The First QE Prize

Start of a new Era?

The Lad said that he would be watching. There were doubts.
The first Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering has now been awarded. This is the First Prize of a million pounds: it is to be the first sight of the resulting ‘broad, sunlit uplands’ where the engineering profession will be recognised and courted and besieged by the ranks of youth who will set it alight in the decades to come.
Certainly they, the winners with the other IT workers, introduced a gigantic category that is not recognised by any of the Nobel Prizes: Berners Lee conceiving the ‘www’ idea; and working on communication protocols were Cerf, Kahn and Pouzin, while Andreessen developed the net browser.

They said:

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering is a global prize recognising and celebrating outstanding advances in engineering that have changed the world.      

…Will reward and celebrate an individual (or up to three individuals)…..

[Prize awarded this time to five individuals.]

 ‘raise the international public profile of engineering and inspire new generations of engineers’.

Yes…. Yes but…

Do the organisers know what real engineering actually is? Is IT actually Engineering; see here and here?

Engineers of every stripe have one thing in common. That is they manage forces in the world for the benefit of mankind. Computer scientists and coders plan structures of ideas and write logical statements to dance in the infinite and malleable cyberspace: they do not engineer anything.

Somehow it seems to be unsurprising to the cynical among those in the engineering profession that the first Prize has been awarded to the IT industry.

OMG. How much profile raising of Information Technology (IT) is needed in this day and age?

All IT is currently very fashionable in the prints and already uber-cool with the young. As the young easily do, they clearly see it as being the be all and end all of the modern world. Real engineering it is that would benefit from it.

Let us look at the judges on the Awards Committee. There were 15 judges. We could use some Venn diagrams to make this clear, but of them;

There is only one Engineer active in the field. One! All praise then, Paul Westbury, the brilliant [and young] designer of several magnificent, real world structures.

Among the 14 others, there are 10 academics.

In the remaining 4 there are 3 individuals working commercially, outside the groves of academe, and they are all in the IT field, i.e. Google, Indian software and Seattle patent brokers.

The other one is a biologist working on evolution applications to, inter alia, energy.

How many of the academics have ever designed or developed or procured an engineered object, e.g. the parts of a machine or structure, to specification, time and price – let alone all of these processes at one time?

What was the contribution of each Judge; did all take equal part?

On the day of the announcement, on18 March 2013, BBC News reported the award of the QE Prize for Engineering. The piece was introduced by the Science Correspondent; there was a stock clip of molten metal being tapped [wearisome]. This was followed by a talking Brian Cox [Rock aura and nice looking]. The Lad has a lot of time for the guy but he is a physicist, not an engineer. Oh! And then a Social Studies Think Tank person intoned that “We need more engineers”.

With such a first award of the Prize, how can The Lad get the organisers to understand and arrange that the media need more proper engineers talking on the telly about real engineering? Details are difficult but principles and artefacts can be photogenic and attractive to the young.

Will the Prize sponsors who dipped into their pockets for the funds recognise this as engineering? Who were engineers on the Prize short list?

Consider all the stakeholders here.

Sponsors vs. Prize Management Panel vs. Prize Judges vs. Nobel Prize vs. youngsters encouraged vs. engineering profession vs. Academia.

Are they anywhere near in the right balance?

There is no evidence from this First Prize that it will even begin to bring any benefit to Engineering.

Dreamliner and a Nightmare

Who wants to be an engineer?

Boeing 787 Dreamliners are still grounded around the globe in February 2013 after the lithium ion battery problems became very bad in January 2012. Boeing says currently that it expects the aircraft to be back in service in late March or April. Something similar, but on a smaller scale, has happened before with laptops bursting into flames because of their lithium ion batteries.

This is the sort of problem that an engineer can face when any of her creations takes to the sky or arrives in numbers in the big, bad world. It may an aircraft, a car or a washing machine. It is what sometimes comes after the creative struggle of the Design process. Of course she hopes that the problems are not too terrifyingly large.

Now here, though, we have dozens of planes grounded for months and each worth two hundred million dollars [according to the Boeing website]. Nonetheless, dealing with similar things on a smaller scale are part of his job description for any engineer.

What information that seems to have seeped into the public prints is that the Lithium Ion batteries have not been adequately cooled and have taken fire. This is not something that aeronautical engineers want to happen to their babies. The aircraft designers or their colleagues, the Power Electronics Engineers, will be looking to see if some fault external to the batteries was the cause or whether the batteries installation has been designed too close together or whether the cooling systems designed for them are not sufficient.

