I don’t recall there was ever a time when I’d considered becoming anything other than an engineer. I guess it all started spending hours as a child making all sorts from Meccano, creating a working model of a crane, or various things using all the cogs and motors. I also recall the many hours spent with my father in our garage tinkering with bicycles, lawnmowers and motorbikes. So when the options came up to study subjects like metalwork and technical drawing at school, it just seemed the natural thing to do. I was very fortunate that back then our teachers still encouraged a strong focus on Physics and Maths.
One of my early inspirational figures, apart from my father, was Clive Sinclair, the prolific inventor of the C5 electric vehicle and early computers like the ZX80. However, long before that in the 1960’s, when he was in college, he produced small booklets on transistor circuitry, showing how you could build radios and amplifiers, these booklets were available from the local ‘radio shops’ of the time, which were an Aladdin’s Cave of government surplus items from which you could build anything you so desired. I recall as young boy I built radios in matchboxes, intercoms through the house and my pride and joy at the time, a sonic washing machine, which used sound waves to wash clothes. To my surprise this device did actually work, but prototype development was stopped by my mother when we both got a severe electric shock; it did teach me however, that water and electricity didn’t go together too well, or least not without some good isolation principles being employed, but that came much later in my engineering education. It is interesting that, although I finally focussed on mechanical engineering as a career, my interest as a child was as much on new emerging electronics as it was on things mechanical. This perhaps explains why I have never really seen the need for boundaries between the different engineering disciplines.
When it came to leaving school, engineering was my de facto career choice; we were so lucky at that time, every large engineering company and government research body ran excellent apprenticeship schemes and would sponsor you through university and college. If as a country, we are going to seriously address the shortage of engineers we have coming up, large companies, the government and the engineering professions must work together to get these type of apprenticeship schemes up and running. We are talking here about serious engineering and science based apprenticeships, linked to quality degree level qualifications; not hiding the real problem with statistics on apprenticeships in hairdressing and catering, important and valued as these careers are.
My final choice of apprenticeship, (yes in those days, young aspiring engineers actually had the choice of what companies to go work with), was with the British Aircraft Corporation, now BAE Systems, in Filton near Bristol; they combined courses and training with Rolls Royce. It was a hugely exciting time; the main project going through the company was Concorde and the development of the Olympus 593 aero engine, four of which were to power this new passenger airliner to supersonic speeds. You knew at the time that you were a part of something big. As apprentices, we actually lived on the airfield at Filton, housed in the old Officers quarters of what was RAF Filton. At that time, Concorde had not yet flown; the first prototype was being built and many times we watched at the side of the airfield whilst the first Concorde accelerated at full power down the runway, only to throttle back; the power and noise was so great and with the after burners of the engines scorching the runway. However, on the 9thApril 1969, the British built prototype made its first flight from Filton to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire and on the 1st October 1969 it completed its first supersonic flight.
You don’t fully realise it at the time, but one of the most wonderful things about being an engineer is that you make history. On July 21st that year we stood in the mess room of Barnwell Hall and watched man take the first steps on the moon. There have been many moments throughout my career when I have stopped and realised the context and importance of what it means to be an engineer. It doesn’t matter at what stage in history you look at, engineers have shaped society and moved mankind to greater things, whether it’s industrialisation, manned flight, space travel, discovering new sources of energy or computing and communications.
However, the work of engineers is certainly not complete; the world is changing rapidly, facing challenges on economic, environmental and social fronts. Increasingly, society will turn to engineers for solutions. There has never been a more important time to become an engineer. Engineers entering the profession now will be called upon to be innovative and entrepreneurial; to establish new ventures and to help expand our existing companies to meet the challenges of society.
Engineering has been a hugely satisfying career for me, after the wonders of Concorde, it led me to the technical challenges of the Nuclear Industry and into the incredible world of Oil and Gas, where I am still in awe that engineers have found new ways of extracting energy by drilling in waters 1500 metres deep then going 5000 metres below the sea bed to extract hydrocarbons formed by plankton over 500 million years ago.
It not just the technical and innovative challenges, I believe that engineers make natural entrepreneurs; they are inherently innovative and can understand and manage risk, so important in the world of business. Careers can be developed in engineering with large companies involved in the major challenges, but there is always opportunity to create your own business in engineering, in seeing that niche in the market to create something for yourself. I have been privileged to have been involved in both areas during my career and both aspects are extremely rewarding and fulfilling.
It is only when you look back on your career do you see the full extent of what engineering has given to you and hopefully what engineering has given back to society. I believe however, the best is yet to come, but does need the best young talent to make it happen.
Please comment and tell me what it means for you to be an engineer, and how it’s helped you in your career!