Celebrating six decades of engineering to mark The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee
28 May 2012
A dozen of the most significant inventions from the past 60 years have been selected by the Science Museum and the Royal Academy of Engineering to honour The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The inventions, which range from the Pilot ACE computer, the World Wide Web and the Apollo space programme to the mobile phone, mark some of the milestones of engineering excellence from the 1950s to the present day, which have had the greatest impact on people’s lives.
The project coincides with the ongoing public nominations for the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering – a new £1 million prize run by the Academy that recognises outstanding advances in engineering that have changed the world and benefited humanity. Nominations for the prize will close on 14 September 2012.
Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering at the Science Museum said, “Taking much of our inspiration from the museum’s collections, we have looked back over the last six decades and chosen stories that we believe have had the greatest global impact. These inventions have brought people and communities together and have challenged our ideas of what we perceive engineering to actually be.”
He continues, ”The projects are divided into two main categories: those that have stood out and had a very high public profile and those which have been more understated, but still played a major role as ‘enabling’ technologies.”
Lord Broers, Chair of Judges for the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, said: “The last 60 years have seen a quantum leap in our engineering and technological capability. We have visited the Moon and learnt the workings of DNA, the very stuff of life. Communication is radically different to how it was in the ‘50s – instant broadband communication with people on the other side of the world was just a dream for all but the inspired engineers who went on to make it a reality.
“The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering is looking for engineering achievements of this calibre – ideas that will change the world and inspire the next generation of engineers.”
The inventions decade by decade:
Pilot ACE computer, 1950 - On display in Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing engine) evolved from the earliest post-war project to create a general-purpose British electronic computer. It was built at the National Physical Laboratory, and embodied the original ideas of the mathematician Alan Turing. Turing proposed to build a ‘Universal Turing Machine’, a computer not structured to carry out specific tasks, but to perform any task specified by programming instructions.
ACE built on Turing’s work, and was intended to kick start a national computer industry. It was probably then the fastest computer in the world. Although American companies came to dominate the computer industry, Pilot ACE set the standard for quick, efficient and versatile future computers.
The Integrated Circuit, 1952-58
Integrated circuits are employed in almost every piece of electronic equipment used today. The idea of incorporating a range of tiny electronic components on a single semi-conducting wafer or ‘chip’ was first envisaged by Geoffrey Dummer at Britain’s Royal Radar Establishment in 1952, although the first microchip, as it became known, was constructed by Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce of Texas Instruments in the USA in 1958. Without this amazing piece of technology, many of the other projects we explore below would never have reached fruition.
Apollo programme, 1961-72. The Apollo 10 capsule is on display in Making the Modern World gallery. In May 1961, American President John F Kennedy proposed to put a man on the moon ‘before the decade is out’, sparking an incredible national technological effort that reflected Cold War competition between the superpowers. This was engineering on an epic scale: 390,000 people were involved in the USA, contributing 500 million man-hours – 20% of which were free overtime from staff excited to be working on such a project.
The space programme led to a range of spin-offs, from Teflon to miniature computers. But one of its greatest legacies was in providing views of the earth from space, awakening public awareness of the fragility of the planet.
Optical fibres, 1966. Fibre optic technology will be one of the pivotal technologies in the Science Museum’s landmark new gallery, Making Modern Communications, opening in 2014. Optical fibres have become critical to transmitting information from one place to another, by sending pulses of laser light through a glass fibre. Optical fibres speed the flow of information through systems that stretch across the globe today. Their role supporting global communications reflects their international development: they were first proposed in Britain in 1966 by Charles Kao and George Hockham, and their manufacture was pioneered by Corning in the USA, in 1970.
The shipping container. The shipping container has quietly facilitated a revolution in how things are transported. Designed to internationally-recognised standards, more than 17 million containers are in use on ships, trains, roads and at container ports everywhere. As more than 90% of all the goods we use are transported by sea, the unregarded standard shipping container is the most important tool of global trade.
CT scanner, 1971. There is an example of the first CT scanner on display in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. The CT (Computerised Tomography) scanner has affected a revolution in how we see inside our bodies, supplementing older imaging media like X-rays or ultrasound. In 1971 Godfrey Hounsfield at EMI developed the first commercially viable scanner, the pioneer of a whole generation of machines that could produce detailed imagery of the inside of the body to aid in diagnosis and treatment.
BBC Micro computer, 1981. The BBC Micro played an important role in the BBC's Computer Literacy Project during the 1980s. Created primarily by Steve Furber and Sophie Wilson, it transformed the culture of computing in Britain's homes. Alongside machines such as Sinclair's Spectrum, the computer underpinned a surge of interest in home programming and made Britain one of the most computer literate countries in the world. The BBC Micro was built by the company Acorn, with sales of nearly two million. The legacy of Acorn can be seen today, through the spin-out of the multibillion pound chip design company, ARM.
The mobile phone, 1983. An example of StarTAC, the first clamshell phone, is on display in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. From its early origins as a ‘brick’ in the 1970s, the mobile phone became widely used, and was appropriated as a symbol of wealth and affluence in the 1980s. In the 2000s it has become a driver for economic growth, especially in developing countries. The tendency towards smaller and smaller handsets took advantage of advances in miniaturisation of electronic components, and billions of mobile phones are now in use across the globe.
The World Wide Web, 1990. The Science Museum’s Computing gallery contains an amazing array of objects illustrating the history of computing. In December 1990, British engineer and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee and Belgian computer scientist Robert Cailliau launched a project at CERN, near Geneva, which would become the World Wide Web – a system of interlinked hypertext documents accessed via global computer networks. The web has transformed how we obtain and use information, fulfilling science fiction predictions of one day being able to have the world’s accumulated knowledge available at the touch of a button.
GPS. GPS (Global Positioning System) can provide information on location and time anywhere on the face of the earth where there is a line of sight to four or more of a network of 31 satellites. Originally designed as a military system that was vital to the American victory in the Gulf in 1991, GPS can now be found in everything from cars to clocks and watches.
DNA Sequencing. Crick & Watson’s DNA Double Helix model is on display in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. Building knowledge of the sequences in DNA, the building block of life, is essential to any basic biological research. New high-speed sequencing methods have made possible the sequencing of the entire human genome for the first time, and complete knowledge of the DNA of many animals and plants is now available. Sequencing has given rise to entirely new fields, including synthetic biology – where carefully engineered DNA is inserted into bacteria cells to alter their behaviour. This could result in new treatments for disease and highly efficient ways to make biofuels.
Millau Viaduct, 2004. Opened in 2004, the Millau viaduct in southern France is the world’s longest bridge at this altitude (343 metres). Positioned on an important transport route between France and Spain, it was designed by the French structural engineer Michel Virlogeux and the British architect Sir Norman Foster. Together, they created a structure that could carry four lanes of traffic above the clouds while effortlessly complementing the countryside around it.
The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering
The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering will celebrate the real story of 21st century engineering. From the creation of new materials to make the clothes of the future to the development of clean, green sources of power – engineering underpins almost every detail of modern life. The new global £1M prize will recognise world-changing advances in engineering that have made a difference to humanity and aims to inspire a new generation of engineers to take up the challenges of the future. The first winner will be announced in spring 2013. For more information, click here.