The Lad is not a battery design expert, but he knows that lithium ion batteries are more like little furnaces rather than the EVEREADY, zinc oxide dry-batteries of his boyhood ‘tin’ torch. We can discover that like a boxer, pound for pound, these batteries are six times better than the standard lead acid battery in a car. This feature is gold dust for plane design engineers. But as a consequence of this, the lithium components are bursting with energy and therefore can get very hot. This, together with the essential [but flammable] solvent, means that a battery if it is hard-driven is continually on the verge of losing control to a runaway reaction and getting either very hot or even bursting into flames.

If it is a battery cooling problem for a modern airliner the solution will not be simple. No one can just say let us move them apart from each other or away from other bits of kit so that then they won’t get so hot. An aircraft may look large roomy and smooth from the outside.

An early DreamLiner at Farnborough Air Show
An early DreamLiner at Farnborough Air Show


In truth, inside there is packed a 3D maze of structure, engines, fuel tanks and cargo…sorry, passengers. Below is a picture that gives an indication of the complexity of the structure even before all the rest of the kit is installed.

An early Production Engineering Test Rig
An early Production Engineering Test Rig


Agreed! It is not a very informative graphic but it is the only one that seems to be available. Remember, that the Dreamliner has much clever engineering to allow the use of vast amounts of non-metallic components in its structure. How they do this is a close Boeing secret and not one they are likely to share with anyone in public anytime soon.

Certainly, the plane will be crammed inside with frames and stringers between which the batteries will be shoe-horned into their position. What is to be done then in these jam-packed spaces? Currently, rumour has it that

“Boeing has proposed insulating the battery’s lithium-ion cells from one another to prevent fire spreading, encasing the battery in a fire-proof shell and installing sensors.
It also proposes a venting mechanism to remove fumes which led to the emergency landing.”

The view of The Lad is that this can only be seen as a ‘workaround’ rather than a definitive solution which should involve arranging for the batteries not to over-heat. We can only await events.

A final thought on those ‘events’ is that, if the experience of The Lad is anything to go by, major problems like this will be astonishingly more complicated than The Lad is able to deduce in this post. The points that he makes above will only be the beginning of the beginning.

Such problems will have a large team entirely devoted to solving them. Such a team will consist of dozens of engineers. There will be design and development engineers, metallurgists, electrical and electronic engineers. As a team, they will be working, certainly, seven days a week and probably 24hrs a day. That’s what engineers do: their best efforts sometimes produce a problem so then they have to race to solve it. All the while that they struggle, massive present and future costs result in cash haemorrhaging straight down the drain – to waste.

Note that, while Boeing may say all will be well by March or April, at least one major customer airline expecting to be without its planes till May. So – that the above Boeing team list does not include the groups of programme guys working at the airlines. They are struggling to arrange replacement flights for passenger already booked to fly in planes are no longer available. The costs of this group and plane hire will undoubtedly land on the Boeing doormat in due course.

It emphasises that the professional engineer must always work with not only the obvious factors of ‘materials’ and the ‘forces’ developed by the machines but also with essential factor of ‘finance’.

How about this thought though. Problems such as this Dreamliner may be exhilarating – provided no one thinks that you were to blame. If you are in charge of the team solving them, The Lad guesses, that it can be satisfying. So! If you are the person who says ‘Bring it on!’ then maybe you are a worthy successor to Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Do you want to be an engineer?

A change of state for Dyson – back!

Sir James Dyson is famous for his engineered products and support for UK engineers and engineering. It is striking that this has come about from his work entirely devoted to domestic appliances. A few years back, The Lad would then have expected that such an engineering reputation would have had to have stemmed from Defence or Aerospace or Power Generation: industries that are awash with finance, opportunities and Research and Development (R&D) departments. Perhaps, alternatively, anywhere in Germany or the US – but we won’t go into that.

The air moving device, called the Air Multiplier by Dyson is one of his latest devices and, typically, it is a remarkable example of thinking laterally. That, together with painstaking development, brings a device to replace and improve the standard domestic fan.

The vacuum cleaner newly bought by The Lad is the DC41 Animal . As part of normal usage and maintenance of the cleaner; the internals brought into view reveal an engineering, tour de force of die cast plastic design.


That vital component of the engineering design process, the material, used by Dyson is presumably that marvel of an engineering plastic – ABS or a more modern derivative.



However the new design cleaner is not without minor glitches. Such glitches though, The Lad emphasises are part of a normal engineering development of even the highest level product. There is also a much more interesting effect that we will come to after a mention of the glitches.

The On/Off power switch has nowhere near the snap action [as in a light switch on the wall] that this user expects. A stab action of the finger frequently leaves the motor still running. That’s one. The other concerns the power flex, or cord. It is longer, which is good, but is not so easy to handle as was the flex of The Lad’s previous Dyson. It does not coil in the hand comfortably. Possibly the insulation elastomer is slightly too stiff in shear or there are inbuilt stresses. Either could lead to torsional coiling problems.

