The Structural Engineer > Archive > Volume 82 (2004) > Issues > Issue 8 > Engineering a nation: celebrating the past
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Engineering a nation: celebrating the past

I face the prospect of presenting the Maitland Lecture with more than a little trepidation, because as a non-engineer I am choosing to talk about engineering and its history to engineers. I want to talk in the main about the visibility of engineers, the great works of engineers and the connection between the two. This draws me inevitably towards the great works that structural and civil engineers have created and are famous for and what they offer to the wider public today and the engineering professions of the future. To me, it goes without saying that engineers are some of the most vital contributors to any civilised society, but for the wider public it is more than a little easy for engineers to be taken for granted. For most of my life I have seen engineers as heroes and have been continually amazed, and rather disappointed, that the rest of the world does not share my views. But, things are changing and there is plenty of evidence to indicate that. Certainly, for what has been called the Heroic Age of Engineering, the great figures from the past are once again being lionised. The extraordinary television debate which seized the imagination of the nation and resulted in Isambard Kingdom Brunel being voted by the British public as the second Greatest Briton ever in the 100 Great Britons programme is a case in point. And, by the same token, we are increasingly seeing other television programmes that celebrate the contribution that engineers have made to the making of the modern world. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, most of those engineers were dead before 1900. But it is a beginning; let us be thankful for what we have got. At last the nation is recognising the real contribution that engineers have made to the lives of us all. So, my view of the newfound interest in engineering history is a very positive one. But, it is not based on the argument that I have heard promoted by many engineers over the years: that is, a knowledge of the history of engineering should be an essential part of the training of all engineers. Desirable as that may or may not be, engineering curricula are too crowded. No, my argument is entirely different. I believe that as a nation we should celebrate the works of engineers just as we celebrate achievement in other walks of life, in the arts, architecture and increasingly in science. We have a unique and quite extraordinary opportunity to do just this. The justification is quite simple. As Samuel Smiles said, ‘our engineers may be regarded... as the makers of modern civilisation’. So, I contend that their works need to be celebrated as symbols of civilisation, as emblems of progress and as something to which present and future engineers can point and from which they can gain inspiration and feelings of pride. More importantly, the public too need those symbols to revere and respect. Through their works can engineers be valued. This is not nostalgia, nor is it the shedding of tears over glories past. It is ab