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Review

Book review: ‘Origins of the Royal Academy of Engineering’ by Peter Collins

Image credit: Royal Academy of Engineering

The inside story of a milestone in the history of the UK engineering profession.

At first sight, this austere-looking volume doesn’t look like a particularly lively read. The casual reader could be forgiven for assuming it’s a worthy but dull hagiography of one of Britain’s leading engineering organisations that might be of interest only to the select few who have earned membership.

This would be a mistake. The creation of the Royal Academy of Engineering in its original guise as the Fellowship of Engineering in 1976 is something of a milestone in the history of the UK engineering profession and Peter Collins’ account of its turbulent gestation and early years is both entertaining and informative.

As Professor Sir Jim McDonald, the Academy’s president, acknowledges in his foreword to ‘Origins of the Royal Academy of Engineering’ (Royal Academy of Engineering, £30, ISBN 9781909327467) the fact that it has only been operating since the 1970s will probably come as a surprise to many readers. This ‘pre-history’ explains why a multidisciplinary body bringing together the various strands of engineering is such a recent phenomenon. Even for those not absorbed by institutional politics, the story of successive attempts to improve the status of the profession shines a light on the source of the fragmentation that persists today.

Collins’ argument is that a number of factors always managed to override the consensus that a more cohesive effort was - and still is - needed to achieve greater public recognition. “Collaboration between institutions is not simple, even when the institutions recognise that they do actually need to collaborate to achieve some desired goal,” he writes. “Rivalry, self-interest, the wish to be in control, fear of change, can all get in the way.”

For those not familiar with the origins of institutions, this provides a concise history which explains how efforts to bring a “veneer of unity” were thwarted by “the power of the biggest institutions and the intransigence of vested interests”. This was the situation which, it could be argued, gave rise to the skills gap that still plagues UK industry.

In the end, Collins says, the Fellowship of Engineering was able to succeed where previous initiatives had failed by simply bypassing established interests to bring together outstanding engineers from across the whole profession. The part that the Duke of Edinburgh played is probably a footnote in his life story that won’t make TV drama ‘The Crown’, but is significant in many ways. Prince Philip used his role as president of the Council of Engineering Institutions (CEI) to maintain pressure on the profession to establish an elite body similar to the Royal Society.

The story of the Academy’s birth proves that while professional bodies often seem to move at a glacial pace, they can be agile when the time is right, as demonstrated by the swiftness with which CEI chairman John Coales manoeuvred to make plans for the Fellowship of Engineering a reality.

The extent to which the current stability of the institution landscape and lack of preoccupation with status is due to the work of the Royal Academy of Engineering and how much is the changing relationship between the institutions themselves is debatable. For those interested in a behind-the-scenes look at how the engineering profession in the UK reached the point it finds itself today, this book provides a timely lesson.

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