Now we come to the interesting thing.

Think about this. The Animal cleaner is definitely a more elegant engineering design than the products of other companies and also its Dyson predecessors.  Also, the design morphology is different in that the filters are in different locations in the air flow path. Despite this, the design is now back to the starting point. This starting point was a vacuum cleaner with a bag [which is a filter of course] that had to be changed; the dust collection efficiency declining if it was not.

From the user’s point of view; which has to be the engineer’s Gold Standard, things are now much the same as they were. Dyson recommends washing the 2 filters in the Animal every 3 months. Their extraction is as inconvenient as was changing a bag and the washing of the filters and their 24 hr drying time [perhaps longer in winter in the UK] is more inconvenient.

So here we are. This is a vacuum cleaner design that demands that its large filters have a 24 hr maintenance process to avoid loss of efficiency. The clever and elaborate cyclone technology is being overshadowed by the old [paper in one case] filter technology. One of the filters is in the shape of a bag. Sir James had better not let his engineers go any further down this design branch!

Engineering is one of the three drivers advancing the human race. This blog describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world. It is not well served by the current media. An engineer is posting: not a ‘scientist’. Its target is the career seeker and also the general public.


Entropic disorder at the BBC

The second programme in the Genius of Invention series was mainly up to the usual high BBC documentary standard. The Lad returned to it following his review of the first of the series.

Most of his original thoughts this time were, in truth, nit-picking: why the presenters were gurning so much with their continual, strained grins, indeed why were there three presenters at all . On the latter, the producers presumably wanted to avoid the unthinkably, unfashionable, single lecturer. Mostly though here the jump cut effect is mere hyper-activity. As well, there seems no logic in having an “industrial archaeologist” who shows little archaeology but does instruct another presenter on certain simplistic features of a modern jet engine.

Then the Lad realised that something had almost passed him by with only a momentary feeling of something wrong. There was a programme segment on Nicolas Sadi Carnot that sought to discuss the efficiency of steam engines. He went back to review it and was amazed.

Neither of the two presenters involved even mentioned the central point that, in any and all engines, heat must be rejected for them to produce power. That is not difficult to tell. It led to the Second Law of Thermodynamics: probably one of the most important things that humanity has learnt about the operation of the universe. This is what we have to thank Carnot for.

Instead it offered a model engine that was, frankly, laughable. Not because it was solely two lengths of plastic guttering rather than piston and cylinder. That is of no concern. One problem was that it was not even any sort of analogue. Then there were a ridiculous trio of jars each with a different amount of coloured water and given wrong descriptions. It was more like the sleight of hand that is the huckster’s Shell Game.

There was mention of an ‘ideal engine’. There were leaks said to represent energy losses due ‘waste heat’, ‘bearings’, ‘friction’ and ‘noise’. Most of these losses, in the real world, illustrated the First Law of Thermodynamics rather than the phenomenon that was Sadi Carnot’s insight.

The whole segment cast no light on Carnot’s insights; indeed it instructed the viewer wrongly. What was Professor Mark Miodownik thinking about associating himself with this train crash of a presentation?

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is central to the practice of real engineering, but this segment added nothing to the story linking Stephenson and Otto and Benz and Whittle. It should have been left out. Putting it in damaged the credibility of the whole programme.

Engineering is one of the three drivers advancing the human race. This blog describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world. It is not well served by the current media. An engineer is posting: not a ‘scientist’. The Lad is entirely independent of any organisation mentioned. The target of the blog is the career seeker and the general public.



“The Genius of Invention” watched

Here is the return of The Lad after an absence from cyberspace caused by an egregious failure by a new ISP. Let’s not go there; at the moment, at least. It is only a short comment on the first programme in a new series on BBC 1 called ‘The Genius of Invention’.

The first thought on looking at the title, was the familiar hobby-horse of The Lad: it’s not invention or inventors [or scientists – on another day], stupid, it’s engineers. Hold on a moment, though. It is perhaps not necessarily engineers who discover and investigate natural phenomena. It may, and often is, scientists like Faraday or even gifted amateurs who come up with the goods. So, let’s not go down that road this time. Let them have it as a title.

OK, now the programme. Visually and technically it was pretty good. Graphics that The Lad saw of the ideas behind the Newcomen and Watt machines were excellent.

With James [steam condenser] Watt at its centre, this edition promises well for the following three programmes. Each of which has at its centre one of Frank [jet engine] Whittle, Michael [electric power] Faraday and Charles [turbine] Parsons.

Fronting the presentations was Dr [medical not PhD] Michael Mosley. His ‘wingmen’ were Dr Cassie Newland, University of Bristol industrial archaeologist, and finally, thanks to the Gods of TV Commissioning, an engineer. This was Professor Mark Miodownik, engineer, materials scientist and Professor of Materials and Society at UCL. A skewed team; no doubt the producers think it rakish. So: not encouraging.

