Engineers in Britain

No offence is intended to any individual person or to any group of people in the writing of this page.  During a long period of meeting a great number of people in the course of my various jobs, I have met almost entirely pleasant and friendly people.  The writing of this page is intended only to ask questions about the possible attitudes of some people to some other people, based on possible prejudices based on what they know or do not know about the other peoples' work.  So I offer here mainly questions for your consideration, in no particular order, and with no implication that a particular answer is "correct".

Here is an example of a kind of thing that I have in mind.  During a cricket match on British radio some years ago, a commentator said that a little man had come on to the field to adjust the stump camera, the stumps having been displaced by the ball. 

The phrase "little man" is usually used in Britain in the context "the little man from the electricity/gas/water/etc" or "the little man who does my car servicing/plumbing/ decorating/electrics/cleaning/etc".  It is usually applied to "technical" people, meaning those who deal with things which are electrical, hydraulic, mechanical etc, but seldom to doctors, barristers and other "professional" people.

The words "technical", "technician" and "technique" can, of course, be applied to a very wide range of disciplines, from archery and ballet to yachting and zoology, and often are, but in Britain they are very often used in the restricted sense mentioned above, and will be so used in this page.

Some people in Britain express the belief that "We need more engineers/scientists/ technologists/etc.", often while comparing the presumed current condition of Britain to a presumed past condition, perhaps even a "golden age".  One implication is that the activities of such "technical" people have, in the past, contributed greatly to the status and wealth of Britain, and might do so again. 

British employers in many technical fields report a "shortage" of skilled technical people, and it is even possible that if more technical people were available, more such employers could appear on the scene, and even more technical people could be employed.

"Technical" departments in universities, such as faculties of chemistry and physics, are becoming fewer in number as fewer prospective students choose these subjects.

Does Britain really need more engineers/scientists/technicians/technologists?  There are numerous things that each country, like Britain, does not grow or make - different things, of course, in different countries.  People either import them or do without.  So why should not people in Britain simply import the products of engineering that they need, when they need them?

Why, in so many schools, are technical subjects offered to pupils who are not very good at academic ones?  Doesn't this, at an early age, convey the message that practical knowledge and skills are considered inferior to impractical knowledge?  Imagine the outcry among the "intelligentsia" if every pupil was taught woodwork, metalwork, glass blowing, etc, and only the feebler ones were given the more academic work.  Wouldn't there be a beneficial response among pupils if all of them could experience the satisfaction of designing and making?  Couldn't the same be said of music and art, which are also neglected in some schools, in the interests of cramming for targets?  Then, of course, there are the playing fields that have been sold off to make some quick money, which of course can only be done once.  We're getting off the subject now.

I remember that when I was at school, many years ago, teachers would try to give advice about careers to pupils who were approaching the end of their school career.  They seemed to be able to refer (whether knowledgeably or not I do not know) to individual functions such as doctor, teacher, solicitor, lecturer, and a few others, but they spoke of "going into industry" as if everyone in industry was an indistinguishable part of some amorphous mass of humanity (or perhaps even sub-humanity).  Individual types of work in industry were not discussed.  Why do you think they thought like this?

Recently, a man who did some work in my house said a very similar thing - namely that all so-called "non-academic boys" at his school were advised to apply for a job at a particular manufacturing plant.  No alternative was ever mentioned.  Perhaps it was a good employer, offering good prospects, or perhaps it was the only one that the careers teacher knew of.

Why do many prospective university students in Britain prefer subjects such as media studies to physics, chemistry and engineering?

Why do so many people in Britain believe that courses and examinations are subject to "dumbing down" and "grade inflation"?  Are these real phenomena?

Why do so many people in Britain, from the government "downwards", use baby-talk phrases such as "dumbing down" (instead of falling standards) and "joined-up" government or management (instead of well organized and communicative).

Is it true that the author of the "Alice" books was worried about falling standards in his college?  Where and when?

What would you feel as a pupil or a student, having worked hard to obtain good grades, to hear so many people so frequently describing your efforts as largely the results of falling standards?

