Lantern by Savoy Theatre

Hidden engineering heritage: help us record our tech history

Image credit: Christine Bohling

We launch a new Hidden Engineering Heritage (HEH) competition for E&T readers.

Walking to the IET’s London offices from Embankment Tube Station, it is easy to overlook an old-timey-looking street lantern at the bottom of Carting Lane, directly opposite the stage door of the Savoy Theatre.

The lantern’s barely-visible gas light burns all day and all night, and doesn’t really seem to serve any practical purpose; a pedestrian who accidentally noticed it would be forgiven for passing by with a shrug. This seemingly unremarkable lantern, though, is one of the most ingenious and controversial engineering monuments in London.

The Patent Sewer Ventilating Lamp was invented and patented by JE Webb, a visionary engineer from Birmingham. As far back as 1895 he realised that flammable gases accumulating in sewers could be drawn up and burnt along with town gas, with the flame not only lighting up the street but also destroying the unpleasant odours.

Because of its sewage connection, the lamp is often misattributed to Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the creator of London’s sewer network, who died four years before it was invented.

Another tantalising fallacy regarding this lamp is that it is still operates on its original principle, using the effluents of the Savoy Hotel guests. Not since 1950, when the lantern was hit and destroyed by a stray lorry, after which it was restored as a simple gas lamp.

A stone’s throw from the lamp (careful, now), there is another little-known landmark of British engineering design. Tucked away in a corner of Trafalgar Square, and camouflaged as yet another highly peculiar lamp post, is what was in the 1920s London’s smallest police station, complete with telephone, windows (to secretly watch for street felons and offenders, no doubt) and enough space to accommodate at least one burly constable. Until recently, the interior was used for storage by the Trafalgar Square cleaners; now there are plans to turn it into a mini-cafe or a bar, the licence for which has already been granted.

These are just two examples of the countless hidden engineering treasures that surround us. The UK is extremely rich in engineering heritage, and perhaps that’s why so many gems are so often overlooked. Yes, there exist the prestigious Engineering Heritage Awards (EHA), administered by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (the most recent being awarded to Jaguar Land Rover’s Castle Bromwich Assembly Plant), but if we look at the complete list of winners, they are mostly fairly large and well-known factories, institutions and museums.

But how about the less conspicuous, often semi-ruined objects and installations, those that need to be properly discovered and possibly protected? Today we launch a competition to honour these neglected sites, with prizes for the readers who find, describe and photograph them.

We want to take the competition outside the UK borders and invite E&T’s readers from more than 100 countries to take part.  I envisage, for example, a number of entries from Australia, where they treasure their engineering heritage and even have a special body – Engineering Heritage Australia – responsible for its preservation. A similar organisation also operates in New Zealand.

In our new readers’ competition – Hidden Engineering Heritage, or HEH – we are asking E&T readers to discover, photograph and describe little-known engineering, technological and scientific objects of historical and cultural importance anywhere in the world and send their entries to

We have two wonderful prizes for both the winner and the runner up, courtesy of Jonglez publishers: a set of three beautiful Abandoned Heritage photo albums and a set of three lavishly illustrated ‘Secret’ guide-books to three different European cities from Jonglez’s  multi-award-winning ‘Local Guides by Local People’ series.  

The judging criteria will be based upon the following factors (in no particular order):

• Historical and cultural importance of the entry/ies.

• How obscure and little known the entry object is, how hard or easy to find (the harder the better for the competition).

• The entry’s engineering, technological, cultural or scientific importance and ingenuity. The entrants are expected to explain how it works or worked.

• How badly the object is in need of restoration and/or protection.

• The quality of photos and descriptions.

Please note that the entries on already well-known and widely publicised museums and structures won’t be accepted (the decision of the judges here will be final). For example, if you are tempted to include the Stretham Old Engine - the earliest example of a land-drainage engine in the Cambridgeshire Fens - or the famous Newcomen Engine at Dartmouth, don’t: both are well-known and have already won Engineering Heritage Awards.

The same applies, for example, to the internationally renowned Cruquius Museum in Holland containing the world’s largest steam engine, no matter how alluring such an interesting entry may appear.

To qualify, the heritage objects or sights have to be ‘hidden’ from the public eye, or camouflaged to a degree, like the two above-mentioned lanterns. Please remember that the entries do not necessarily have to be tools, machines and structures. They can be any historical or cultural objects with strong engineering associations, as illustrated by examples in the panel, right, all from in and around Cambridge, near where I happen to live (one doesn’t have to travel very far to make a discovery).  

In the end, another small tip from the website of the aforementioned Engineering Heritage Australia: “Where do I find engineering heritage? The answer is everywhere! Just look around you and you will see that engineered structures, processes and products provide much of the support for modern society.”

Metaphorically speaking, keep your eyes open for the old lanterns that help to light up our hectic modern lives.  

As Boris Pasternak said, to find real beauty, you don’t have to look high up in the mountains, since there is plenty of it scattered in the grass under your feet; you only have to go to the trouble of bending down and picking it up.

Together, let’s keep those old lanterns burning!

Full terms and conditions are available online

Samples: the hidden engineering heritage of Cambridge

1. Another lantern! This beautifully engineered Victorian lamp post on Millington Road, Cambridge, is thought to have inspired CS Lewis’s description of Narnia in ‘The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe’.

Narnia gas lamp in Cambridge

Image credit: Christine Bohling

2. Queens’ College Mathematical Bridge - the popular name of this wooden footbridge, an engineering marvel connecting two parts of Queens’ College, Cambridge. Built by James Essex the Younger in 1749 to the highly unorthodox engineering design of William Etheridge, which makes it appear to be an arch whereas in fact it is composed entirely of straight timbers.

Mathematical bridge Cambridge

Image credit: Christine Bohling

3. The Corpus Clock. A large sculptural clock on the outside of the Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Unveiled in September 2008 by Stephen Hawking, it has already become part of the city’s cultural heritage thanks to its highly unusual engineering design by Stewart Huxley at Huxley Bertram Engineering, featuring the Chronophage (‘time eater’), a mythical insect appearing to eat up the seconds as it moves. The pendulum of the clock moves erratically, reflecting, according to the designer’s intention, the irregularity of life.

Corpus Clock Cambridge

Image credit: Christine Bohling

4. Not too much technology or science here at a first glance, yet there’s probably more engineering and scientific heritage resting in the Ascension Burial Ground than anywhere else on our planet - hence its reputation as Britain’s and the world’s brainiest cemetery. Among the people buried here are three Nobel prize-winners, seven members of the Order of Merit and over 60 entrants in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, including the astronomer John Couch Adams (who mathematically predicted the existence of the planet Neptune), Sir John Cockcroft (who split the atom in 1932) and plenty of famous engineers.

The world's brainiest burial ground

Image credit: Christine Bohling

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