Moving on, though. At least it was set in a real place, Drax Power Station: currently the biggest coal-fired power station in the UK and providing 7% of the power for the whole of the UK on its own in this one place. It is a place that is both real and important in the everyday world and in engineering terms. Sadly the first real person representing engineers was in overalls. And male. He probably does wear them though for his work as he was the overhaul manager. Notice that. He was not the design engineer or the manufacturer.

The vast size of the building and the scale of the ‘set dressing’ imposed themselves on the viewer. It should give pause for thought for any “small is good” advocates. Consider the magnitude of the task for small scale power generation to replace this place and be a significant solution to power generation in the modern world. That is nearly 4000MW for 24 hrs a day, every day.

The distant views of the presenters talking to their cameraman was a bit gimmicky but at least it gave an idea of the scale of the Drax hardware that surrounded them and are part of the world of the power generating engineer.

The dalliance with a large Drax stop valve lost a bit in translation being as the hardware was lying on its side on the floor. Its height, The Lad guessed, was at least twice that of the human beings, if not more; a striking image that simply did not appear.

Yes, you are right. The Lad is jealous. Oh to be able to direct such forces toward his take on engineering on a prime time, main stream, TV channel.

The next programme is devoted to Speed. It will, one imagines, introduce Frank Whittle at least. Certainly Rolls-Royce will continue with another of its recent starring roles on TV. Money could not buy this advertising exposure.

The Master ‘Speaks’?

Last night The Lad was delighted to see his Master, Brunel, star in the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony.

Danny Boyle, the film director, was the guiding spirit of the ceremony. While some of it was somewhat eccentric, at least, none was PR, journalistic or political boiler plate. There was a true artistic intelligence in charge. At least, that is, till Sebastian Coe and Jacques Rogge shouldered their way in for a drone. Any way, you could see where the £27M went.

One of the set-pieces, seeking to show something of the UK self-image, was a giant coup de theatre representation of the whole Industrial Revolution. It included fiery furnaces, steam engines and full height factory chimneys and a cast of, truly, thousands.

And there, marching through the throng, came Isambard Kingdom Brunel: or, rather, his avatar Kenneth Branagh fresh from his TV detective gig as the gloomy Swede, Kurt Wallander. It also seemed to The Lad to show the thoughtful spirit of Boyle to give a starring part also to the living Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

A couple of puzzles though. First, he was shown to be still wandering the earth at the same time as the Suffragettes. Second, Isambard’s only words were not his own but those of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Artistic license, The Lad supposes

That led to the question of whether, with his education, would he have been familiar with or capable of quoting Shakespeare? Certainly The Lad thinks that, if any profession is capable of appreciating the great playwright, so too should the engineer. His dealings with forces in the real world will make him appreciate the way that the world is lubricated by great Art.

Naming Convention 02 – The Answer?

The Lad held forth in the last post on the use of the name of Engineer in IT. This was based upon a self-awarded mandate. This stemmed from his being a coarse engineer: alumnus of an ancient school who, since time immemorial, have wrestled with forces in the natural world. The conclusion was that there were engineer practitioners in certain IT fields such as chip and disc drive design. He argued that the practitioners in those other IT fields of software design and systems analysis are not engineers.

Some will find this stemming from woeful ignorance or, at least, patronising. Both will tend to ignore any views from here and are fully at liberty to do so. But let us not take this hard line for a moment.

It’s all very well to knock something down; it is at least courteous and professional to make an attempt to replace it.

The name ‘cyber wrangler’ will, quite likely, be dismissed as not serious. The Lad quite likes it as It does seem to have a certain ring to it; besides, he invented it. Trouble is; that ring seems to be like something from the Discworld of Terry Pratchett.

in the view of David Evans Membership Director of the British Computer Society [BCS], It helps when searching for an accepted name, to have a significant back history to survey and learn what one’s profession is about. He seems to be right. He tells a story showing a complete dichotomy of approaches.

In my first IT role during a year out before University, I remember vividly the MD of the company telling me we were Lloyd’s of London people first, IT people second – and he had a background as a claims manager and was a Lloyd’s name. We deliberately dressed, acted, spoke, and to some extent thought like our customers, while the companies such as ICL (who we were competing with very effectively) had people who deliberately identified themselves away from the customer – wearing Mickey Mouse ties and other things like that which almost offended their customers. Our customers treated us as partners and more like fellow human beings than they did other suppliers who they saw more as a necessary evil. Sure, we knew the technology, but what made us special was that we knew the business of our customers. I’d imagine that’s an experience shared by a lot of people in this sector.

