Introduction to Discovering Engineering that Changed the World

By Brian Lemay No comments

Hello my name’s Julian Edgar, and I’d
like to talk to you today about my book Discovering Engineering that Changed the
World. Now, all my life I’ve been interested in engineering, I’m not an
engineer but I’ve always loved looking at engineering marvels, seeing around me
those things that men and women have created that are still there still
working and were revolutionary in their day. And a few years ago I decided I
really wanted to see them for myself, I wanted a set off, together with my wife
and son, and go and look at all these incredible things. And that’s what we did.
Over five years, for about a month each year, we traveled through the United
States, we traveled through the United Kingdom, we traveled through Europe – and
especially in Germany – looking at these incredible things. It was a fantastic
series of journeys, and I think in this book it really brings some of that to
you (as well as obviously to us). We start off by looking at rockets. Really, if you
start looking at the most extraordinary rockets in the world – even though the
Chinese invented them – it was in World War II or just prior to World War II
when the Germans – the Nazi Germans – started developing that fantastic liquid
fuel rocket called the V2. But the V2 wasn’t just a technological marvel,
it was also socially and morally utterly corrupt. It was designed by scientists
and engineers working in one of the most advanced facilities in the world,
Peenemünde in Germany – which we went and looked at – and yet it was built in
underground tunnels by slaves from concentration camps. And in the book we
actually go and look at one of those tunnels, used to be in what was East
Germany (after World War II had finished) but now obviously you can go and look at
those tunnels, you can also look at the crematorium where so many of those that
were slaves were burnt after they died – awful, awful things. And so you have this
incredible juxtaposition of the most extraordinary advanced technology in the
world in the V2 rocket and yet this, this horrible moral dilemma of what what was
actually being used, the people being used to create it. I found it incredibly
powerful and that’s how the book opens. We then go to North Carolina to Kill
Devil Hills where the Wright brothers were the very first to fly.
There’s a wonderful memorial on what were sand dunes and are now grassed
pastures. You can walk around where those first flights first occurred, you can see
the distances that they flew for those first three flights, and that final third
one that went so far, there’s a recreation there of the hangars, really
the first aircraft hangars in the world – think of that – where they re-erected
their craft and often repaired it after crashes. We also, in the book, go and
see the very first Wright Flyer or the first one has been retained anyway in
the Museum of Flight in Washington – a fantastic place. Let’s change the picture.
Let’s go across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom and let’s look at to
transport technologies there. The first is hovercraft.
Although the Russians actually did quite a lot of hovercraft development in the
1930s, really Christopher Cockerell, the the British inventor, made them come
alive in the 1960s – and gee, did the the British ever pick it up and run with
those ideas, culminating in the SR.N4 – the Saunders-Roe N4 – the biggest
passenger carrying hovercraft ever created, it took cars as well, and traveled
back and forth across the English Channel. We actually, in the book, go to a
hovercraft museum, we can walk around on that hovercraft looking at the
instruments, in fact I got to sit in the pilot’s seat – because they did call them
pilots, they flew these enormous craft and they used to go back and forth
across the English Channel. Fascinatingly, when you get up into the little
control cabin, three people used to be in those cabins: a pilot, a co-pilot, and a
radar operator, and you might think “why did a hovercraft make a radar operator?”
But the hovercraft was speeding across the English Channel, these enormous
machines, and they were ducking and weaving between the shipping traffic
that was also using the channel; they were doing something like 70 miles an
hour as they ducked and weaved through all of these terribly slow ships.
I’m told that the radar operator was just glued to the screen giving
directions so they could avoid all these ships that are in their path – just
extraordinary machines to look at, extraordinary machines to read about.
Another extraordinary machine, which was created in Germany (and also there were
American and British versions), are airships. And when we think of airships we
think of Hindenburg, we think of disaster, but really if you look at the history of
an airship, that’s the wrong way of looking at it.
Airships, in their time, were the safest, most comfortable long-distance flying
craft available – and by a huge margin. The Zeppelin company in Germany had a
scheduled series of trips to South America. You could take an airship from
Germany to South America on a scheduled route, and that was at a time when
aircraft – fixed-wing aircraft – could only do little hops, there was nothing like
the luxury, the comfort, a grand piano on one of the airships, the vast numbers of
bottles of wine, professional cooks that were really trying to make it very
similar to ships, but these the ones that flew through the sky. You could
actually balance a pencil on end for hour after hour in those airships they were
so stable and calm. We also look at fast cars. We go and look at some of the
fastest cars that were ever made: the land speed record holders. We looked, I
think, at something like eight land speed record holders going right
back to the 1930s and right up to the current land speed record holder.
Marvelous machines to look at, marvelous machines to revel in their engineering
and their brilliance in what they achieved, going faster than any other car
on the planet (at the times at which they were done). And we go to pen bean beach in
in Wales where they used to run those cars in their time on that beach, we
walked along that beach, felt that history – it’s really quite an extraordinary
thing to do. In the book we also go in look at some bridges. Bridges are
probably the greatest manifestation of civil engineering that you can go and
look at. The Firth of Forth Bridge, when I saw it at dawn I nearly cried I was just
so overcome by the grandure of this lit bridge – it was
flooded in the dawn light. There’s just wonderful structural
aspects to look at and the tiny trains that are crossing, the trains
look at like little toys as they cross this enormous bridge. Of course the
bridge had to look strong as well as be strong because only a decade or so
before, the Tay Bridge had collapsed in the night, and in fact the Firth of Forth
Bridge was going to be built by the same engineering staff that built that failed
bridge, and of course they got the pulled away, and the new bridge had to look
strong to give the public a lot of confidence. We also go and look at some
wonderful bridges in the United States: the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s a lovely,
lovely bridge so elegant, so beautiful with those Art Deco touches to the
towers. And, on a completely different note, we go and look at a tiny suspension
bridge in New Mexico. Why is that important? It’s because everything that
went across that bridge was going towards the creation of the atomic bomb,
it’s actually the bridge on the road to where the atomic bomb was created. And,
talking about things like atomic bombs, the Cold War, we also go and look at a
whole range of things associated with that. For me the most dramatic thing, the
most exciting thing, the most extraordinary thing, was going down into
the Titan Missile silos. These enormous missile – or a whole range of them –
scattered across the the American desert, each one with an enormous missile
underground ready to retaliate after a nuclear strike – or preemptively create
one perhaps, typically then of course, on the Soviet Union – and to go down inside
the control bunker, a domed concrete bunker on springs to withstand the the
attack of incoming missiles was just an incredible, incredible day. And on all of
these visits, all of these things that we saw I was taking photos the whole time, I
was writing descriptions, and so in the book there are photos of every one of
the things that I’ve been talking about, as well as a description, as well as the
discussion of its context: its historical context, its engineering
context. So you can look through the book, looking at the photos and reading the captions.
It’s been laid out in a way which can be done as a sophisticated coffee table
book if you like, or you can dive in much more deeply and look at some of the
amazing technologies that are behind each of these things. I loved writing the
book, I loved seeing the things that are described in the book, and I’d really
encourage you to have a look at it as well. Thank you.

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