these documents is how many of the great engineering icons of the past, particularly from the Victorian era, are still with us today. They are not museum pieces but useful innovations still doing exactly what they were designed for.
Never a publication to shy away from a bit of futurology, this heavy debt to the past prompted us to ask what will be seen as today’s engineering and technological legacy when the magazine celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2156? What UK breakthroughs and developments will future historians trace back to the current era of innovation and engineering?
It is perhaps a trickier question than it would have been 150 years ago. In many respects we still live in a Victorian society. Much of our existing infrastructure and a significant chunk of our architecture dates back to the second half of the 19th century. Our ancestors did a lot of the hard work for us.
More significantly, the speed at which technology now develops means many of the truly great achievements of the modern age will be utterly out of date in 150 years time.
While things were once “built to last”, we now live in the age of the disposable device, with the fruits of our engineers’ and scientists’ most intense labours often on their way to obsolescence before they are removed from the packaging. Brunel’s bridges may still be standing in the middle of the next century but the Ipod, one of the great consumer technology success stories of the last few years, will almost certainly be a curiosity.
After much deliberation, we have identified 10 UK innovations that we believe will still be having an impact 150 years hence. In addition to engineered structures, we have turned our attention to less tangible developments, breakthroughs that herald the start of promising new fields as well as the legacy of decisions made today about our technological future.
Our starting point is 1989: the year that the worldwide web came into being — a world-changing UK invention and a convenient technological landmark for the purposes of this exercise.
Plus, despite our comments on the disposable age, not everything is designed to break after five minutes. The new Wembley stadium, the Channel Tunnel and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) are all examples of iconic engineering projects that in the great Victorian tradition have, or are at least being, “built to last”.
It would be possible to argue that our most enduring and chilling legacy will be environmental meltdown and that there will not be much worth celebrating in 150 years time.
But in the spirit of the piece, we have decided to take a rosier view. It is Christmas, after all, and we’ve had quite enough death and destruction for one year.
Finally, if all this crystal ball-gazing gets a bit too much, we have also unearthed from our archives original coverage of some of those Victorian-era engineering marvels that are still with us today.
The World Wide Web
One of the hallmarks of a truly great innovation is that you cannot imagine how you would cope without it. For most of us the internet, or more specifically the World Wide Web, now fits into that category.
Though the web and internet are often considered to be one and the same it is worth emphasising that they are distinct but related technologies.
While the internet is a global network of computers, the web is the interconnected set of documents and files that is accessible via the internet. The internet, originally developed for military use, predates the web but, nevertheless, it is the web that has made the internet an almost indispensable tool in many areas of human endeavour.
The web was invented in 1989 by Oxford-educated software engineer Tim Berners Lee who, while working at the Cern particle physics lab in Geneva, proposed a global hypertext project known as the World Wide Web that would allow anyone with a connection to the internet to publish and access information. Berners-Lee wrote the first World Wide Web server, “httpd”, and the first client, “WorldWideWeb” a hypertext browser/editor. This was made available on the internet in the summer of 1991. The rest, as they say, is history.
While predicting the status of the web in 150 years time is exceptionally difficult, our future relationship with it is likely to be determined by the current explosion of mobile phones and other wireless gadgets able to access the web. Many observers believe we will move towards a pervasive web, which is accessed not via a computer terminal and keyboard but through small, handheld devices linking to embedded weblinks on everything from street signs to bus timetables.
Berners-Lee is now working on the development of the semantic web — a new, more powerful version of the World Wide Web based on a complicated set of rules that allow it to “understand” the relationship between different types of data and therefore help to provide far more accurate search results.
The new Wembley stadium
The decision to include Wembley stadium in this list may raise a few eyebrows. Over the past few years Wembley has become something of a byword for project mismanagement, with a series of technical and commercial problems repeatedly putting back the completion date.
But though it is well behind schedule, The Engineer is prepared to predict that at some point within the next 150 years Wembley stadium will be complete. And when it is — the current estimate is that it will be ready for next year’s FA Cup Final — it will once again take up its mantle as one of the world’s most iconic and famous sporting arenas.