David points out that, contrary to the IT workers, all engineers have a centuries-long list of role models. Amongst these Isambard, The Lad’s Master, is relatively recent in that long line. The dichotomy in the story that David told seems to be evidence of an accepted role model.

David goes on to say

[The Lad identifies himself] with an engineer born more than 200 years ago…and it is a positive, emotive identification and one I’d imagine is shared widely amongst engineers who otherwise might have little in common. What identity or figure unites the IT profession? It’s too early to tell.

He mentions as a possible role model Sir Maurice Wilkes. He, on the far right in the picture below, was supervising post-doctoral students as early as 1937. He played a part in much computer development throughout the latter half of the 20th Century; yet who died only in 2010 aged a mighty 97. He certainly influenced many people in IT over many decades.

Maurice Wilkes et al
Maurice Wilkes and his post-docs. By permission of Wikipedia

The machine in the picture was a prototype, Meccano, analogue, Differential Analyser. This was only some 5 yrs before the first electronic machines were conceived and would consign the Analyser to oblivion. Or at least to that vale of mathematical oblivion that consists of a New Zealand Meccano club that has sought to rebuild the machine.

But then he goes on to say things that seem to be significant in terms of whether it is engineering. This is David again:

Some people may identify themselves as engineers to differentiate themselves from others they see as cowboys. Some IT people view themselves as hybrids – do they work in IT or in financial services, for example. … all I know is that people have differing views and seem to hold them for reasons linked to emotion as much if not more than a rationale.

I think for the average IT professional it is so much more about people and organisations. An over-focus on the technology can be a major encumbrance, because most of the issues we see are not to do with the technology. … For many IT people what they are doing is shaping their organisations, and shaping experiences. …

… They enable other professionals to have the right resources at the right point. For example, better use of information is one of the biggest opportunities in clinical practice – from research to safety to decision support. The legal profession will be radically altered by technology, enabling new business models and supply chains (it just hasn’t happened yet).

These aspects seem to be about making organisations work more efficiently through the use of IT. This is not engineering.

The Lad helped to create a small MS Access database application to reflect the existing Garden Design business tasks as it was carried it out. He had also been swept up in the rolling thunder of the introduction of an entirely new organisation in a global company to accept SAP. Two different projects indeed.

Where do we go from here?

The Lad was recently reading a fascinating book called Turing’s Cathedral – The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson.,,9780718194505,00.html?strSrchSql=Turing/Turing’s_Cathedral_George_B._Dyson .

In the very earliest days of the USA side of computer development in 1944, some of the guys working on ENIAC were Eckert, Mauchly and Goldstine who all went on to great things in the industry that later developed. With them [according to Dyson’s book, p74] was “28 yr old Arthur Burks(a logician and philosopher turned electronic engineer for the duration of the war)” That was it! It struck me like a hammer-blow. That was exactly what the software design profession is: the profession is entirely that of practical or Applied Logic.

There it is. A descriptive title dating from the earliest IT days adopted, I believe, by one of the pioneers. The name has a fantastic pedigree where it could be used to describe the greatest ancient philosophers who rank with Newton and Einstein.

Software professionals: not engineers but Logicians. Is there any support for that name?

Let us draw this thing to an end as it is getting to sound too much like politicking. This is just what the tasks of engineering are not about. Good Lord! The Lad is almost regretting seeing the Eric Schmidt, Google speech. Almost.

What’s the Naming Convention 01?

The Lad was delighted to read that the head honcho of Google – no less – was pressing the importance of engineering. This was still true even in the present world, said Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, in his speech the other day at the Science Museum, London. To many of his clients that present world is cyberspace. The only way seemingly to get a copy of the speech is to approach Anoek Eckhardt, Communications & Public Affairs Manager, Google UK & Ireland at

It was very wide-ranging of course but it was in a part towards the end that his very words were:

“Pure Science is a crucial ingredient, but it’s only when theory is applied that you have the recipe for economic success. As Edison put it, the value of an idea lies in using it.

That’s why engineering is so important – it is, by definition, applied science. While astronomy inspires us to reach for the stars, we rely on avionics experts to take us there.. Physics helps explain the behaviour of subatomic particles; nanotechnology uses them to make things. Materials science determines the properties of things we build with; structural engineers apply that knowledge to design things that won’t fall down.

Unfortunately, engineering still has an image problem. It’s high time to move beyond the oily tag stereotype and show engineering in its true modern light.”

What a marvellous statement, as a whole, to emanate from Google. The Lad had a minor quibble about ‘space flight relying on “avionics experts”. Avionics is a shortened form of ‘aviation electronics’. It is an important component of the space project but a wide range of disciplines is needed to get anywhere in Space. But let us move on.

