A lifetime of engineering

Image credit: State Archives NSW/Flickr.com

Tomorrow Her Majesty the Queen will officially celebrate her 91st birthday. As the longest reigning British monarch, the Queen has experienced over 65 years at the helm of Great Britain.

Over her reign and indeed, her lifetime, Her Majesty has witnessed many of the most significant events in modern history, living through World War II and seeing significant advances in medicine, transport and communications.

Countless engineering breakthroughs have been made over the past nine decades, which have changed the world we live in today. In this article we celebrate some of the spectacular engineering events that have taken place over the Queen’s lifetime.

1920s: The origins of TV

Scottish engineer John Logie Baird first managed to transmit an image across a distance of 10 feet in 1924. His early mechanical model was called the ‘televisor’ and in the 1930s Baird went on to develop colour TV and work on electronic TV models. Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 is said to represent a milestone in the popularity of TV compared to radio, with nearly 20 million people watching the live broadcast from the comfort of their homes, the houses of friends or in public viewing spots such as cinemas, halls and pubs.

1930s: Jet engine

jet engine

During his officer training course, RAF engineer air officer Frank Whittle came up with ideas that led to the creation of the jet engine. Despite receiving critique from the Air Ministry, his confidence in his theory led him to patent his idea in 1930. The turbojet engine enabled high speed, long range flying at high altitudes, which had not been possible with piston engines and propellers.

The first British production jet engine (the W2/700) powered early models of the Gloster Meteor.


1940s: Radars in WW2

Scotsman Sir Robert Watson-Watt is credited as the pioneer of radar technology – a technology which is often described as the ‘secret weapon’ of the Battle of Britain. Radars gave the RAF advanced warning that enabled them to intercept the German air attacks.

1950s: Hovercraft

jet engine

When British engineer Christopher Cockerell was seeking to find an answer to the problem of friction between a ship’s hull and the water, he inadvertently invented the hovercraft. Experimenting with some tin cans and the fan from a vacuum cleaner, he found that a vessel could be lifted on an air cushion. The first full-scale craft made a successful crossing of the Channel in 1959, and now nearly sixty years later, hovercraft continue to be used around the world in military and rescue operations.

Editorial credit: Gail Heaton / Shutterstock.com

1960s: Carbon fibre developed

Carbon fibre was created by British aircraft engineer Leslie Phillips in a process which involved stretching synthetic fibres and heating them. The end result was the creation of fibres that are the same weight (if not lighter) but twice as strong as steel. This material has hugely influenced  manufacturing and construction across a range of industries including aerospace, automotive and maritime.

1970s: The jumbo jet’s first commercial flight

jumbo jet

Boeing’s 747 Jumbo Jet made its commercial debut on Pan American’s New York to London route. 75,000 engineering drawings were created in the design of the first 747 which has dominated the airline world for over 4 decades.





1980s: Channel Tunnel

Construction of the longest undersea tunnel in the world began in the late 1980s and was finished five years later. To mark the completion of this significant project between France and Britain, Queen Elizabeth II opened the completed project with the French President.

13,000 engineers, technicians and workers helped to construct the tunnel, which saw more than 10 million train passengers pass through last year.

1990s: First onshore wind farm in UK

wind farm

In 1991 the UK’s first commercial wind farm was constructed in Cornwall. Since then, the cost and benefits of renewable energy sources have frequently been discussed and for the second consecutive year last year, the UK was the biggest investor in wind within Europe (Wind in Power report, Wind Europe).





2000s: Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers

HRH the Princess Royal cut the first steel for the hull of the first Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers in the late 2000. Since then, the project has relied on more than 200 direct suppliers and 10,000 workers across the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and its supply chain. The carriers will be the largest surface warships ever constructed for the UK with the capability of carrying up to 40 aircraft.

2010s: Autonomous cars

autonomous car

In the current decade, there are many exciting developments being made in engineering, however, one which is likely to be a staple of the future is autonomous cars. The driverless car concept relies on a blend of traditional and modern engineering practices to bring it to life and demonstrates the increasing convergence of technology and engineering skill sets.



The past and future of engineering

With a lifetime just 9 years short of a century, Her Majesty the Queen has undoubtedly experienced the birth and development of some of the greatest engineering feats of all time. At the same time, the Queen has seen a big shift in the need for different skills and tools needed in engineering. Consider the kinaesthetic mechanical skills needed to design and create new types of engine, the electrical skills required to wire up the jumbo jet and the software-based skills for modern, connected vehicles – these are all extremely valuable skills, despite some having only evolved in the past 10-20 years.

In terms of tools, the Queen has seen engineers use slide rules for calculations and created mechanical drawings by hand in the earlier part of the 20th century. Now, calculators and computers are the modern engineer’s tools for undertaking the mathematical and design aspects of their job.

Young people entering into engineering can learn lot from history and they will need to harness a range of skills and tools to have the same impact on the future as their predecessors have had over Her Majesty’s lifetime. Happy Birthday your Majesty and good luck engineers of the future!

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