Engineering solutions

A FRIEND recently commented that one of her children was “not academic” and couldn’t “do English” but was “really good at maths.” He would “probably be an engineer,” she said, as if expecting me to sympathise with her. I said I thought it was a great career and that the world – and certainly this country – needs more good engineers.

If you are Italian, your role in life is often used as a greeting – Professore, Dottore, Ingeniero …  These words are an indication of your status in society, and for Italians, who have an impressive historic record of civil engineering innovation, to be an engineer is to be a member of a select and much-admired professional body.

In this country we make two huge mistakes, which start in school and just carry on. We create artificial divides between “the arts” and “science” and we downgrade “technical” skills to practical or vocational status, not to be compared with the lofty aims and achievements of artists and scientists.

It is an absolute nonsense, and a travesty of understanding and ambition. Almost everything we do in the 21st century owes its success, its trajectory, its transportation, its implementation and its contribution to our lives and our communities to the skill, innovation – and imagination – of engineers. From the zillion uses that people find for their smartphones to the simple business of hanging your clothes on a portable washing line, there were engineers involved in the making and the capabilities of the object.

Every time you cross a bridge, you are using the product of an engineer’s skill – whether it is the massive stone slabs of Postbridge on Dartmoor, the simple wooden footbridge by the deep ford at Fifehead Neville on Dorset’s Bulbarrow, the Forth Rail Bridge designed by Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker which was the longest single cantilever bridge span in the world when it opened in 1890, (it is still the world’s second-longest) or the ethereal beauty of the Royal Ballet’s Bridge of Aspiration over Floral Street in Covent Garden.

A geek with a computer in Silicon Valley may have had the idea of an autonomous (driverless) car – but it will take huge skill and invention by engineers to make it not only possible (we know it is) but also safe, reliable and sufficiently responsive and flexible that the appeal will broaden from the cost (staff) cutting benefits to corporations and the scope for window-shopping for that mythical woman who can now stop worrying about parking her SUV, to people for whom driving is an essential and important part of their work and their lives, providing freedom, the ability to explore and unknown, serendipitous possibilities.

Artists, scientists, designers, computer wizards may have the ideas – but they need engineers to put them into operation. Oceanographers and marine biologists and scientists are waiting for engineers to design small (and affordable) autonomous submersibles which will dramatically improve their ability to research life under the oceans, to assess the damage caused by human activity and to begin perhaps to find solutions.

Sculptors like Marzia Colonna, the Italian-born Dorset-based artist, go to the foundry to see their beautiful creations cast in bronze – literally a fusion of artistic creativity at the highest level with great engineering skill.

The ability of Paul Holloway or Mary Berry to bring a perfect celebration cake or spectacular pie out of the oven owes much to the skill of the engineers who designed the ovens they use. The fragile ceramics of an artist like Edmund de Waal would shatter if the kiln he uses was not perfectly calibrated.

What happens when businesses rely on computers and digital technology and forget or ignore the importance of human experience and skill has been all too clearly demonstrated by the catastrophe of the new rail timetables. They may have taken years to plan – but someone forgot that the drivers, the people who actually take the trains along the rails, need to know the bends, the single track sections, the tunnels, the bridges and the speeds needed on routes that are new to them.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Institution of Civil Engineering, and in our area one of the greatest achievements is the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the symbol of the city of Bristol, spanning the dramatic Avon Gorge. This remarkable and beautiful bridge, which is Grade 1 listed, has been selected as an ICE 200 project. The bridge was built to a design by William Henry Barlow and John Hawkshaw, based on an earlier design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It is owned and operated by Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust and is entirely funded by tolls, which have paid for its upkeep since it first opened to the public on 8th December 1864.

Next time you go to Bristol, look up at Clifton Suspension Bridge and give thanks for the vision of the engineers who linked Bristol and North Somerset with this soaring beauty. And when you boil a kettle, fill your car at the petrol pumps or sit in your airplane seat waiting for take-off to your summer holiday destination, remember it was what ICE calls the “invisible superheroes” who made it possible.

To celebrate the bicentenary ICE is running a year of events and activities that show how civil engineering has transformed the way we live. For more information visit

Fanny Charles