Article - Issue 26, March 2006
A Rounded Man
Dr Scott Steedman FREng FICE
Dr Scott Steedman FREng
If we are to stimulate the leaders and innovators for the engineering profession of tomorrow, we must encourage the widest possible access for our young engineers of today to new experimental and theoretical methods, emerging sciences and innovative technologies.
I aim to greet Brunel most days as I walk through Paddington Station, as he sits gazing out into his great train shed.
Anniversaries are ‘in’ and this year, the 200th anniversary of his birth, there will be a Brunel Bicentenary Conference – ‘Celebrating the past, inspiring the future’ – in Bristol in early July, amidst a host of other events. It seems not that long ago we were commemorating the 100th anniversary of his death (in 1959), but the past few decades have seen the gap between his world of engineering and our own widen dramatically.
Looking at the qualities that made him such an innovator,we should reflect carefully on the lessons for the professional development of today’s engineers. In the early stages of his career, Isambard Kingdom Brunel had very limited computational tools at his disposal, and the calculation methods he used – the construction of funicular polygons to derive the thrust line for example – were based directly on the methods developed some 150 years earlier by Hooke and others, applied to the classical domes and arches of the great buildings of state. Over the decades, though, his career saw extraordinary advances – the introduction of metal as a mainstream construction material, new theories of beam analysis and use of strain energy – which provided Brunel with opportunities for innovation through his own application. Brunel was remarkable for the breadth of his knowledge of the sciences and of practical engineering ‘mechanics’, as it was known. He famously commented that engineers should learn from the French in matters of abstract science (statics, dynamics, geometry etc) but for practical mechanics, they should rely on the English experience, where “a few hours in a blacksmith’s and wheelwright’s shop”would teach you more than you would find in any of the French works on mechanics. This was no ‘off the cuff’ remark. Brunel was born of a French father and educated by a French tutor, and despite his love of the practical, he was well trained to exploit the scientific and mathematical advances that were taking place during those early decades of the 19th century. Like several of his distinguished contemporaries, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
A second great asset that he had as an innovator was his skill in experimental work, routinely using large scale models to investigate the behaviour of structures and to validate his computations. To achieve economy in the design of multiple span girders, for example, it was critical that he could accurately predict the beneficial effects of continuity over the supports. This he did by application of his own polynomial functions and by physical modelling using (in one case reported in 1850) a pine wood rod some 38ft long on four bearings. His use of models followed a long tradition of model making as a part of the engineering process, a vital technique for research that continued in practice until quite recently, where we see the rise of computers (and the related lack of practical experience of engineers) reducing the use of physical testing.
Walking past Brunel, I reflect that the skillset of today’s young engineer is so very different from the experience of those great Britons. Today the volume of knowledge we require, the reach of regulations and the scale of computation requires us to rely on others for their specialist experience, and we must work as multi-disciplinary teams in a way that was unknown even a few decades ago. Given the tools, leadership and direction, the productivity that can be squeezed from our engineering teams is unprecedented, but – with some notable exceptions – the ‘innovation cycle’ in many branches of engineering remains firmly locked at a timescale of decades, not dissimilar to the length of time it took Brunel to introduce new materials or design techniques.
Innovation requires inspiration as well as perspiration, and inspiration requires not only exposure to other experiences but also the intellectual capacity to realise its true value in a different context. If we are to stimulate the leaders and innovators for the engineering profession of tomorrow, we must encourage the widest possible access for our young engineers of today to new experimental and theoretical methods, emerging sciences and innovative technologies. Anniversaries are an opportunity to look forward, as well as to bask in past glories.
Dr Scott Steedman FREng