But then The Lad noted also that he referred to

“…the role of engineers in developing ….. video games, texting and social networking,….” as well as “Only 2% of Google engineers …”

This blog is about topics in such as mechanical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, etc., etc. It has a working definition for such as these which involves natural forces in the world. This blog has addressed this before. Go to ‘The Engineer as Rock God’ .

The Lad then asked himself the question whether it is generally accepted, not just in Google, that every professionally qualified IT professional in any speciality [coder, circuit designer etc., etc.] is titled an Engineer? His first thought was that coding is more akin to mathematics or accountancy or the Law rather than engineering.

But then chip design on the other hand seemed clearly an engineering discipline grounded on electrical forces and a type of production engineering. The design of hard disc drives, with their seemingly never-ending increase of storage size, he thinks must involve components of the highest accuracy and of minute size but is engineering nonetheless.

David Evans Director, Membership for British Computer Society, , [BCS] which is the Chartered Institute for IT, answered the questions whether the BCS has an official position on the title or whether it could advise on current usage. It transpired that here, with this question, we were stepping lightly into an area freighted with emotion. Highlights of what, in a very full and exclusive discussion, he told us are:

“Interesting question! This is without a shadow of a doubt a very emotive topic for our members, our sector, and for the engineering community as a whole. …

 We offer CEng [Chartered Engineer as offered by many other Engineering Institutions] licensed through the Engineering Council, but as a Chartered body ourselves we offer Chartered IT Professional [CITP]. … There are … people who are very clearly in the CITP domain and others who are clearly in the CEng domain.

We are very clear that it is necessary for us to have CITP, as there are people who are IT professionals who would have no affinity with or interest in CEng, but are very much the sort of people who should achieve a Chartered status.”

The highlights of what a member also told us are:

“While UK-SPEC lays out the competencies for an engineer, … being an engineer is as much about identity and attitude as it is about competency … to some degree a state of mind. … for the average IT professional it is so much more about people and organisations. … IT professionals enable organisations to function, change, grow and adapt. … engineers will always be part of the profession, and engineering will always be the close cousin.”

Dame Wendy Hall is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton and was Head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science.  She is clearly a power in Global IT and, with her current research interests being the Web, her views carry great weight. She wrote directly to The Lad that:

“I am convinced that software engineering is indeed a branch of engineering. Software engineers build things. The things they build have to be robust, reliable, efficient, effective etc., etc

The robustness and reliability of software is of vital importance in many applications (can mean the difference between life and death) and so software engineering as a discipline must be taught in accordance with the principles of what it means to be a chartered engineer just like any other branch of engineering.

… being CEng means more [than CITP] to me. … we teach a degree called Computer Science but it is to all intents and purposes a Software Engineering degree and I’m very proud that … our students are qualified achieve the award of CEng.

Computer Science is … both a science and engineering. … it has a proper place in the panoply of engineering disciplines.”

Here is an intellectually powerful, highly distinguished academic who is, both a CEng and, also wants to be an engineer. Respect! Genuinely, engineers must be very grateful for this, and accept it graciously. The Lad certainly does. Lord knows; there are so few engineers of the status of Professor Hall apparent to the popular consciousness.

Well there you have it. We have three distinguished practitioners regarding themselves as engineers and two of them have taken significant time to wrestle with our question for us. What are we to make of it? What is there to be said?

Statements and questions follow. Discuss.

Robustness and reliability in the practice and drafting of a law can mean the difference between life and death but is not engineering.

Is not the ‘art of the possible’ in coding governed mostly by the mathematical logic of the mathematician?

Does a hard-nosed, results-oriented attack on obstacles in any endeavour make it engineering?

Can the chip manufacturer or the designer of a high speed printer be a member of the same profession as coder or designer of a server operating system?

Is the cabinet maker a member of the same profession as the toolmaker of her planes and chisels.

No more an author is a printer or bookmaker.

How true is it that “Software engineers build things.”? Should not “things” have more substance than software “objects”?

Has the title ‘School of Electronics and Computer Science’ got it about right?

It has been more difficult to write this post than any other so far. The Lad moved easily into pompous sermonising: there came rolling phrases and solemn cadences about misuse of language, naming conventions, wanting being not enough and so on for several, heavy paragraphs without end coming into sight.

But to hell with it: it’s really simple.

The word ‘engineer’ began with those who began devising and building structures to generate or convert existing forces to replace human, animal or wind and water power with something more convenient. Engines, see?

To repeat: up until recently all those engineers (undoubted engineers – such as civil, electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, etc. etc.) have each waged the one common, fundamental struggle. It is that of dealing with forces already existing in the natural world to bend them to the benefit of humankind. This common feature must, therefore, be the fundamental criterion for inclusion under the aegis of the term.The only exceptions have been those writers who would, describing individuals or tasks, use the term to picture a practical person in some sort of analogy.

