Feedback: Your letters

Since our last encounter the 'greatest engineers of all time' debate continues to rage in the office, so get your votes in now and we can settle it. Also, the Severn Barrage resurfaces, we stand corrected on trams separated at birth and of course lots more...

Who's the greatest?

I suspect that I will not be the only correspondent to comment on your choice of the ten greatest engineers of all time, as featured in the '25 People Who Make it Happen' (Vol 4 #1) list of today's influential figures in engineering and technology.

I would respectfully suggest the influence on modern life of da Vinci, Archimedes and Hero of Alexandria has been minimal, and to ignore the contributions of Alexander Graham Bell, Sir Frank Whittle and the unnamed originators of the internal combustion engine is difficult to understand.

My main comment would be that the exclusion of the developers of the microprocessor and leaders of its full commercial exploitation is difficult to justify. Surely Intel deserves a mention somewhere? Even more startling is the omission of the founders of Microsoft, the company which, above all others, put the PC on the desks of every commercial organisation and opened the field of personal computing to all.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that without these two organisations Sir Tim Berners-Lee' s work on the World Wide Web would have had only a minor impact. You acknowledge the importance of Microsoft by naming Bill Gates' successor as one of the people who make it happen, but do not recognise the achievements of Gates and his co-founder.

To include the Wright brothers (pictured above) in a list of the ten greatest engineers is also difficult to justify. Although they may have been the first to fly a heavier than air machine, they did so by only a small margin. Their contribution to the development of aircraft was small, and I would suggest that had they not flown their machine it would have had little effect on the rate of progress of commercial and military flight.

It is intriguing to consider which areas have contributed most to life in the 21st century. Here, for what it is worth, are my selections: i) transport by road, sea, rail and air; ii) telecommunications, both land line and mobile, and including the use of geostationary satellites; iii) personal computing, including the development and exploitation of the Web.

Ken Povall FIET, Hoylake

Return of the Severn Barrage

Power from the Severn Estuary makes the news again. The 1975 Bondi Report claimed that a Lavernock Point to Brean Down barrage would produce 1.1GW of firm power, that is power at any state of the tide. The 1989 McAlpine Report showed two daily periods of output at times of day dictated by the lunar cycle and no firm power. The latter report also revealed geological conditions in Bridgwater Bay unsuitable for a barrage there.

If, with advances in underwater engineering, such a second barrage were possible, a scheme where the estuary behind the Severn Barrage is topped up every high tide and the lagoon in Bridgwater Bay drained every low tide, generators in a barrier between these two stretches of water could generate when power is most needed at peak load times. Such a generating regime, unlike a single barrage or wind turbines, would replace much of the generating capacity elsewhere in the national system used only at peak times.

Christopher Penfold MIET, Salisbury

The UK government is about to make a decision on the Severn Barrage. Expected to cost between £15bn and £20bn, it can generate roughly 21 per cent of its total installed capacity of 8,660MW.

What I would like to know is how a grid controller would handle such a large source of power that varies from zero to maximum twice every 24 hours. In my early career I was a control room engineer, and the very thought of the Severn Barrage scares the pants off me!

R Bryant, Southminster, Essex

TV aspect ratio

In the USA we are about to switch broadcast television from analogue to digital transmission. In preparation, some of the forward looking stations are already transmitting 16:9 pictures, which results in black bars top and bottom on an old TV set. However, when the source of the broadcast is from a 4:3 camera these stations keep the aspect ratio pure resulting in black or coloured bars on the left and right.

Although this results in an appreciably smaller picture, it does keep human beings from looking fat and wide which I feel is to be preferred. Some people do not like the black bars when a wide screen movie is letter-boxed and seem quite insensitive to the fattening effect of filling the screen. Won't it be great when our new sources and new TV sets are all on the same frame? Though, in the case of historical material such as movies, which come in a clutch of different ratios, they will have to have black bars if they are not to be distorted.

On 11 November 1936, as a schoolboy standing on a bench, I viewed the Armistice Day's television broadcast, the BBC's very first. A vertical 12in CRT with the picture reflected in a front surface mirror was very sharp.

This was the work of AD Blumlein and CO Browne and they adopted a 5:4 ratio picture to use as much area as feasible on a round tube.

Alan J Aldous BSc CEng MIET, Bristol

Tram identity trap

Could I correct a couple of points in Mark Harris's excellent article in the Vol 4 #1 issue of E&T about the Melbourne tram system and its rolling stock? Mark has fallen partly into a similar trap to those writers who think that any London bus with an open rear platform is a 'Routemaster'. While all W2 cars are Melburnian, not all Melbourne trams are W2s.