Page eleven of the Daily Telegraph of 21st August 2007 contained a reference to ' . . . . "Mickey Mouse" degree courses such as equestrian psychology and baking technology, according to a pressure group.'  What subjects or areas do you consider suitable for attaining "degree standard"?

I once visited a graduate student who was doing research into the properties and behaviour of golf clubs for a manufacturer of sports equipment.  He was using an ingenious machine to simulate a part of a human upper body and arm, and he had a number of strain gauges connected to data recorders.  No doubt he learned as much of technical value as if he were doing "pure" research.  The behaviour of a golf club (an asymmetric and rather flexible object) under conditions of great acceleration, especially at impact, would require skilled modelling in order to predict values that could be compared with experimental data.  Is this a suitable subject for university work?  Is this a suitable subject for a PhD?  If not, why not?

If we do not increase the range of courses and degrees, how are people to learn about the huge variety of jobs now available?

On the other hand, how many jobs require entrants to possess prior knowledge specific to that job?  Does a degree in media studies, for example, enhance one's chances of getting a good job in television?  Is there always a benefit from acquiring the knowledge in a college or a university, and getting a degree?  How else could the knowledge be acquired?

Why do some people refer to "hard" and "soft" subjects?  What do they mean?  Is this a useful distinction?  is it correlated with the difficulty of learning and getting grades?  Isn't the difficulty of a subject related to the student's aptitude for the subject as well as to the actual matter of a subject?

Why do many bookshops display far more books on astrology/body/mind/soul/ alternative therapies/etc than on science and engineering, even of the "popular" kind?

How many people in Britain understand the differences between engineers, scientists, technicians and technologists, and their relationships with each other?

How many people in Britain know much about the activities of these workers and what they mean for the population as a whole?

How many people in Britain, even those who make the complaints about too few technical people, would like to be one of these people?  And how many would like one or more of their children to become one of them?

How many people in Britain could name ten living engineers, or even ten dead ones?  Remove I K Brunel and R J Mitchell from consideration, and then how many are well known?  It's probably only a coincidence that the most famous activities associated with both men (the building of the Great Western Railway and the Battle of Britain) took place in the south of England, where there are still some people who seem to think that the south is the most important area in Britain, or even the only area that matters at all.

How many streets and other public spaces in London are named after technical people, including mathematicians?  How many in Paris?

Why do people from France and Germany, on going to Britain, so often remark on the great difference in the status and income of technical people in Britain and in their own countries?

How long ago did the contribution of Britain in technology start to decline, relative to those of other countries?

Why did so many people in Britain in the 20th century complain that "Britain invented many things", but other "countries took the ideas and developed them and sold them around the world"?  Aren't developing and selling essential aspects of successful engineering?

Do you think that the terms "pure" maths and "applied" maths convey a value-judgement to some people, as well as a factual summary of these fields?

In what proportion of books of fiction are any of the main characters technical people?  In what proportion are any technical people mentioned at all, apart from a brief appearance to perform a job, such as repairing a machine?  Is the choice of fictional occupations a guide to what kind of people are thought to be important by authors?  Or is it that their thoughts, emotions and actions are thought to be less worthy of discussion than those of other people?

In what proportion of articles, books, films, magazines and TV programs about science and engineering are technicians mentioned by name?  Or even at all?

What is the significance of the remark by Lady Gwendolen - "I am glad to say I have never seen a spade."?

Are the Eloi and Morlocks an extreme extrapolation of the way people live today?

Why does the possession by Charles Bovary of a knife (a practical and useful object) add to Emma Bovary's low opinion of him?  (So it's not just the British . . . .)

In the novel "How to be good", by Nick Hornby, a character compares the creativity and imagination required for an art, with the simplicity of getting answers in science.  One might as well suggest that in order to produce a good piece of music, you simply need to learn some rules about harmony, counterpoint, sonata form, etc, and plug in a few tunes.  Both art and science need some basic rules, but those are far from being enough to produce anything of value.

