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Why the UK needs a change of mindset

I recently attended the Henry Royce Memorial Lecture given at the IET in London by Lord Digby Jones. While he highlighted some interesting statistics regarding literacy and numeracy and our national record on people employed in manufacturing, and pointed a justifiably critical finger at the media and government, there were some related issues that his talk pointed up.

Although Lord Jones, an ex-director general of the CBI, enjoys a significant role in manufacturing, he did not progress through the ranks of engineering but achieved success as a lawyer. This might go some way to answering the concerns of the young man who explained that he reluctantly gave up a career in engineering to enter financial services where he was better paid. Engineers are still too often regarded as tech-heads not to be trusted with senior business-oriented positions. Unfortunately, this sad position is justified because the education of our engineers is far too oriented towards technical content with little or no thought given to the commercial environment.

The education of our engineers needs to include an awareness of business that their US counterparts learn just by being raised in a more money-oriented society. I gave up design engineering with the British and only made progress by entering the commercial world with the Americans. We have the native talent here in the UK, but sadly it remains untapped.

The poor numeracy and literacy spoken of by Lord Jones is, to some degree, linked to the media. One of my personal activities is as chairman of the board of governors of a school in a very socially deprived area of London that has an ongoing battle to raise standards. The staff tell me that one significant element of this battle is that the pupils cannot see the point of such an improvement. They look at their parents and society and see that the people who make progress are not engineers or scientists, who inhabit a very dull world, but the Cheryl Coles and David Beckhams. Again, if we look across the Atlantic, there are significant role models in industry who remain technically oriented while becoming multi-millionaires.

If we are to compete with the man in south-east China or the Indian taxi driver whose aspirations were graphically recounted by Lord Jones – and our long-term survival depends on us doing so – then we have to change our current thinking. Unfortunately, I do not see much sign of us recognising this nationally, much less do I see us even beginning to.

Ray Piggott LLB CEng FIET


Great uncles

Grace Munday's letter 'Spot The Difference' (May 2011), in which she expresses her view that institutions like the IET need to get out into schools and tell young people what engineering is all about, reminded me of my own experience as part of the 'Project Uncle' scheme organised at one time by its predecessor organisation the IEE.

For many years I donated half a day each week during the school term to the CDT department of my local comprehensive. The class with which I was involved comprised 16-year-old students of both sexes, all of whom were involved with projects based primarily on the application of electricity, electronics and physics, and the rapidly expanding field of computer technology.

Introducing me, the head of department summarised my professional background as embracing internationally recognised expertise in the fields of medical electronics, ambulance radio-communications and control, satellite communications, acoustics, noise and vibration, technical writing and even amateur radio as a hobby.

My input was not tutorial, but was directed to moving through the group offering expression of interest and encouragement in individual projects, and perhaps discussing different approaches to technological design and the solution of related problems.

It was not long before students were only too keen to discuss their project ideas at a professional level. I recall one girl from a farming background who was initially very unsure of her capabilities, but who eventually brought to the school a sizable piece of agricultural machinery that she modified to become an electronically controlled automatic seed-spreader.

One of my most treasured memories stems from having noticed that a particular student was a self-taught wizard with the department computer, bearing in mind that this was in the early days of computers in schools. At the close of my final session I asked for his personal assistance with solving a software problem I was having in the preparation for publication of an article on the reception of weather-satellite images. During his lunch break we worked our way through my project until a solution was found, and I thanked him most sincerely for his help.

He responded by thanking me personally and said that he had learned more about computer technology in that past half-hour than he had ever learned before.

Edwin Chicken MBE CEng FIET

By email

Let carmakers run themselves

I disagree fundamentally with almost all the points about the development of cars for the future made by ED Humphrey in his letter 'Forget the gospel of speed' (June 2011). A government committee or similar for cars would restrict innovation and put forward products that would satisfy nobody; we want less government, not more. Current petrol engines are astonishingly fuel and emission efficient, being controlled by electronics and using variable cams rather then carbs and throttle plates of 50 years ago.

Most car advertisements push low fuel consumption, low emissions, low running costs and safety rather than performance – these are the criteria that most use to buy a car. The very few who choose very rapid 0-60mph times pay a penalty in terms of vehicle and duty costs.

