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Role models on TV and radio

Jackie Portman (Letters, July 2013) bemoans that she has never seen a soap-opera character who is an engineer. Well, she's clearly following only inferior soaps. Allow me to introduce the doyen of them all, 'The Archers', and Alice Carter, née Aldridge: young, ambitious (cue plot line with her less ambitious husband, Christopher), most definitely neither geek nor nerd (formerly a bit of a brat, but less so after her gap year in Africa), presumably sexy (see Christopher again), and a Southampton University engineering graduate working in aeronautical engineering – oh, and female as well, killing two role-model birds with one stone.

John Swanson, Leatherhead

I fully agree with Jackie Portman on the never-ending confusion between the terms 'engineer' and 'technician'. The difference, in simple terms, is that engineers write the rules that technicians have to follow, as I have felt obliged to point out from time to time during my career.

However, I am surprised that Jackie has never seen a soap character who is an engineer. What about 'Thunderbirds', a great series in which a futuristic aircraft was manned by the he-men but operated by an engineer, Brains? He was, of course, presented as a feeble, little man wearing huge spectacles, as befits an engineer.

Then there was that wonderful film 'No Highway' concerning an engineer who pulled up the undercarriage of the plane in which he was a passenger (and which he had designed) while it was still on the tarmac, because he believed it was about to break up due to fatigue stress. The lead role was played by James Stewart who, of course, had to affect a stutter and a dreadful inferiority complex, so that viewers would know he was an engineer.

Stuart Bridgman MIET, Wellington, New Zealand

I weep for the current generation of would-be engineers. As a boy in the 1960s, I was in no doubt about what I wanted to be when I grew up.

We were lucky to have on TV an innovative programme that gripped boys of my generation. Here was the role-model engineer with the most exciting job I could possibly imagine. Each week, he had the most challenging problems to solve, and machines of all kinds to create. His kit was always appreciated by the team, and invariably successful in use. He was respected, thoughtful, humorous and wore specs like me. Even now, I am in awe of this exceptional being.

I wonder what Brains is doing today?

Anthony Cutler CEng MIET, Malvern

Can society be engineered?

Most of your contributors on the subject of attracting more women into engineering seem to imply that it all comes down to better marketing (For & Against, July 2013, But after seeing many such 'initiatives' achieve little, I am not so convinced.

We should not pretend that our profession is something other than it is. Young people in the UK are raised within an economy in which services play a strong role. They are aware that engineering is not the obvious first choice for a career that is not only lucrative but also fits the required image and operates in attractive surroundings. Training is rigorous and requires a thorough understanding of materials, processes and physical principles. In many branches of industry this inevitably entails working in noisy, dirty and smelly environments.

Even after training, for every person who makes it to the top, there will be many who remain at middle and technical levels. These are the people who deal with the issues of design, testing, manufacture, construction and other essential elements of fully engineered systems.

Unfortunately many young people of both sexes show no great desire to get involved in these activities. But the situation is worse for girls, not because of any weakness in the marketing of engineering, but because they are up against the heavily biased way in which society chooses to market women. The successful woman is promoted as shapely, fashionable, well-groomed, sweet-smelling and manicured to perfection. The value of professional qualifications seldom features in all this and celebrity culture reinforces the importance of the visual image at every opportunity.

No matter how persuasive our marketing, the hard realities of engineering can never accord well with this idealised impression of what makes a successful woman. I can see little hope of changing this situation until society places a higher value on engineering and we are only too aware that this continues to look improbable. We may be good at engineering, but I think that trying to engineer the attitudes of society to suit ourselves will always be a bridge too far.

Roy W Sach CEng MIET, Great Totham, Essex

Spot the difference

The report in your June 2013 Africa-themed issue on how scientists are developing more robust cereal crops ('Helping hand for crops', reminded me of an 'interesting' year my family spent in Nigeria in the early 1980s. My wife did her shopping at the market and noticed that the locals did not purchase locally produced items, preferring items brought in from abroad as they claimed that the quality and value was superior. Many were made in neighbouring countries such as Benin and Cameroon, as well as in Europe and the USA. Some were smuggled into Nigeria, but even the smuggled items attracted higher prices than locally produced ones.

We sampled both local and foreign items and concluded no difference in quality or taste. The main difference was that the Nigerian-produced items were normally cheaper. In fact we suspected that, as Nigerians are skilled in many trades, quite a few of the foreign items were actually being produced within Nigeria and packaged as foreign.

Foreign rice was often three times the price of local rice. Admittedly the Nigerian rice being sold did not look as attractive; it was dirty and contained small stones. My wife did purchase some local rice. She washed it before cooking and, believe it or not, it was just as good as foreign rice!

However, although she told locals that the Nigerian rice was every bit as good as the foreign rice, nobody believed her.

The problem we found was that very few Nigerians were prepared to produce products to replace expensive imports because of the popular disdain for local items. Nigeria could feed itself with home-grown rice even without the new strains being developed, if only people moved away from the easy cash available in the oil sector.

H Cather CEng MIET, By email

The speed of change at sea

Many years ago I worked as a Radio Officer in the Merchant Navy, so 'New Wave of Technology' (July 2013, was extremely interesting. A couple of years ago, I was talking to a junior Ship's Officer and asked him how they communicate with their head office. I could tell that he thought it was a silly question, but he was polite and replied: "We send them emails."

It occured to me later that he would have been too young to have sailed on a ship with a radio room. No doubt he would have considered it quite bizarre that ship-to-shore communications were carried out via shortwave radio and in Morse code.

Radio Officers disappeared in the 1990s, not very long ago really. It is an interesting reflection on the speed of change that in 1900 there was no such thing as a Radio Officer on a merchant ship, neither was there in 1999. A whole occupation grew from nothing, flourished, became increasingly technical, then faded out in less than 100 years.

David Wear IEng, Bristol

RMS power surprise

RH Pearson and J Woodgate's letters about the persistence of references to 'rms power' came as a surprise to me as I thought this problem would have disappeared long ago. Back in the 1950s, when 'Wireless World' was the bible for most electronics enthusiasts, it repeatedly explained the fallacy of using this expression in specifications. Perhaps the persistence of the error stems from the sub-class of audio writers wedded to subjective assessments via the golden ear; as opposed to those who prefer objective measurement.

Derek Williams, By email

Jetstream origins

Your Blueprint of the Westland Wallace Biplane (July 2013, implies that Scottish Aviation was the originator of the Jetstream regional airliner. The Jetstream was in fact developed by Handley Page Ltd in 1965 to meet the US Federal Aviation Requirements Part 23. It was company project number P.137.

In 1969 Handley Page Ltd was declared bankrupt and the available spares and incomplete airframes were taken over by Jetstream Aircraft Ltd with help from Terravia Trading and Scottish Aviation. In February 1972 Scottish Aviation acquired the production and design rights held by Jetstream Aircraft and was awarded an MoD contract for 26 Jetstreams. In 1975 there was a rationalisation/nationalisation of British aviation saw Scottish Aviation incorporated into British Aerospace.

As an ex-employee of Handley Page Ltd and a member of the Handley Page Association, I feel compelled to correct any misunderstandings.

Chas Taylor, By email

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