Is it the case that when societies reach a certain degree of wealth and comfort, they begin to despise (if they didn't already) the practical knowledge and skills that contributed (if they did) to the state they have reached?

Would you believe that a Cambridge physics graduate once asked me to show him how to find and repair a puncture in his bicycle tyre?  Perhaps it was a scam to get me to do the job for him, as you can't show how to do such a job without actually doing it.  Would you believe that this same man, after getting his Oxford DPhil in experimental physics, once picked up a boiling hot casserole, using a cloth that he had deliberately wetted under the tap?  Judging by the sound he made, it was a very painful way of learning that water is a rather good conductor of heat.

Would you believe that a lecturer in physics, later a professor, used to use parts such as capacitors and electron tubes at well above the manufacturers voltage ratings, because "They test them above the rated voltage, don't they?"?  Consequently, he was constantly getting into the equipment to replace failed parts.  Would you believe that during a year in which I shared an office with this man, I found after three months that he was keeping a radioactive source in the filing cabinet, with no shielding?  It wasn't a particularly big source, but the law required a lead container for it.

Have you ever heard a tourists' guide in a building explain how a beam works, how an arch works, or mention that masonry can be used only in compression?  Have you ever heard such a guide mention funicular, middle third, thrust, or any other technical term among all the dates and personalities that are usually the subject of discourse?   How can you understand a building without knowing what limitations prevented its being made some other shape or size?  Does it matter?

How many British politicians, local, regional or national, have any education, training or practical experience in technical matters?  Do you think this might affect their ability to choose good technical advisors and to know whether any piece of technical advice is good or bad?  Why, for example, was the great Thomas Telford obliged to build Over bridge in masonry, rather than use his existing, much cheaper, standard iron design, which would have been far more suitable for the very unsatisfactory ground conditions?

In any organization. which departments include people who are sometimes referred to as "anoraks", "boffins", "geeks", "nerds", "techies", etc?

Why are some of these words applied to people such as "trainspotters", many of whom are in fact very knowledgeable about the economic, political and social effects of the construction of canals, railways and roads?

Why do so many people in Britain refer to "upper class", "middle class", and "working class", rather than "upper", middle" and "lower" classes, when in fact "middle class" people generally work.  is it to draw a distinction between the types of work done by people in these artificially defined classes, ie "practical" and "non-practical" work, or "white-collar" and "blue-collar"?  Did the provision of the "tradesmen's entrance", once very popular with middle class people, distinguish between practical people such as plumbers and electricians and non-practical people, such as solicitors and doctors?

Why, in these times of "political correctness", are there apparently still people in organizations such as universities who give the impression that colleagues such as technicians and cleaners are beneath their notice except when they actually need them to do something?

Why do many people admire old machines such as longcase clocks, gramophones and musical boxes, while expressing little or no admiration for the brilliant ideas and skills that have gone into modern machines, such as mobile telephones and TV systems?

Why is the study of industrial archaeology more acceptable to some people than working in, or even studying, today's industry?

Why is a person who repairs clocks called a horologist, while a person who repairs cars is called a mechanic, not an autologist?

Asked about the difference between people and other animals, some people are likely to refer to tool making, tool using, language, speech, reading, writing, calculation, etc.  Is proficiency in any of these likely to aid your advancement in society?

Does any of this matter?  Why not accept that things are different in different places, and why not accept that there will always be real or imaginary hierarchies, based on all kinds of real or imaginary differences between people?


"It is natural that a man should consider the work of his hands or his brain to be useful and important. Therefore nobody will object to an ardent experimentalist boasting of his measurements and rather looking down on the 'paper and ink' physics of his theoretical friend, who on his part is proud of his lofty ideas and despises the dirty fingers of the other."  (Max Born)  (You can, of course, if you are not very good at either theory or experiment, say that you are a phenomenologist.)


"All scientists communicate in grunts." - statement to sixth formers by a teacher of English (name withheld).


