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Marking 70 years since the passing of a true genius

7 June this year will see the 70th anniversary of an historic plane crash that should be remembered, and promoted by the IET as a significant event. The importance of this little known event will become obvious when you learn that a true genius died in that unfortunate accident.

The genius I refer to had obtained 128 patents at the time of his death and as a prolific inventor we owe a debt of gratitude for many things that we now take for granted but which have become a major part of our everyday life. As an inventor and the head of a development team working for EMI the first television system was developed. This invention was not only the complete television system including the cameras and the high-power klystron transmitter, but also the television receivers with inventions such as the line flyback system to produce the EHT for the CRT final anode supply.

This man was a prolific inventor who had earlier designed improvements to telephones and invented the ribbon microphone that became a classic symbol still used by BBC Radio graphics even today, he also invented stereophonic sound and the method of putting two tracks in a single groove that made stereo records possible.

When the Second World War broke out the television service was shut down, and so he took on the task of developing what we now know as radar. This was then further developed for airborne use and his life came to an abrupt end when a Halifax aircraft was lost with all on board whilst testing the new airborne radar system H2S.

He should be our greatest engineering hero, but when he died Britain was still in the grip of war and the loss of the Halifax bomber had to remain secret. So sadly Britain's most prolific inventor of early electronics is totally unknown.

Most people would give the name John Logie Baird as the inventor of television but in truth his cumbersome mechanical Televisor was never a match for an all electronic device, he was in fact a great hindrance to the progress of real television as we know it. This is a fascinating story that would make a great film or television programme along the lines of those about Bletchley Park and Enigma.

For more information on this unrecognised genius, check out Alan Blumlein on Wikipedia and Google.

Colin Warner EngTech MIET

By email

Dangerous Games

I must confess that after reading the interview with Professor Jim Al-Khalili in Anne Harris's article on geoengineering ('The Danger of Playing God', May 2012) I am somewhat uncertain where he stands on the matter. Whatever the case, I certainly agree with his statements that "The greatest challenges are social, ethical and political rather than scientific" and "' the danger is that geoengineering is seen as a 'get out of jail free' card".

However exciting and rewarding engineers may see the prospect of tacking climate change using geoengineering techniques, there can be no doubt that is would be better to reduce carbon dioxide emissions than take risks with the natural environment.

The causes of climate change are so well known they hardly need repeating, but for the sake of this letter I must state them. They are the ever-increasing energy release to meet rising standards of living and the rapid'growth in human numbers.'These are the social, ethical and political challenges to which Professor Al-Khalili refers, for changing the way we live and reducing human numbers are issues which are rarely discussed and even more rarely acted upon.

Moreover they will also take a long time to bear fruit. Some relatively benign forms of geoengineering such as carbon capture and afforestation may be necessary to see us through the interim, but there can be no escape from the need to tackle the root causes of the problem in the first place. We have to find a way to change course in our search for a satisfying life and to reduce our numbers.

In the end it is not more technology we need, but, in the words of the Royal Society recent statement, "a radical rebalancing of global consumption together with curbs in further rapid rise in population".

John Gamlin MIET

East Bergholt, Suffolk

 

We have been playing Satan for hundreds of years. Now we are playing Nero. If putting right the mess we have made of this planet is playing God then play God we must and play it for all we are worth.

The human race faces an imminent prospect of extinction and we do not know how long we have to fix the problem. We must stop burning fossil fuel to generate electricity. Renewables are not coming fast enough. The politicians and the public must overcome their paranoia about nuclear power.

Of course it is dangerous, but a recent study reported in E&T showed that, statistically, fossil fuel power kills more than ten times as many people as nuclear for the same amount of electricity generated. The trouble is the media just love a really spectacular disaster. They are still making money out of Titanic 100 years after it sank. If a few coal miners scattered around the world die of silicosis every day it is not news.

Richard Carter MIET

Lincoln

 

You apparently failed see the irony involved in the article preceding 'The Dangers of Playing God', which described the technical aspects of chasing tornadoes and thunderstorms in the US mid-west. Even after the expenditure of large amounts of time, effort and money, engineers and scientists have been unable to fully understand and project the path of these dangerous storms.

I have heard numerous ideas put forward to seed or to change the course and intensity of these powerful storms. All were dropped because of the fear that they would result in a positive feedback effect which would intensify the storms and cause more damage and loss of life, with a corresponding threat of legal proceeding and insurance claims.

