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Engineering Heroes

Posted on by St John

Engineering Heroes

A UK poll conducted a couple of years ago to find our most admired engineering heroes could teach modern manufacturers a lesson or two in good marketing, says St John White, head of Prova’s Automotive Industry Group.

Think about engineering and we normally envisage great Victorian pioneers such as Brunel or Stephenson – the bearded geniuses behind iron ships, suspension bridges and steam engines. However, an online survey conducted by the people behind the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering shows how wide a discipline engineering really is. Including civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical and computer engineers, the list of greats is littered with stories of triumph over adversity and great minds overcoming huge odds to create awe inspiring inventions.

Looking at the heroes hit list, 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 is no surprise.

The presence of fellow Victorians James Watt, George Stephenson and Joseph Bazalgette show just how closely associated this period in Britain’s history is linked to 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 who represent engineering on a classical 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.

What really comes across to me as a marketing man are the human stories behind each name. Clearly, this poll reminds us that often it’s not what you do, it’s more about the circumstances in which you do it, or the adversity you face along the way when society has stacked the odds against you.

For today’s engineers, I think this teaches an important lesson. Developing the greatest new hybrid engine, ground-breaking software or a new innovation in Additive Manufacturing is laudable. However, without the engaging human story behind the invention, it’s unlikely to catch the public’s imagination and resonate with people. That’s where good marketing and PR comes in. It’s not about spin and deception. Good marketing is about universal truths and engaging people with stories.

UK engineering needs to get the investment and invention of new innovations right, but it also needs to learn how to tell its stories of hard work, determination and courage.

Here is the list.

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 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 designed 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

Thinking about the great engineering figures of the 21st century and names such as Elon Musk and James Dyson come to mind. While both are universally regarded as innovators who broke the mould, they also took on the establishment in their respective industries – and won. Not to diminish their huge contribution to manufacturing, but their personal stories are what have helped to create their individual myths. UK engineering is full of great innovators with unique talents. As marketeers, we need to continue to tell their stories.

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