Imagine that you are travelling from your university to a conference, where you are to give a lecture entitled "A post-deconstructionist analysis of 'The autobiography of Alice B Toklas' ".  You might travel using some combination of aeroplane, bus, car, railway, ship, tram, etc.  Your journey will depend on the present and past work of thousands of people, so in a sense those people worked for you (and of course for thousands of other people).  All this work was commissioned, ordered or requested, and paid for as a direct result of the commissioning.  If you travel in your own car, the people who service and repair it do so directly and solely for you and are paid by you as a result.

By contrast, the paper you are to give was probably not ordered or requested as such for that particular topic, and will not be directly paid for, as you will be paid a salary with little or no regard as to what you actually produce.  Your work is in fact a purely creative effort, which will benefit humanity by adding to the sum of human understanding, but will not be for any particular person or group.  So you are not working "for" anyone.  Your work is also unique, in that nobody else, even if she or he attempted the same topic, would approach it in the same way as you do, for many reasons.  And it is "pure", not "applied".

But the design, construction and repair of your car or your computer or your hi-fi system an uncreative process?  It may require an extensive knowledge of equipment dating back for a number of years, and a knowledge of, and skill in the use of, many types of tools and measuring systems.  Anyone who has worked in repairs knows that difficult cases do require creativity, in thinking of hypotheses about the possible causes of problems, in thinking of ways of testing these hypotheses, and in thinking of ways of effecting a cure.  In addition, the time spent trying to understand what is going on costs money.  Sometimes you might wonder whether it would be easier to build a new one than repair the old one.  What you are in fact doing when you take your car for repair, or indeed when you hire anyone to do any job for you, is that you are paying someone to do something that you are unable or unwilling to do.  You may think very little of the job or the person who is doing the job, but he or she won't see it as you do.

My last job was as a technician in an engineering department in a university.  During the interview day, the applicants were told that although would not meet any academics during the day, they wouldn't miss anything, as "only two of them could actually make anything that worked".  This was perhaps a little unfair, as academics aren't required to make things, working or otherwise: they are required to lecture clearly, competently and coherently.  All the academics I subsequently met were very decent people, in fact, and some had excellent practical skills.  One had made a working five-cylinder radial petrol engine.  He must have been one of the two who had been mentioned during the interview day.  I should add that I myself am not very good at making things, but I also don't know enough to be a lecturer.  In physics, if you are not an especially good experimentalist or an especially good theoretician, you can at least call yourself a phenomenologist.

I held the job long enough to enjoy two Christmas lunches for technicians, during both which the technical resources manager made a short speech during which he referred to the technicians as "unsung heroes", which was a fully deserved epithet.  Not only do they design and build hardware and software which are works of art as well as being functional, often under conditions of ridiculously vague specifications and almost impossibly short lead times provided by the commissioning academics, but they patiently spend vast amounts of time helping students with their projects, giving the students valuable insights into theory and practice in the process.  I have no doubt that many of these students will remember with gratitude both what they learnt, and the people from whom they learned, for many years to come.

In my first position after leaving college I also worked in a room with technicians, and I have in fact either worked with technicians, or been a technician, in all my other jobs.  Unfortunately, I have too often witnessed undesirable attitudes and behaviour towards technical people from a small minority of school teachers and lecturers, for which there is, in my opinion, no excuse.

Sometimes I have hired people to do jobs for which I lack the requisite skills, such as fitting a gas-fired boiler or a fitting set of kitchen units.  Listening to these people is always very interesting, as they have had experiences of many different kinds, and they often have stories to tell about some of the people for whom they have done similar jobs.

Is it the case that human nature includes a tendency to divide any group into "us" and "them", whether on the basis of something real, such as work, or something presumed but unprovable?  And isn't it the case that "we" usually come to be considered (by "us") as better than "them"?  What can we do about this?

Clearly, few activities can take place without a hierarchy of positions, but does that mean that we should confuse the job-title, the job-description, the actual work done, and the person actually doing the work?  And does it mean that we have to treat some people in ways which we would resent if we were on the receiving end?