The two cars in the photo of Bourke and Spencer Streets are 52, a W 'clone' built by the Victorian Railways and bought by the MMTB, and 1011, a W7 of 1954. Car 52 later moved to a suburban route serving Moonee Ponds, home of housewife superstar Dame Edna Everage. Car 965, presented to Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, is an SW6 of 1952.

When I visited Preston Workshops in 1984, the senior engineer hinted that the W2 overhaul programme was planned so that all of them would fall apart on the same day. It looks as though, 25 years on, that day still has not arrived!

As a follow-up subject, Mark could go on the trail of the Milano 'Peter Witt' trams, first built in 1928 and with nearly 100 out of 500 still in public service.

Ian Ross FIET, Ilford, Essex

Dyson's school

The profile of Sir James Dyson in '25 People Who Make It Happen' mentions that he blames lack of government support for failure of his plans to build a design school in Bath.

Sir James enjoyed considerable political support at national and local level, and from other unelected and unaccountable groups.

The scheme was opposed locally on aesthetic issues over a listed building and on flood risk grounds. Eventually, the scheme was referred to public inquiry where Sir James and his team would have been opposed by the Environment Agency, which had consistently advised against the scheme. The site lies in designated Flood Zone 3(a) that the government's own guidance in PPS 25 states should not be used for educational establishments.

Within weeks of the Council's 'minded to approve' decision, estimated costs for his scheme had risen from £25m to £60m. Sir James withdrew his planning application some weeks before the public inquiry, coinciding with a national committee decision that better value for taxpayers' money would be achieved by supporting proposals for other educational establishments.

Since withdrawing from the public inquiry, Sir James has used radio and TV to bemoan failure of his plans, conveniently forgetting that he gave his design team instructions 'for that site, and that site only'. If this was to be a national school of excellence as claimed, it is inconceivable another location could not be found.

Alan J Aldous BSc CEng MIET, Bristol

Put your PC to sleep

Dave Coustick wishes a Windows PC would start up and shut down more quickly to encourage users to switch off and save energy. While not the complete answer, using the Hibernate option is a help. Instead of taking the 'Turn Off' option, take 'Hibernate' instead - achieved by Shift + StandBy.

When you hibernate your PC, you can leave applications and documents open (saved or unsaved), and they will re-open on re-start. The PC configuration is saved on hard disk, so allowing the PC to be completely powered down. The time to start from hibernation seems marginally quicker than a restart from scratch, but the big time saving is in not having to close and open all the applications.

Don't forget to kill the power at the wall socket once the PC has finished going into hibernation, otherwise the PC is still running in sleep mode and can be consuming over 10W or, in the case of older machines, much more.

Robert Palgrave, Woking, Surrey


What they're talking about on the internet

A student in Pakistan asked on the general professional technical section of the IET discussion forums: "I'm at the point in my undergraduate degree where I have to decide where I should go - electronics or power. Which is better and more in demand?"

I am an electrical engineer but I was unable to get a challenging job in this field in India, which is why I moved into networking. I think the situation is true in Pakistan.

Electronics would be my choice. It suggests a broader knowledge base.

You should try to visit some companies to see exactly what you're getting yourself into. I did an apprenticeship before starting my degree. I was able to go both ways but preferred the power side, as it has a bit of electronics involved and you're not stuck in a lab all day.

In my experience, engineers with power experience and training are more sought after than electronic engineers because there are far fewer of us. In general, a really broad experience base is what many employers (certainly within manufacturing) are demanding (e.g 11kV down to PLC/software). The power stuff is much more difficult to pick up subsequent to your training.

I was lucky enough to do a degree course in electrical and electronic engineering, so I didn't have to specialise too much until my third year and now I have a foot in both camps. At the start of my career, I wanted a job in electronics, but ended up in a job in the heavy electrical side of engineering working for a power distribution company. However, after a while I was able to move over to the remote control side of the business, which involved some electronics. This eventually got me a job in telecommunications. I wouldn't worry too much about your choice: sometimes unexpected opportunities will present themselves.

Internationally there is a growing shortage of good electrical power engineers and, therefore, better long-term prospects.

I would definitely choose power. I was one of the lucky ones to gain experience in both fields. What I have found is that it depends whether you want to be involved more in design where the salary is good and your job is the usual run in the mill, or you would like to be involved in really large projects that demand a lot intellectually. Take a look at the industries in your country and enamouring states and research what is in demand.

I am an electrical design engineer(have just been made redundant) and I think if you are interested in big powerful things then go for electrical. If you like small things then go for electronics. I kind of wish I'd stuck to electronics, but getting a job in electronics can be difficult. I don't know if the number of electronics jobs has declined. If there are electronics jobs and not enough people to fill them then there would be more trainee positions available, but there isn't.

When lots of opinions are floating around and you're still not sure which way to turn, ask the opinion of your lecturers.

Join the debate, or start one of your own [new window].

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