'Buses, Bankers & the Beer of Revenge', a collection of Justin Pollard's 'Eccentric Engineer' columns, is set to be released by the IET. Vitali Vitaliev, co-creator and first editor of the column, talks to him about eccentricity, engineering, history, Cate Blanchett and the ideas behind his popular E&T page.
Vitali Vitaliev: 'Buses, Bankers & the Beer of Revenge' is a rather unusual, if nicely alliterated, title. Can you explain it please?
Justin Pollard: You're right, it is all about alliteration. Buses, beer and bankers all feature in different columns included in the book, and they all begin with "b"...
VV: There are plenty of other words beginning with this letter, such as, say, "best", "brilliant", but also... "boring"...
JP: I know what you mean, but let me point out that the main idea of the column is to try and explain, particularly to engineers themselves, why engineering is NOT boring.
The people who often do the worst job of promoting their own subject are engineers. It's usual to be rude about other people's professions. The strange thing about engineers is how rude they can be about their own. So my aim was to come up with amazing stories of successes and failures from all over engineering history to explain why engineering is important - simply because we live in an engineered world.
VV: This is all very nice, but where does beer come into the picture?
JP: 'The Beer of Revenge' is the title of one of the columns in the book. It is also one of the great engineering stories of all time originating, curiously, from Louis Pasteur, who was actually a biochemist.
He had an extraordinary hatred for the Prussians, mainly due to the Franco-Prussian war in which they invaded his country, France, and the work in his laboratory had to stop. In revenge, Pasteur insisted that all his academic papers had the words 'destroy Prussia' printed in them, which was slightly, er, eccentric. He also decided to personally destroy Prussia's economy by giving away all the secrets of how they made lager. So he put aside all the work he was doing on vaccination, anthrax and saving the world and worked out exactly what was in the German beer that made it turn into lager and not ale. He then wrote a book about it which he gave away for free to everyone in Europe, except for the Germans.
He made sure that the book was never translated into German and went on a tour telling everyone else how to make lager, most famously going to Whitbread in the UK and to Carlsberg in Denmark. He taught the Danes how to make lager in the hope that they would destroy the Prussian Empire.
VV: Did it work?
JP: No, Germany is still there today. But Pasteur certainly had a profound effect on the German brewing industry, one of the consequences of which was that many a German brewery no longer in operation turned their attention to making acetone, which, as you know, you need for cordite. And cordite is what you need for shells, and shells were what Germany needed at the time as they were about to declare war on France again. So it backfired... in the true sense of the word.
VV: Where and how do you find themes for your column?
JP: The great thing about 'Eccentric Engineer' is that nothing is proscribed. You don't have to write about this subject or that subject, this period or that period. It can be anything.
I don't ever sit down and think: right, I'm going to do a list of what my next 10 columns are going to be about. I just carry around a notepad and write down things I see while on a train, say, wondering how they work. And later, at home, I discover that there is an extraordinary story behind most of them. It could be how the bogeys on a train work or how they put timetables together... anything is an inspiration really.
VV: Inspiration is important, of course, but you also need a database for research. What's normally your first port of call?
JP: I usually start with the history of the subject , so I can put together the timeline of the story before going into the science of it. So the normal ports of call start with the online repositories of academic articles.
I'm always very aware that my background is that of an historian and I'm writing for engineers, who will have me shot if I get the science wrong, so I check the science thoroughly.
Another port of call is the London Library but, because I live in Dorset, I mostly use its online resources, which are fantastic. It's like having access to a university library while no longer being at university.
VV: I would say that the main achievement of your column after its five-year run is that now it's become more acceptable to be an eccentric engineer. Would you agree with that?
JP: Well, I hope it has helped engineers take a little more credit for what they do. A few years back I wrote a column about Charles Parsons who invented the steam turbine but failed to have it noticed by the Navy until he made – quite literally – a lot of noise using his invention, and that caused a real stir. In the UK in particular, we have the problem that often our engineers are too diffident. "Oh, it's a bit boring, I'm a bit boring..." We could do with standing up for ourselves a bit more really.
VV: How eccentric are you?
JP: I'm completely normal, just like everyone else. The person I wouldn't trust is one that calls himself eccentric. Some people do think it's odd that I start emails with the word "ahoy", but it's just a little reference back to the origin of the telephone really.