The legal/insurance aspect was not fully addressed in the geoengineering article. The other missing issue was the lack of public trust in the scientific and engineering community. As the latest news event relating to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in which a BP engineer has been arrested for alleged falsification of data concerning the rate of oil loss, shows, it is doubtful if any person can be trusted in such a major undertaking.

Peter J Brooks MIET

Palm Bay, Florida, USA

 

Anne Harris appears to have bought into the religion which asserts that climate change is primarily man made. If Christopher Booker's book 'The Real Global Warming Disaster' is to be considered, and it should be, the assertion that "the overwhelming majority of scientists acknowledge ....it is caused by humans" is a gross mistruth, put about by those who have an economic interest in promoting the idea.

I would be interested to learn of a single case of geoengineering where catastrophic side-effects have not manifest themselves. The concept is frightening.

EurIng John Horsley CEng MIET

By email

 

No engineering project or process on this planet is without our involvement. We are in a very strong position to at least influence how these are designed and implemented. If we were given the budget currently spent on arms and warfare, think how we could try and save our planet. It's like being on the branch of a tree, and while it is being sawn off we fight and squabble with each other. We engineers could blaze a trail for common sense as well as survival.

Peter Welstead MIET

By email

 

Hot stuff

Can anyone explain why, despite the successful application of electronics in so many spheres, the rings of most electric kitchen hobs seem to continue to rely on crude on/off power control using bi-metallic strip technology?

Electric hobs have a reputation for poor controllability compared with gas and this must be largely down to the use of so called energy controllers ('simmerstats') which typically power cycle 15 seconds on/15 seconds off at part power. This makes cooking much more challenging than it need be, with pans not hot enough one minute and boiling over the next!

I was using thyristor and triac-based controllers for the temperature control of large heating loads as long ago as the 1970s and we are all familiar with the low-cost dimmer switches which we use to control domestic lighting. Why can't this technology be uprated and used for hobs?

Chris Wheeler CEng MIET

By email

 

Real deal?

As a result of completing an energy efficiency survey for my house I have serious doubts over the government 'green deal', under which householders will be encouraged to invest in energy efficiency measures and recover the cost through reduced energy bills.

My gas usage averages about 38,000kWh annually and presently costs in the region of '1,490, while electricity usage is about 2,500kWh at the normal rate and about 1,500kWh at the low rate and costs in the region of '530. These are long-term figures based on meter readings taken over 15 or more years.

I recently completed an efficiency survey, based on SAP 2001, on the Atlantic Energy website which states that my total energy costs should be '573 pa. The discrepancy between my actual usage and the predicted usage is of the order 400 per cent. This cannot be ascribed to minor departures from the construction methods and energy use patterns assumed in the SAP 2001 calculation and those of my house.

A recent issue of the Sunday Telegraph's Money supplement gave the average cost of electricity from the eight best value suppliers as '1,078 based on consumptions of 16,500kWh gas and 3,300kWh electricity. Thus the cost of energy for an average house is almost twice the '573 which SAP 2001 predicts for my fairly large 11-room house.

Worryingly for the taxpayer and consumer, and the UK's commitment to meet certain EU targets for energy saving, this discrepancy raises grave doubts about the government's expectations of what the 'green deal' is capable of delivering in terms of energy savings. It also suggests that consumers who install the recommended energy efficiency measures will not make anything like the claimed savings. In other words they will have been misled by the government.

JR Ball

Hale

 

Make grid secure as well as smart

In your interview with Bastian Fischer (May 2012), the vice president of industry strategy at Oracle Utilities stresses the importance of cyber security as the UK's IT-based smart grid evolves. The principal source of risk foreseen would be breaches of cyber security once the grid were operating.

Such concerns, given the crucial importance of the grid to the UK's national security, should extend further to the entire supply chain required to establish a smart grid. The opportunity for malicious software to be supplied, for example, should be countered by the application of stringent procurement conditions. Such conditions should insist that all actions necessary for the provision of all critical systems and components, from design to commissioning, are transparent and open to stage inspection and acceptance by UK nationals from UK inspection organisations approved by the UK Government. The same restrictions should apply to any public telephone circuits, were they to be considered for critical signals, controls and protective relay systems.

This overall threat is so serious that it would not be unreasonable to prohibit the participation, in any sensitive areas, of suppliers based in countries with political systems avowedly hostile to our democratic system of government.

James Bunyan FIET

Keysoe, Bedford

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