No one would quibble with the view that better rail services would help remove vehicles from our roads. But who would manage millions of the low-range vehicles proposed by Mr Humphreys, and where would they be stored when not in use? What happens when a location runs out of these vehicles? Having the car of choice waiting for your drive home is a convenience that's not to be undervalued on a cold, wet winter's evening.

I appreciate, both as a user and as an engineer, the vast scope of improvements in the technologies found in modern cars, from engines, gearboxes, suspension, tyres and safety systems through to emissions and durability. The engineers and companies that have contributed to these improvements should be acknowledged and encouraged to continue their groundbreaking work.

Anthony Cutler


Unpopular music

In your interview with the BBC's head of science Andrew Cohen (June 2011), I was delighted to note that attention is being given to use of intrusive background music in a wide range of otherwise interesting programmes on TV.

It is a question not merely of audibility, but of totally unnecessary distraction from taking in the material presented and, sometimes, of abuse of presentation when the inherent presence or absence of background sound is overlaid with 'muzak'.

Is there a remote site on the planet or in the universe where, just out of camera shot, the Hallé Orchestra is not in practice session? On occasion, in dismay, I have given up watching a much awaited programme, being unable to tolerate rising exasperation.

And I tire of concentrating upon the themes of the many excellent programmes in the face of distracting shots up the nostrils of the speaker, of rapid changes of shot or focus etc, more akin to computer games for juveniles.

Can the BBC and other well-meaning production sources kindly assess whether their presentations of serious subjects are fit for purpose and omit these excrescences?

John Hopkins MIET

By email

Your interviewer asked about the programme budget for 'Wonders of the Universe', but was easily put off by Mr Cohen's evasions. Since licence payers are footing the bill, this information should be in the public domain.

My 'back-of-an envelope' calculation suggests programme costs in excess of £2m. I have no idea if such a total is reasonable or not but the reticence of Mr Cohen to divulge the information leads me to the opinion that £2m is an underestimate. I need a bigger envelope!

My major beef about 'Wonders of the Universe' and other recent programmes is that the presenter is forever walking, climbing, driving, flying, etc. The programmes are turning into travelogues when they should be trying to present some complex scientific ideas. I look forward to 'The Story of Electricity' with some trepidation.

Alan Wright FIET

Whickham, Newcastle on Tyne

Getting in hot water

A new standard for domestic hot-water thermostats introduced recently requires the automatic user-variable thermostat to be set at a lower temperature than the safety fixed-setting thermostat, which itself needs manually resetting after any operation. Thus a given size system stores water at a lower temperature than with a thermostat of the original type; in my case this is insufficient for a single full hot bath.

Investigation showed that only the top third of the water in the insulated hot water cylinder was heating up above ambient temperature even when the user-variable setting was at maximum. Two alternative thermostats gave no improvement.

So, how to use the full amount of water present in the insulated cylinder? Some method of circulation of the water stored during the heating cycle seems to be the only answer, but the plumbing wholesaler and several plumbers I have talked to could not suggest a solution, although at least one admitted having come across the problem when customers were not satisfied with the water temperatures available from a replaced system.

Many years ago my parents had a top-fitted immersion heater with a large diameter open tube around the element, presumably with the object of circulating the water in the tank by convection, but none of the current immersion heaters I have seen have this feature. Did this not work?

It seems that the only way to use the full capacity of the insulated cylinder would be an external low-volume, low-pressure pump between the cold entry and hot take-off connection pipes to the cylinder, but currently available high-pressure, high-volume hot-water system water pumps do not seem to be satisfactory for this purpose, and no suitable pump seems to be readily available.

Has anyone overcome this problem?

George Moulder MIET


Britain's enigma

The subject of the Enigma coding machine is raised from time to time, but it does not seem to be generally known that the British Army was using a somewhat more flexible machine operationally and using the same principle during World War Two in India and Burma.

As part of my duties in the Royal Corps of Signals I was often called upon to repair equipment that had just failed in operation and had to be restored to full working order urgently. As usual, under field conditions, neither technical handbooks nor diagrams were available.

That was how I met the then secret British Type X machine – a coding teleprinter with the considerable advantage that the output was the standard teleprinter format that could be directly connected either to a land line or to a wireless transmitter. In the fighting I seem to remember one of the machines was captured by the Japanese and so the coding of the rotating discs had to be changed.

I believe the principle was widely understood in the 1930s and that it was the subject of a Polish patent then.

Frank Slater FIET

By email

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