Icons of industry

Materials World magazine
6 Nov 2011

What does it take to become an icon, and why are there few, if any, famous engineers who could truly be labelled as such? The question occurred to me as I introduced this year’s RW Thomson Lecture on 13 September at Techfest in Aberdeen, UK. The lecture was inaugurated in 2010 by the Scottish local societies of IOM3 in honour of the 19th century engineer, who, despite being the father of the pneumatic tyre, is generally unknown today.

One reason might be the difficulty in defining ‘iconic’. More than just famous, an icon has to have influence and recognition beyond his or her own field of work. Then there is the ambiguity and overlap between science, invention and engineering, and determining what exactly is iconic – the individual or the invention? Most importantly, there has to be an enduring portrait or photograph to ensure public recognition, which begs a further question – what defines the icon, the image or the person?

Two examples illustrate my point. Albert Einstein regularly tops the list of 20th century icons for his Theory of Relativity and the most quoted equation of all time: E=mc2. His eccentric and archetypal ‘mad scientist’ appearance makes him recognisable today, more than 50 years after his death. But while engineers have used his discoveries to develop space exploration and nuclear power, Einstein was not an engineer. A better example is Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Not only did his engineering prowess span many disciplines – bridges, railways and ship building – but much of what he built is still in use today, over 150 years later. He also has the most iconic image of any engineer I know, standing in front of the gigantic steel chains of the SS Great Eastern in top hat and tails, a cigar clenched in his mouth.

Perhaps this explains why Thomson is largely forgotten. His most enduring invention was commercialised by others (John Boyd Dunlop), while his numerous other patents and inventions belong in a different age. His best-known image is a rather undistinctive artist’s sketch that appeared alongside his obituary in the Illustrated London News in 1873.

Coincidentally, The Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland (IESIS) has launched a Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame. The idea, which is supported by IOM3 and all the other major engineering institutions active in Scotland, will be used to promote the huge contribution that Scottish engineers have made to improving the wellbeing of society. The first seven inductees were announced at the annual James Watt Dinner held in Glasgow, UK, on 30 September and included, among others, James Watt himself, Thomas Telford and Lord Kelvin, although there was no mention of Robert Thomson. But all is not lost. The organisers want the public to play a part in building this authoritative record by nominating other great Scottish engineers who have made a significant contribution to engineering in all its aspects – research, invention, design, construction, business development and public/political engagement – so perhaps Thomson will make it yet.

But why stop there? Why not inaugurate our own IOM3 Hall of Fame of those who have made a contribution to materials, minerals and mining, whatever their nationality? Henry Bessemer, Humphrey Davy, Robert Thomson and Josiah Wedgwood – they might not all be household names, but they are our icons and we should recognise them as such.