Numerous reasons have been put forward for Wembley’s late running but perhaps the completion dates were too ambitious for such a complicated structure. The 90,000 seater stadium is almost four times the height of its predecessor. It has 11 acres of roof, much of it retractable, and 56km of power cables. Its foundations are formed from 4,000 piles and it has been constructed from 90,000 cu m of concrete and 23,000 tonnes of steel.
With that old journalistic chestnut the football pitch analogy not appropriate for a football pitch, we have to turn to the double-decker bus; and it would apparently have the same volume as 25,000 of them.
The stadium’s crowning glory though, is its arch which, with a span of 315m, is the world’s longest unsupported roof structure. It dominates the skyline and supports much of the roof structure, replacing the need for pillars and ensuring uninterrupted views of the pitch.
An impressive structure indeed. But will it last for another 150 years? The old stadium Wembley made it to nearly 80 years and FA chief executive Brian Barwick told The Engineer the new model should last at least as long. ‘I believe the new stadium will be the greatest in the world and provide a venue for players and fans to be proud of and to enjoy for decades to come,’ he said.
When it opened for business in 1994, the Channel Tunnel joined the English and French mainland for the first time since the end of the last ice age. It also bought to life a dream that had been repeatedly discussed and shelved since Napoleonic times.
Prior to its grand opening, the tunnel came closest to realisation in 1881, when South Eastern Railway began boring tunnels on the British side. However, fears about foreign troops using the tunnel to mount an invasion resulted in the work being cancelled.
Considered by many to be one of the engineering wonders of the world, 39km of the 50km-long tunnel runs at an average depth of 45m beneath the seabed — shuttling Eurostar passengers, vehicles, and freight trains between England and France in just 20 minutes.
Consisting of three parallel tunnels — two rail and one service tunnel — the channel project took more than seven years to build, used 11 boring machines and employed 15,000 workers tunnelling simultaneously from both ends.
Yet despite its impressive credentials as a piece of structural engineering, massive debts were run up during its construction and the tunnel has never made enough money to cover its £10bn construction costs bringing its operator, Eurotunnel, close to liquidation. While a new refinancing deal announced last month has diminished this threat for the time being, the future of the tunnel itself has never really been under threat. It is simply too useful and its inherent usefulness will long outlive the financial problems that now beset it.
Channel tunnel rail link
While the opening of the Channel Tunnel represented the fulfilment of a dream, the excitement and novelty of hopping on a train to France was quickly soured by the tortuous, stop-start train journey along Kent’s busy commuter tracks.
This will all change on 14 November next year when the Channel Tunnel Rail Link — or High Speed 1 (HS1) as it is now known — links London to the English end of the tunnel with a rail service to rival its 186mph continental counterpart.
The £5.8bn 108km-long high-speed rail line, the UK’s first new overland railway line for almost 100 years, will make it possible to travel from London St Pancras to Paris Nord in just two hours 15 minutes, knocking more than 20 minutes off the current travel time.
Travelling over the River Medway, under the River Thames, across the M25 and under London, HS1’s network of track, bridges and tunnels has all the hallmarks of a major engineering success story.
It is huge; one of the biggest UK construction projects in decades, ambitious and, in refreshing contrast to some of the other projects on these pages, it is expected to be delivered on time and on budget.
It is also, according to Dave Pointon — who as managing director of Union Rail (part of London and Continental Railways) has led the engineering effort — built to last.
While it is entirely possible that HS1’s lines and infrastructure will still be used in 150 years time, it is also likely that CTRL’s opening will be viewed by our descendants as the moment that the UK embraced high-speed rail.
The nuclear legacy
With the UK government’s energy review paving the way for a new generation of nuclear reactors, our likely reliance on nuclear power in 150 years time may be traced directly back to decisions made today.
The current generation of fission reactors, and probably the next generation after that, will have long been decommissioned by 2156 but a century and a half is the blink of an eye in the world of radioactive materials and the waste generated by today’s plants will remain an issue.
Earlier this year, The Engineer reported on the recommendations of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management that the only feasible way of dealing with this waste is to bury it in a deep underground repository. According to NIREX, the company that will be tasked with building this deep dump, it must be capable of storing radioactive waste that will be hazardous for more than 100,000 years.