Those who design and build physical computers or components are wrestling with electromagnetic forces in electronic components and materials. They are, thus, engineers. However, those who conceive the software structure and write the instructions are not dealing with forces in the natural world. They can only be engineers in some analogy: treating with ‘forces’ of logic in some Platonic world of Ideals.

Then, consider the infinite plasticity of Turing’s Universal machine. What could be more remote from the challenges of the natural world and its real, physical working materials? These challenges and materials comprise the world of the engineer. Ergo! The workers in Information Technology systems design and software programmers are not engineers.

This is not to suggest in any way that the software and systems tasks that they face are easy. Indeed, in some ways, due to the almost infinite size of the field of endeavour; the logical intensity of a complex program and the consequences of error [NatWest, 2012 and spacecraft – say no more] the tasks provide the highest intellectual challenge.

Sorry, not to say bold, to turn Google away,

What to call them is the topic of the next post. Here is a teaser: in what way will this image will be part of it?

In the Public Domain (EU and US)

The Go-to People for ship shifting

Spoiler alert! A bilious fragment of truth follows. It is not the whole story but The Lad will defend it from those who will feel that it must be attacked.

The ‘slebs’ of high and low culture are celebrated in the media with acres of print and hours of video coverage. Those who harness the natural world so that it has some surplus, to support the rest of the  human race go relatively unsung.

Driving along the North Wales coast at Easter 2012, The Lad caught a glimpse of a ship, the MV Carrier, grounded in a storm a few days before. The TV news announced that they would seek to re-float it after they had emptied the tanks of fuel oil. It was not a large ship but it was the size of two or three cricket pitches sat against the rocks and weighed perhaps a couple of thousand tonnes. “Shift that ship!” Who do we go to? We go to the men and women who matter. They are the engineers and mariners. They, as far as is possible in this harsh world, are the ones who apply methods beyond the ken of most others to pull irons from the fire.

There are a million possible examples those who have supported the Human Race in its battles with the harshness of the World. Here’s just two at random.

Championed by my guvnor, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Sir Joseph Bazalgette designed and built the great sewers along the London Thames Embankment. This vanquished both the killer, cholera, which threatened the inhabitants of London and also the stench that violated the Houses of Parliament. It allowed that vast city to continue to thrive and move on to organise mercantile trade and the Empire that brought wealth to England. Building ships on a production line in the Venice Arsenale, a place in itself strangely unreported in English, that on the other hand was well reported, brought wealth to the Medici’s and supported the artists and musicians of the Renaissance.

Without those who make things the artists would be found only in the depths of a cave scratching and smearing colour on the walls. The writers reduced to muttering tales to the tribe by the light of a flickering fire whilst hunching a stinking skin closer round their shoulders. That is before they are dragged out to help the community hunt down or gather some food.

I am briefly embarrassed by being reminded that this piece was written one hundred years to the day that RMS Titanic set sail on its first, and tragically, last voyage. Is this fact a hostage to fortune and the literati? All I can say is that no product of the human mind can be perfect especially when under the control of another human being.

We know that this piece has just been a cameo irritant. Lighten up! It’s scratched that itch for the moment and we need to move on to something more considered.

Here you can see the Dutchmen, Smit. What a marvellous, blunt, simple name for engineers! They are the real marine engineers, naval architects and mariners who do amazing things. No connection , by the way, except of admiration. The Lad has seen, at a distance, some of the things that they can do in moving enormous structures across the sea and then, believe it or not, a mile or more across the land. They have done some work on the notorious ‘Costa Concordia.

Super Puma Down – I

Without Warning?

It was April 1st 2009 and the Eurocopter Super Puma L2 helicopter was expecting to land at Aberdeen at 1314 hrs. This was still 20 minutes away but, at the 2000 feet cruising altitude, the coast landfall 10 miles away was just in sight.

Super Puma
The crashed helicopter was one like this

It was about half way through its busy schedule to and from the rigs that day, flying at nearly full speed with a full complement of 2 pilots and 14 passengers. The co-pilot radioed base that all was normal. Only twelve seconds later came two MAYDAY calls

Below, was a modern, powerful, rig supply ship, the ‘Normand Aurora’, on a so-far uneventful trip. Someone on watch on the bridge changed all that. It was good visibility and there was a shocked shout of alarm. Two miles away, the helicopter was hurtling into the sea with separated rotor following it. Then came the bangs, the black smoke and the explosion. The ship swung towards the smoke.

Normand Aurora
Normand Aurora was the nearest ship to the crash site and rushed to the rescue.


