90 glorious years of engineering

Written by: Keith Lewis
Published on: 21 Apr 2016

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Today is Her Majesty the Queen’s 90th birthday. As the longest reigning British monarch, the Queen has experienced over 64 years at the helm of Great Britain.

Over her reign and indeed, her lifetime, Her Majesty has witnessed many of the most significant events in modern history, living through World War II and seeing significant advances in medicine, transport and communications.

To mark this unique occasion, I wanted to look back over the past nine decades and celebrate the breakthroughs made by engineers in this time, which have changed the world we live in today.

1920s: The origins of TV

The invention of television is accredited to Scottish engineer John Logie Baird who first managed to transmit an image across a distance of 10 feet in 1924. Baird named his early mechanical model the ‘televisor’ and went on to develop colour TV and work on electronic TV models from the 1930s. Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 is said to represent the real tipping point between the popularity of the radio and TV, with nearly 20 million people watching the live broadcast at home, at friend’s houses and in public viewing spots such as cinemas, halls and pubs.

1930s: Jet engine

During his officer training course, RAF engineer air officer Frank Whittle formulated ideas that led to the creation of the jet engine. Despite receiving critique from the Air Ministry, his confidence in his theory led him to patent his idea in 1930. The turbojet engine provided a solution to the challenge of achieving high speed, long range flying at high altitudes, which had previously been unachievable with piston engines and propellers.

1940s: Radars in WW2

It is often said that radar was the ‘secret weapon’ in the Battle of Britain and without it, we couldn’t have won. The advanced warning that the radars gave the RAF meant that they were able to intercept the German air attacks. By proving that aircraft could be detected by bouncing radio waves off them, Scotsman Sir Robert Watson-Watt is credited as the pioneer of radar technology.

1950s: Hovercraft

The hovercraft was invented off the back of an experiment by British engineer Christopher Cockerell, who sought to find an answer to the problem of friction between a ship’s hull and the water. Using some tin cans and the fan from a vacuum cleaner, he proved that a vessel could be lifted on an air cushion. In 1959, the first full-scale craft made a successful crossing of the Channel, nearly sixty years later, hovercraft continue to be used around the world in military and rescue operations.

1960s: Carbon fibre developed

British aircraft engineer Leslie Phillips created carbon fibre by stretching synthetic fibres and heating them to blackness. This process resulted in fibres that are the same weight (if not lighter) but twice as strong as steel. The development of this material has had profound effects on manufacturing and construction across the aerospace, automotive and maritime industries, amongst many others.

1970s: The jumbo jet’s first commercial flight

Boeing’s 747 Jumbo Jet made its commercial debut on Pan American’s New York to London route. The design of the first 747 required 75,000 engineering drawings. For over 40 years, this 350 ton aircraft model has dominated the airline world.

1980s: Channel Tunnel

The late 1980s saw construction begin on the Channel Tunnel between France and Britain. Over five years later, Queen Elizabeth II opened the completed project with the French President.

This engineering feat is one of a kind and could be considered as one of the wonders of the modern world. 13,000 engineers, technicians and workers helped to construct the tunnel, which is the longest undersea tunnel in the world.

1990s: First onshore wind farm in UK

The UK has excellent wind resource and, as a nation, we first capitalised on this in 1991 with the construction of our first commercial wind farm in Cornwall. Onshore wind energy is now the UK’s largest source of renewable energy generation, providing around 17 terawatt-hours of electricity annually, with the ability to power 4 million homes. The onshore wind sector has seen considerable employment growth and the number of full time employees working within this sector now stands at around 19,000.

2000s: Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers

In the late 2000s, construction began on the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, with HRH the Princess Royal cutting the first steel for the hull of the first ship. Since then, the project has relied on more than 200 direct suppliers and 10,000 workers across the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and its supply chain. The carriers will be the largest surface warships ever constructed for the UK with the capability of carrying up to 40 aircraft. The first of the two carriers is expected to enter service in 2020.

2010s: Autonomous cars

In the current decade, there are many exciting developments being made in engineering, however, one which is likely to be a staple of the future is autonomous cars. The driverless car concept relies on a blend of traditional and modern engineering practices to bring it to life and demonstrates the increasing convergence of technology and engineering skill sets.

The Government recently announced its intention to establish the UK as a global centre of excellence in connected and autonomous vehicles. I look forward to seeing these plans become a reality.

A lifetime of engineering feats

With a lifetime spanning 10 years short of a century, Her Majesty the Queen has undoubtedly experienced the birth and development of some of the greatest engineering feats of all time.

Not only has the Queen witnessed significant advances in engineering, but she has also seen a big shift in the need for different skills – from the kinaesthetic mechanical skills needed to design and create new types of engine, through to the electrical skills required to wire up the jumbo jet and the software-based skills for modern, connected vehicles.

Unsurprisingly over this length of time, the tools and technologies that engineers have access to have also changed dramatically. Of course, the engineers in the earlier part of the 20th century used slide rules for calculations and created mechanical drawings by hand. Now, calculators and computers are the modern engineer’s tools for undertaking the mathematical and design aspects of their job.

Young people entering into engineering can learn lot from history and they will need to harness a range of skills and tools to have the same impact on the future as their predecessors have had over Her Majesty’s lifetime. Happy Birthday your Majesty and good luck engineers of the future!

Keith Lewis, Chief Operating Officer of Matchtech Group Plc and Managing Director of engineering recruitment specialist Matchtech.