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An oath for engineers

Yesterday evening I picked up the latest issue of E&T (March 2012) and nearly had a heart attack when I looked at the front cover. A quick glance at page 31 confirmed my worst fears. When I went to bed, I was so distressed that I had an almost sleepless night.

What had caused this usually excellent magazine to upset me so? One simple sentence: “[I promise to…] Limit the impact of my work on the environment.” Over a quarter of a century of my work has been at a high level on the environment. Not to boast, but as a simple statement, this has involved sitting on the Montreal Protocol Technical and Economics Assessment Panel, chairing and sub-chairing two technical committees under the Panel, and consultancy work for the United Nations Environment Programme, the Swiss government, government organisations in various other countries and industries throughout the world. So, you would have me limit the impact of all this work which I have done to help the environment? I’m sure this is not your intention but this is how it reads.

In my opinion, it would be much better to rephrase it: “[I promise to…] Ensure that I cause minimal environmental deterioration as a result of my work” or along the same lines.

This brings me to what I consider should be added to the list of promises: “[I promise to…] Make every effort to ensure that all my communications are clear and unambiguous.”

I am all in favour of a promissory code of ethics for engineers. That said, I would be opposed to swearing an oath, mainly because of its religious connotations in this day of mixed faiths.

Brian Ellis MIET

By email

Good to see an article on ethics in the March 2012 issue of E&T. There’s no doubting the importance of the subject in professional life, and I would be prepared to ‘sign up’ to something like the list illustrated on page 31. It’s both sufficiently broad and general to enable engineers to commit themselves, whatever their particular specialism.

However, an important contributor to the debate and one-time member of this Institution is missing from the very useful history of the subject given in Jason Goodyer’s article. I am referring to MW Thring, professor of mechanical engineering at Queen Mary College, University of London in the 1970s, who produced a book entitled ‘The Engineer’s Conscience’ just before he retired. ‘Med’, as he was known, was more prescriptive; for example he made more specific reference to environmental issues than E&T’s list, and was clearly against employment in the arms industry.

We first met in my undergraduate days and became close during the last ten years of his long life, when he was much engaged in the nuclear power debate and worked to improve the supply of clean water and electric light in Third World Countries. Here was an engineer and engaged in ethical issues for much of his life.

John Gamlin

East Bergholt, Suffolk

Bearing in mind that engineers do not work in isolation but are usually employed in an organisation, I suggest that an oath should commence: “I promise to: Serve the purposes of the organisation to which I belong having regard to the needs of the owners, clients, customers, employees, the public and the country.”

Michael Hield MIET

By email

Codebreaking memories

I was very pleased to see the news articles and Eccentric Engineer column in your March 2012 issue about wartime codebreaking at Bletchley Park. It was not until this work was made public some 30 years after the end of the war, that I realised that, indirectly, I had worked for Tommy Flowers.

Various parts of the computer apparatus were outsourced to groups of Post Office Engineering staff scattered over the country. This was a brilliant strategy as the units built were, basically, bits of standard telecommunications apparatus. They did not attract prying eyes and could be delivered in plain Post Office Engineering vans.

I worked as a junior engineer in the engineer-in-chief’s Circuit Laboratory close to St Paul’s Cathedral. There we built many relay sets and other equipment such as radar calculators for secret installations throughout the UK. When I came across a book entitled ‘The Codebreakers’ published after the release of the Bletchley Park information, I saw a circuit diagram of a unit which I had built and tested. At the time, as a young, inquisitive engineer, I worked out what it would do but we were never told where it was to go other than to a secret installation.

Later in my career in the engineering department I worked alongside Tommy on the development of the first public electronic telephone exchange at Highgate Wood and came to know him as a dedicated engineer and delightful person.

Roy Howard FIET

By email

In May 1943, as a trainee armament artificer, I was shown a pre-production model of a device for aiming anti-aircraft guns. It was known in the British army as the No 10 Predictor and used 150 thermionic valves. Without in any way detracting from the achievement of Tommy Flowers and his colleagues at Bletchley Park, I would suggest that this was the first electronic computer.

EG Harling CEng MIET

Tunbridge Wells

You describe Colossus as a unit that “deciphered encrypted messages”. You can only decipher a message that has been encyphered, and an encrypted message can only be decrypted. These are fundamentally different ways of sending a coded message and cannot be transposed.

K Wilkins

By email

Alternatives to carbon capture

I read with interest Mark Venables’ article on carbon capture and storage (‘Catch Me If You Can’, March 2012), but the diagram showing clean energy options seems to omit the most obvious – hydroelectric power. Wave power is shown, but not the huge potential offered by hills and rivers.

In Murchison, New Zealand, the Six Mile hydro scheme ran for over 50 years after being installed in the 1920s. The 80kW system is still housed inside a building the size of a double garage. No high unsightly towers to be argued over. Even in ‘flat’ Hampshire where I live there were apparently some 20-plus water wheels on the River Itchen in the Middle Ages.

So, why not more mini- or micro-hydro schemes with their known and reliable technology? It must surely benefit such areas as Wales and Scotland where there is much ‘potential’ (pun intended) for such schemes.

Martin W Letts CEng MIET

Swanmore, Hants

According to ‘Catch Me If You Can’, carbon capture and storage projects in operation and under construction will together swallow the carbon dioxide from six million cars each year. Rupert Soames, CEO of Aggreko, has a better idea.

“There are about 8,000 power stations in the world and the vast majority are highly polluting coal-fired things,” he said in 2008. “If the world is serious about making an impact against global warming, then just turn the worst 150 polluters around the world into clean nuclear stations and the effect would be the same as if you immediately took every single car in the world off the road.”

There is another aspect. If we bury CO2, it doesn’t decay, ever, but remains a danger for all eternity. A danger? A minor seismic tremor in Cameroon released naturally trapped carbon dioxide from Lake Nyos. Heavier than air, it flowed down the slope, wrecking hutments in its path and killing 1,700 people by suffocation.

That was in 1986, when the Chernobyl disaster occurred. This was studied by eight UN agencies whose 2004 report concluded that by then 54 people had died from the failure of that reactor, whose design was known to be inherently unstable.

Your article mentions “lack of financial support” for carbon capture, ad-speak for no taxpayer subsidies. It notes hydrogen and other chemicals are obtained, but doesn’t say how they will be obtained. No chemist, I’d wager it needs electricity.

Bill Hyde CEng FIET

Offham, Kent

On your marks

One must be careful when giving a short history of the Spitfire (‘Blueprint’, February 2012). There were 22 total Mark numbers allocated to the machine, the last version being the Mk24, but Marks 15 and 17 were Seafires and Mk 23 was a design project only so that makes 21 flying versions only. The later Marks of Spitfire, particularly those with the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine, had a considerably higher top speed and performance than the earlier Merlin-powered machines.

The Seafire versions looked very similar to the Spitfire but were navalised with strengthening, an arrestor-hook and equipment differences. Early Seafires were modified ‘Spits’ without folding wings and their own range of Mark numbers.

WH Philpott CEng MIET

By email

PWR parts

Due to a production error, the numbered labels on the illustration of the AP1000 pressurised water reactor featured in ‘The Graphic’ in the March 2012 issue of E&T were printed 2cm to the left of the positions in which they should have appeared. The image with the labels in the correct positions can be viewed at

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