If built, and it is looking increasingly likely, the deep nuclear repository will still be in its infancy in 150 years. As an icon of engineering longevity, it will outstrip pretty much anything that has ever been built, including Egypt’s pyramids. Indeed, as reported in our article (4 September) it would be designed to withstand the weight of glaciers and the rise and fall of civilisations.
However, while waste is one side of the nuclear energy legacy that we will leave our descendents, there is also a strong possibility that nuclear fusion will finally be living up to its promise as a largely waste-free source of plentiful power.
Last month representatives of more than 30 countries signed an international agreement to spend about €10bn (£6.7bn) on the construction of ITER, a huge experimental fusion reactor that will generate power using a process similar to that which powers the sun.
It will build on work carried out in Oxfordshire on JET, a smaller experimental fusion reactor, and ITER’s backers believe it will be the first reactor of its kind to produce more energy than it consumes and that it could lead to commercial fusion reactors within the next 40 years.
DNA fingerprinting has arguably become the most important tool in forensic science. The ability to match suspects to samples of blood, hair, saliva or semen has been crucial to many hundreds of cases, leading to convictions and several exonerations of formerly convicted suspects.
The technique, invented by Leicester University’s Prof Alec Jeffreys, was first used in a criminal investigation during the 1986 Enderby murder case, where a DNA-based manhunt — the first of its kind in the world — unmasked the killer of two young girls. But because the initial technology behind DNA fingerprinting was cumbersome, it was not until the later invention of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a technique for replicating DNA, that genetic fingerprinting really began to fulfil its promise.
In 1991 Jeffreys and his team used the technique during a murder inquiry in Cardiff. The trial at Cardiff Crown Court in 1991 was the first time PCR-based evidence had been presented to a court in the UK. By 1995 PCR had been developed to the point where the Home Office’s Forensic Science Service launched the world’s first criminal intelligence DNA database. Today, there are more than four million people on the database.
The numerous ways in which DNA fingerprinting might affect our lives 150 years hence are too complicated and varied to consider here but, according to Jeffreys, the expansion of the national DNA database is one trend that looks set to continue: ‘The future will be one of steady expansion of criminal DNA databases with increasing integration internationally,’ Jeffreys told The Engineer.
Another trend is the development of hand-held devices able to carry out the work of a laboratory at the scene of a crime. Commenting on the future of such systems, Jeffreys said: ‘If the time for testing can be reduced to seconds then an entirely new dimension to DNA typing might emerge in the field of security, with DNA PINs serving as true PINs in everything from immigration clearance to credit card transactions.’
Galileo and micro-satellites
Trends in space technology are usually dictated by the huge budgets of a NASA or an ESA. But in the unlikely cosmic backwater of Guildford, Surrey, a small company’s pioneering work on satellites has turned conventional thinking on its head and opened up a range of new applications for space technology.
Surrey Satellite Technology(SSTL) was spun out of Surrey University in 1985 to commercialise the results of its small satellite engineering research programme. Headed by Prof Sir Martin Sweeting, the company’s ability to develop low-cost micro-satellites in super-fast time has seen it rise to the heights of the global space science community.
So how will the impact of SSTL’s work be felt in 150 years time? Thanks to the company’s speedy work the first element of Galileo, Europe’s answer to GPS, is now in orbit around the earth. Prof Sweeting says the impact of Galileo will reverberate through the ages.
‘Galileo, as a component of a worldwide multinational navigation and timing system, will continue to change our lives as it enables more precise and robust positioning, synchronisation and security ultimately leading to a future where every item, however small, can be incorporated into a world-wide database so that we can know where everything is and what it is doing all the time,’ he said.
In another trend likely to gather momentum, SSTL’s low-cost approach is beginning to bring space technology to those who could not afford it before. The company, keen to help developing world scientists take their first tentative steps into space, is behind efforts to track locust plagues using satellites, or plan routes for roads across inhospitable terrain.
In the longer term Sweeting envisages the development of picosatellites — tiny, credit card-sized systems-on-chip devices that would be capable of working together. ‘Micro-satellites will get smaller and smaller until they are like ants — individually puny but powerful as a co-ordinated colony, ’ he said.
Sweeting’s group is investigating the possibility of using such technology to create ‘morphing’ satellites that would be able to switch roles from, for instance, mapping to telecommunications.
