Brunel and Dyson pip Gates and Jobs as biggest engineering pioneers

Paul Boughton

A GE survey of nearly 900 UK engineering undergraduates today highlights the brightest and best engineers through history.   

From Newton to Dyson, UK students gave their opinion of who has most inspired them, as well as what they see as the key challenges they wish to tackle in the future. The survey was conducted as part of a GE report on the future of UK engineering as perceived by these undergraduates, The Young Minds Monitor (1).
Asked the question: “Who do you consider to be your hero/icon in your field?” students gave a fascinating range of answers, from well-known historical figures such as Brunel, Einstein and Newton, to modern day technology icons such as Steve Jobs and James Dyson. Reassuringly, of the top ten selected, half of them are British innovators whose work is still very much in evidence in today’s society.
The Top 10 Engineering Heroes are:

1. Isambard Kingdom Brunel – leading civil engineer of 19th Century, built bridges, dockyards and railways.
2. James Dyson – industrial designer who developed a new generation of vacuum cleaners and actively supports engineering projects in the UK.
3. Steve Jobs – co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc., which developed some of the most iconic personal technology products including the Mark II computer and iPod.
4. Nikola Tesla – inventor and engineer whose work formed the basis of modern alternating current electric power systems.
5. Bill Gates – co-founder and Chairman of Microsoft, who developed the industry standard operating system for personal computers.
6. Frank Whittle – RAF engineer who is credited with inventing the first jet propulsion engine.
7. Isaac Newton – physicist and theoretician who developed the concepts of mechanics, gravity and the laws of motion and invented the reflecting telescope.
8. Albert Einstein – theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity and is considered the founder of modern physics.
9. Charles Rolls & Henry Royce – developed early engine technology and luxury motor vehicles.
10.Thomas Edison – inventor of the first commercially viable light bulb, motion picture camera and phonograph who revolutionised electrics and communications.

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Mark Elborne, President and CEO of GE UK said: “Our research shows that iconic figures – both historic and modern – continue to inspire a new generation of engineers. We continue to see the impact of these icons all around us today; and our research shows that we have a proud tradition of pioneers and innovators in this country, which should be celebrated.  With the very significant environmental, energy and healthcare challenges we face today and will face in the future, it is critical that we continue to inspire young people into engineering and science, nurturing future generations of Brunels, Newtons and Edisons.”
The research also looked at the innovations that most inspired this new generation of engineers (2). Asked what they thought the most world changing innovations were over the past century (3), the students listed their top five as being:
1. Computers and Electronics.
2. Communications Technology.
3. Transportation Technology.
4. Power and Energy Technology.
5. Manufacturing and Materials.
The GE Young Minds Monitor also looked at what students saw as the biggest challenges that engineering technology should look to address. (4) The top five were listed as:
1. Energy.
2. Environment.
3. Food, Water and Natural Resources.
4. Societal Issues.
5. Quality of Education.  

The study indicated that young people are increasingly positive about the prospects of engineering technology in the UK. 92 per cent of students say that engineering technology has a “positive image” and the same number was confident or very confident about their career prospects on graduation.
Mark Elborne continued: “In today’s celebrity obsessed culture, there is a risk that engineering will not be seen as particularly trendy. However it is crucial to our economic growth and prosperity; to our international competitiveness as well as to our future. It is refreshing to see that a new generation is turning to engineering - not just because of the career or salary prospects, but because engineering gives them the skills and tools to address some of the world’s biggest challenges.  This in itself is inspiring and very encouraging.”
Both lecturers and students see developing a more positive societal attitude regarding the benefits of engineering (86 per cent and 77 per cent) and investment in higher education and vocational training (82 per cent and 64 per cent) as the most important ingredients for developing a best in class engineering technology culture in the UK.

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(1) The GE Young Minds Monitor involved interviews with nearly 1,000 students and lecturers associated with engineering. The research sought to discover what technology leaders of today and tomorrow think about the future of the engineering technology sector as well as differences of opinion between lectures and students. The survey was conducted by OpinionPanel Research.
(2) Some examples of the responses that students gave about the most world changing innovations were:

* “The installation of the internet and e-mail. This revolutionised the speed at which projects could be communicated and the number of people working on it drawing on a very wide base of experience. Many extremely practical things such as finite element analysis came out of the computer revolution allowing more accurate and efficient modelling of structures and their form.”
* “The designs of new ground breaking buildings, planes and transport systems such as the Eurostar, Maglev and TGV. Concorde was one of the biggest breakthroughs of the past one hundred years.”
*  “Nuclear technology, nanotechnology, natural integrated circuitry. It is less the innovations themselves and more what is done with them that changes the world.”
* “Sustainable energies and a drive for greater efficiency in everything that is currently produced.”

(3) Timeline of innovations that changed the world:
* 3,100BC: earliest example of wheel and axle mechanism.
* 1430s: Johann Gutenberg perfects the printing press.
* 1712: Thomas Newcomen builds first commercially successful steam engine.
* 1807: Marc Brunel in England devised equipment using 22 kinds of machines that produced identical items in process sequence one at a time.
* 1821: Faraday demonstrates electro-magnetic rotation, the principle of the electric motor.
* 1822: Charles Babbage designs the first calculating machine, removing human error from mathematical computations. 
* 1829: Stephenson’s Rocket, the forerunner of the modern train is built.
* 1846: The first pneumatic tyre patented.
* 1876: Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone.
* 1879: Thomas Edison successfully tests the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb that will become an industry standard.
* 1888: Nikola Tesla develops basis for modern AC electrical power systems.
* 1903: Wright brothers achieve the first powered flight.
* 1908: Ford begins mass production of the model T.
* 1968: Douglas Engelbart holds the ‘mother of all demos’ showcasing technologies that would become commonplace such as word processing, computer mouse and email.
* 1973: Martin Cooper of Motorola makes the first call from a handheld mobile phone to his long-time rival, Dr. Joel S. Engel of Bell Labs.
* 1978: US military develops first GPS system.
* 1981: IBM introduces the 5150 Personal Computer, the first recognisable, affordable and mass market PC.
* 1989: British scientist Tim Berners-Lee develops the World Wide Web.
* 2001: Steve Jobs unveils the iPod which can fit ‘1,000 songs in your pocket’
* 2004: Mark Zuckerberg launches “The Facebook” from his dormitory in Harvard.
(4) Some examples of the responses that students gave about the biggest challenges that engineering technology should look to address were:

* “Sustaining the earth’s resources and changing the world we live in to a more sustainable one in general.”
* “Reducing the effect of developing technology on the environment, investing in engineering technology companies which in turn benefit the economy.”
* “A far deeper look into alternate energy sources that will allow us to produce huge amounts of power from very little resources. This will in turn help with advances such as space exploration and the ability to shrink down current technology and make it even more powerful.”
* “Making it possible for a large number of people to live in one area while still having the capabilities to produce food/water/export produce.”

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