VV: It also means "hello" in both Czech and Slovak languages, by the way. Any other signs of eccentricity?
JP: At weekends, I quite like to blow things up with my eldest daughter. We like to make rockets and various explosives. When I was younger, I used to send my mum down to Boots to buy potassium nitrate, sulphur and carbon for me and I would make my own gunpowder for rockets. You aren't allowed to do this anymore. Was that eccentric? I'm not sure. Maybe, it is just about not being happy with the order of things and wanting to create, not havoc, but change things in a radical way.
VV: So, are you eccentric or not?
VV: Tell us about your childhood. Were you one of those kids who took things apart to see how they work?
JP: I can't bear not to know something once it has crossed my mind. Fortunately, I grew up in a family where curiosity was encouraged. If I didn't know something, my mum would say, well, we'll just have to go to the library and find out.
When I was about nine or so it was the time the Voyager spacecraft was going past Saturn. Of course, there was no Internet and all you'd see on John Craven's 'Newsround' was a few pictures. I wanted to know more about it and see more of these pictures, so we went to the library, got the address of Carl Sagan at the jet propulsion laboratory, and I wrote to him. A few months went past and I forgot all about it until I came home from school one day and there was a big brown A4 envelope with Nasa photographs waiting for me. Carl Sagan had written back! Of course he became a hero of mine.
That was a very important lesson for me: if you want to find out something, just go out and do it! Most people are very happy to tell you what they know if you ask them nicely.
I think that most engineers are quite quizzical by nature. They are classically the people who spend the first part of their lives taking things apart and then learning how to put them back together again.
VV: After school, you went to Cambridge to study history...
JP: Yes, I was at Downing College specialising as an archaeologist, a medievalist really, with particular focus on north-west Europe in the 9th Century. Sadly, there aren't many jobs going that need that specialism. But studying at Cambridge was lovely. You realise there are so many people like you who are quizzical and don't just talk about football all the time.
VV: What did you do after university?
JP: I went to work for the Museum of London. I excavated Tom Beckett's old monastery until the unit I was working for rather abruptly went bankrupt over the space of one weekend. So I had to think about what on earth I was going to do next and went around bullying television production companies seeing if I could get a job as a researcher. Eventually one of them relented and gave me a job. I started off making tea on American historical productions and then moved on to making documentaries myself. Eventually John Lloyd offered me a position on his 'QI' TV programme – that was where you and I met...
VV: You have also done some work for Hollywood as a history consultant.
JP: Yes, I run a little company called Visual Artefact, which we set up in the late 1990s to provide historical consultancy on movies. Not so much in an attempt to make them more accurate, because you can never make a drama into a documentary, but simply because truth is often much stranger than fiction. You can usually put historical background into a period piece that makes it more interesting and adds to the quality of the production. With 'Pirates of the Caribbean', for instance, my job was not to turn it into a documentary, but to give it a flavour of the middle of the 18th Century. If you know exactly what sort of crowd they had in the streets then: how old everyone was, were they mostly Indians or Africans, were they mainly women, and so on – it just helps to suspend disbelief.
At the other end of the scale, we did 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas'. It was a horrific job, but it was important to get right how things worked in the Nazi concentration camps. The producers were concerned that if you got something wrong, you'd play into the hands of Holocaust deniers. We worked on all of the scenes of Nazi funerals, on how people behaved in households, but particularly on the operation of the gas chambers. We got the original manuals translated to make sure that in the last scene the soldier on the roof had the right gas mask on and the right box with Zyklon B canisters in.
You see it for less than a second but you have to get it right. And by getting it right you change the whole feeling of the shot and how the actors behave. It gives the scene the true horror that it should have.
I also did both of the 'Elizabeth' movies with Cate Blanchett and spent a long time teaching Cate how to be Elizabeth I.
VV: Engineering the character, so to speak. Was Cate a quick learner?
JP: She's very good. Incredibly diligent and assiduous and knew a lot of what Elizabeth knew. Of course, Cate didn't speak 11 languages, like Elizabeth did, but she really knew the part...
VV: You've written a number of books and just started 'Unbound', trying, in your own words, to "re-engineer the publishing industry". And you still write your 'Eccentric Engineer' column. Where do you find the time to do it all?
JP: Well, I don't sleep much...
The book is now available from bookshops and online at £14.99: http://bit.ly/JustinPollardBook