The operating theatre is becoming home to a variety of systems that now complement but could replace the highly skilled human surgeon.
Advances in surgical techniques, coupled with improvements in robotics and imaging technology, are fuelling the increasing uptake and development of robotic assistants able to perform tremor-free surgical procedures. These have the potential to speed up surgery and make it safer.
One of the first surgeons to recognise the potential of robotic surgery was Imperial College’s Prof Ara Darzi. In 2001, using the US-developed Da Vinci system — a teleoperated medical robot in which surgeons use joysticks to control tiny robotic arms — Darzi’s team performed the UK’s first robot-assisted heart bypass operation at St Mary’s hospital, London.
A team at Imperial College is working on the development of an image-guidance system that would make such robotic surgeons even safer. It is developing a system to match the 2D endoscopic images seen by the surgeon, with a detailed model of the moving, 3D body tissue.
Many in the medical world are concerned the technology will relegate surgeons to the role of technicians.
However, while the sci-fi dream of android doctors with steady hands and a comforting bedside manner is a way off, the march of robots into our operating theatres and hospital wards is set to continue.
Within the last 20 years renewable energy has been firmly repositioned in the public consciousness.
Not so long ago any mention of wind turbines or solar cells would be passed off as the ramblings of a tree-hugging hippie. But today’s concerns about global warming and the political risks of fossil fuels has meant the large-scale production of electricity from renewable sources has become more popular.
Now we frequently hear the chairmen of the big oil companies talking about reducing CO2 emissions and investing in alternative technologies. Just last month Shell, one of the world’s largest energy providers, released research claiming that tackling climate change represented a positive business opportunity. The report claimed that efforts to reduce climate change could create a market of up to £30bn for British businesses over the next 10 years.
Such sentiments would once have been unthinkable from an industry wedded to fossil fuels but renewable energy, in all of its guises, is increasingly seen as a vital component of the UK’s energy mix.
Two fundamental trends in renewable energy schemes hint at how green energy might affect the UK in the future. The first is the move towards large-scale renewable schemes. A good example is the proposed London Array: a giant wind farm 19km off the Kent and Essex coast that would use 271 turbines to generate enough electricity for 750,000 homes. The other end of the spectrum is the trend towards microgeneration — where individuals use small wind or water turbines, ground source heat pumps and solar cells to meet their own energy needs.
Thus, while nuclear power looms large it is equally likely that wind farms, tidal generation schemes, solar cells and any other renewable energy source you care to think of will be making a contribution in 2156.
According to engineers and scientists involved in the growing field of rapid manufacturing (RM), we are standing on the brink of a manufacturing revolution.
RM, a step on from the rapid prototyping techniques now commonplace throughout industry, encompasses a range of processes that can be used to literally ‘print off’ functional components.
Loughborough University’sProf Phill Dickens, the internationally recognised pioneer of RM, told The Engineer that when he first mentioned the concept back in 1992 everyone thought he was mad. But the technology is now reaching the point where components that can be produced are as good, if not better, than those made using conventional processes.
From the air intakes of F18 fighter jets, to hearing aids, football boots and various components for F1 cars, RM has already been used on a variety of niche applications but as the technology matures Dickens believes it will move into the manufacturing mainstream. In the process, he expects it to trigger a revival in UK manufacturing fortunes. ‘These machines can operate anywhere. In fact, the closer they are to the customers the more economical they become. Thus, in the long term, RM could see increasing amounts of manufacturing coming back to the UK from low-cost labour economies,’ he said.
Dickens added that as the technology becomes more advanced, it will be capable of developing increasingly complex components, with moving parts and embedded sensors and electronics. This leads to a range of exciting future scenarios, such as garages printing off bits of car while you wait, or kids downloading and manufacturing the latest must-have toy on the domestic manufacturing machine.
Another hugely exciting prospect is the use of RM in the production of biological devices. While the technology has already been used to make dental implants and bespoke hearing aids, Dickens envisages it one day being used to develop a variety of increasingly complicated biological components. He said it may ultimately be possible to rapidly manufacture entire organs for transplant.
Built to last
Many of the great engineering developments from the Victorian age of innovation are still with us today. Visit www.theengineer.co.uk/150yearsto view our original coverage of a few of the era’s most enduring engineering legacies.