Launching their fast,-rescue inflatable. It hit the water with a loud slap and accelerated away. Leaving the mother ship quickly far behind as its helmsman gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles and stiff-armed the throttle fully forward. He and his crew were desperate with hope that there would be something that they would be able to do: that there would be someone that they could help among the unfortunates in the helicopter cabin that had plummeted into the sea at high speed. But fearful at the same time. After the headlong two miles, its crew found a large circle of churning water. Within there were life rafts and debris. They also saw eight people; none were alive.

Epicyclic Gears

Planet gears recovered
Recovered from the sea bottom. Note the missing pinion at four o'clock.


Above are planet gears from the downed helicopter showing corrosion from their immersion in the sea. They are without an outer casing destroyed in the accident. There should be eight gears but it can be seen that one is missing. The destruction of the one, missing planet gear was the cause of the tragedy. Above shows only a part of the gear boxes and trains in the Super Puma [and other similar helicopters].

Had there been no advance warning of the impending catastrophe at all?

The drive shaft from each of the two engines in the helicopter runs at 23 000rpm [that is, the internals of each engine is rotating 380 times in one second or around 5 times as fast as a family car engine!]. The main rotor blades rotate at 265rpm. This means that the helicopter design engineer had to design a gear box to give a reduction of nearly a factor of 100. It has to fit in as small space and have as low a weight as possible.

When the designer needs to slow down the rate of rotation of a shaft by a large amount like this, she usually goes for an epicyclic gear design. These are commonly known as a sun and planet gear sets. This is what is found in a Super Puma between the fast spinning engines the relatively slowly rotating main rotor.

This epicyclic design was shown in the textbooks of The Lad like this, and similar diagrams are still shown today.

Textbook diagram
The textbook version is rather lightweight compared to the real thing.


In real life where very large power has to be transmitted in as small a space as possible, there are more planet gears than in the textbook diagram. They fill the circumference and each is wide and massive. Such planets of half of the Super Puma epicyclic gear train are shown in the salvage photograph above.

To see how designers calculate the variables in a real design of epicyclic gears see –

Magnetic Chip Detectors

Even though the designers seek to make engines and gearboxes as reliable and free from the risk of components failing as possible there is still a need to keep a check on machinery health. For a Power Station generator or a car engine there is no great, inherent problem to be anticipated if it rapidly comes to a halt after 30 sec of noisy running. It is quite a different problem if the engine is powering an aircraft flying several miles high over the ocean. Here a significant risk of such a sudden stop is not acceptable. They must head off such failures before they happen. They must search for signs of any problems well in advance.

The magnetic chip detector is one of the neat ideas that help maintenance teams do this. It is a simple concept. Many of the most highly stressed components are made of steel which is magnetic. One of the commonest symptoms of failure, when such a component wears or suffers fatigue cracking, is that chips of metal are generated and released from the parent component. The oil, as it is circulated throughout the engine, washes such chips away and usually takes it to the lowest part of the engine. En route, if it washes over a single small magnet, it will be captured by the magnet. The maintenance team simply unscrew the magnets at regular intervals and an early alarm can be raised if any chips are found sticking to the magnet.

Such detectors are positioned at various places within the engine oil flow where any chips may be washed over them. An alternative design is to provide twin magnets close together. Coupled to this type of device is a power supply and electronic detector to signal to the helicopter pilots, even in flight, when a chip bridges the two magnets. Such a design is shown below.

Chip detector
This is the operating principle of the more capable design that can provide a signal in flight


There are many such detectors designed into the Super Puma. Several are in the vicinity of the main gear box. The design of such detectors is another one of the many examples of the nexus where the design principle of “simple and reliable” approaches close to the principle of “too crude for the risk burden”. The designer has to consider which is the truth in every such case. Did the detectors work this time or not? If not, why not? See the next post.

Memento Mori

Engineering turns the forces to the benefit of mankind and the results have immense consequences. These consequences are, on the whole, beneficial but sadly, as with any efforts of the human race, for some individuals can be malign.

Bloody skirmishes to understand each way that a structure can fail and to avoid them all are a repetitive feature in engineering history. For ordinary structures most of the skirmishes have been avoided and, nowadays, fewer new ones appear. But fresh demons occasionally burst forth to confound us in new campaigns to complete new tasks or use new materials. When they do, they extract their price in blood or treasure.

Professional engineers have to be continually alert. The engineer knows that the nature of her or his work usually brings great benefit. But it can, also on occasion, bring tragedy.

So it was with G-REDL on 1st April 2009.

RIP deceased

Engineers’ responsibility

Engineering is one of the three drivers in the advancement of the human race. This blog aims to give to career seekers and also to the general public a taste of how this might be so. They are not well served by the current media. It is an engineer posting: not a ‘scientist’. It describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world usually in the present and occasionally as it was in the recent past.