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Contactless payment is a fantastic technology with a very bright future (‘New ways to pay’, August 2013, http://bit.ly/eandt-new-ways-pay). However, it is depressing to see such a disjointed approach to rolling it out, with everyone seeming to be forming their own partnerships and systems - a classic consumer and retailer deterrent.
Surely a cashless society means far less tax evasion and forgery, so why doesn’t the government step in to try and unify things and accelerate uptake through possible transaction charge and/or development subsidies?
Meeting with a Dalek
The Classic Project feature in the September 2013 issue of E&T (http://bit.ly/eandt-blueprint-1308) reminded me of my encounter with a Dalek in the mid-1970s when I worked at Mullard Research Laboratories near Redhill in Surrey.
The Laboratory used to give a Christmas party for the children of the employees. One year we wondered if we could borrow a Dalek and contacted the BBC. “No problem,” was the response; all we had to do was collect it.
A Dalek of that vintage in close up was a bit of a surprise. The frightening metallic monster generally seen on a 405-line monochrome TV was made mainly of wood and roughly covered in silver paint. The ‘telescopic manipulator arm’ really did have a rubber sink plunger on the end.
The Dalek was supported a couple of inches off the floor by four castors. The head lifted off so that an operator, who sat on a bench inside, could enter. Their feet touched the floor through the open base so they could easily move in any direction and spin around. We were told that originally they tried having the operator sit on a small tricycle but this wasn’t so manoeuvrable and didn’t work very well.
The operator could see where they were going because the cylindrical part of the head under the dome was made from black painted wire mesh. Inside there were a couple of handles that were extensions of the manipulator arm and ‘death ray’, and enabled them to be waggled about. Pushing the death ray handle extended it a few inches so some springy metal leaves could pop out of a tube on the end and expand. There was also a piece of string that went to a pulley at the base of the eyestalk by which it could be made to waggle up and down.
The ‘ears’ either side of the top of the head contained light bulbs powered by one of those strange flat 4.5V batteries with brass strips on the top. This was mounted in front of the operator and the lights could be made to come on by him simply pressing down on one of the brass strips so it touched a contact.
The BBC told us they created the Dalek voice by using a ring modulator to mix together the voice of the operator and a low-frequency oscillator. They did stress that it was necessary for the operator to talk in a flat monotone as well. We built a ring modulator (we were Mullard after all) and it worked very well.
Clearly there was no question of licence payers’ money being wasted on elaborate special effects. The people who built the Dalek knew just what they could get away with for it to look good.
Hailsham, East Sussex
Smart water meters
Separate stories about the UK water grid and about MPs backing smart meters in the same issue of E&T illustrate yet again the appalling lack of joined-up thinking in politicians. Blindness encouraged by vested commercial interests continues to drive so-called progress, and leads to real environmental concern and wise economics being ignored.
MPs ought to listen very carefully to advice about the value of smart water metering, which to date has been the Cinderella of domestic smart metering. How politicians seemingly are allowed to get away without including water in the smart package when the water shortage crisis is as serious as we have been repeatedly told, and the benefits of smart metering offer such potential savings, alarms and astounds me. The sooner energy, water, transport etc are taken out of MPs’ control and, like bank interest rates, put under the real apolitical specialists, the better for us all.
Use passion to take engineering message to schools
Louise Dunsby’s letter, ‘Antiquated ideas that put women off engineering’ (September 2013) expresses the same outraged comment that I have been hearing for most of my 40 years in engineering. I have no objection to these emotions - the women engineers that I have worked with have been first class - but I have found that engineering as a career is not favoured by young people of either sex.
For more than 25 years I have been a STEM ambassador, attempting to take the message into schools that engineering is one of the most rewarding professions. My view, formed from those experiences, is that engineering is not understood by parents and teachers and hence our young folk have no exposure to this discipline.
When I give a presentation to a class the first question that I ask is, what do engineers do? Almost certainly the answer will be “They fix things”. Occasionally a more appropriate answer, “They design things”. Quite often I get comments: “Engineering is boring.” “Do you need maths? I hate maths.” And from one teacher: “I always think of engineering as a bit geeky.”
Louise Dunsby displays a passion for her profession and I would recommend that she join STEM, if she has not already done so, and take her message into schools, who are always asking for young women engineers to encourage the girls.
Maurice Walker IEng MIET
Will Swissmetro be reborn?
The description of Elon Musk’s ‘Hyperloop’ (‘The Graphic’, September 2013) acknowledges that it is similar to the theoretical evacuated tube transport (ETT) system, the idea of using a rocket-propelled vehicle in an evacuated tube proposed almost exactly 100 years ago by Robert Goddard, of Goddard Space Flight Center fame.
Since then, many similar proposals have been made. The most highly developed ETT system is Swissmetro, the brainchild of Rodolphe Nieth, an engineer working for the Swiss Federal Railways who in 1974 had the idea of a rapid transport ETT system linking the major Swiss cities.
It only began to take shape ten years later, and in 1988 the German Dornier company published a very positive feasibility report. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) started a detailed study in the same year, co-funded by the Swiss Confederation, the private sector and the EPFL itself. This concluded in 1993 and determined that both the technical and economic aspects were feasible.
Following this, practical simulation and modelling was undertaken. In 2003, a proposal was made for two alternative trial projects, one between Geneva and Lausanne and the other from Zurich to Basel. These fell through because of the lack of obtainable capital, despite the proven economic viability. This was a pity because, today, just ten years later, the rail and road infrastructure between Geneva and Lausanne is proving totally inadequate. To upgrade them will cost more than the trial Swissmetro project would have cost then.
Swissmetro lies moribund today, but still not dead. The project has been taken over entirely by the EPFL. Who knows? One year, we may be able to travel from Geneva Cointrin airport to Zurich Kloten airport in 20 minutes or so, instead of three hours by regular rail.
Brian Ellis MIET
Smart meter scepticism
I read the news story ‘MPs back smart meter roll-out’ in the September 2013 issue of E&T with interest, but also some scepticism. Dave Openshaw of the IET Energy Policy Panel explains that trials of 1,100 domestic consumers showed “very real changes in consumer behaviour to avoid high price periods” and that (for instance) washing machine usage could be incentivised.
I can understand that if meters can be linked to equipment such as refrigerators they could be ‘held off’ during peak demands to reduce the National Grid burden. However, when my A-rated washing machine uses 1.10kWh on our usual wash, which equates to 15 pence on our current tariff, I cannot imagine that the incentive of saving around 7 pence on a wash cycle would persuade me to wait a day.
Looking round my house the only real opportunity to save on electricity appears to be electric cooking, perhaps by building a microwave component into ovens to improve efficiency. The remainder of the bill must be lighting and electronic devices, and while LED lamps will show worthwhile savings the present cost/benefit ratio extends too far into the future for many people to spend £10 on a 60W lamp equivalent.
DECC says it expects a saving of £18.8bn will result from the fitting of smart meters. Office for National Statistics figures for 2012 estimate that there are about 26.4 million UK households, which equates to a saving of about £700 per household. No guidance is given on the period of time for this, whether savings are split between energy companies and households, or whether the cost of unemployed meter readers has been offset against the savings.
Nigel Porter FIET
The statement in your September 2013 Comment column that the UK Ministry of Aviation was responsible for designing new civilian planes including the Vickers Viscount in the 1950s and 1960s is incorrect. The then Ministry of Supply drew up the original specification and funded two prototypes. Vickers designer Rex Pierson did the design, and after comments on the prototype by BEA the design was stretched to meet their requirements. Other UK civil aircraft were the subject of similar procedures, and I don’t believe any were designed by the Ministry of Aviation.