Sir Charles Kuen Kao

Our IET heroes

Image credit: IET Archive

As part of IET@150, we take a look at some of the most notable members of the past and present.

Francis Ronalds, scientist and meteorologist

(21 February 1788 – 8 August 1873)

The Society of Telegraph Engineers (STE) was established in 1871 – this would eventually evolve into the IET. Ronalds joined the young STE, and his electrical library was given to the society on his death in 1873. This was a foundation for its success, giving gravitas and a scholarly base for training new electrical engineers.

Members of the STE referred to him as ‘the father of Telegraphy’ and said that he “must always stand as the first of English Telegraph Engineers”. Ronalds built an early electric telegraph in 1816.

Several pieces of Ronalds’s work, such as a section of the telegraph found in a Hammersmith garden, survived and were shown in many museums and electrical exhibitions before being donated to the Science Museum in London. It is now displayed in the Information Age gallery with an electrostatic generator Ronalds used.

He is credited with playing a tangible part in creating today’s electrical world.

Professor William Thomson, later Baron Kelvin of Largs

(26 June 1824 – 17 December 1907)

Born in Belfast, Ireland, Lord Kelvin’s life and career was one of academic excellence, innovation, and pioneering achievements. The Honorary Fellow of the IET advised on the first transatlantic telegraph and influenced the first international electrical standards.

Honorary Fellow Sir Joseph Swan

(31 October 1828 – 27 May 1914)

A pioneer of the electric lighting industry and photographic processes.

A president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Swan developed one of the first incandescent lamps, which he demonstrated in Newcastle in February 1879.

Swan is best known in the photography and printing industry for his development of carbon-printing techniques, a process he patented in 1864.

Oliver Heaviside, a pioneer of electrical science

(18 May 1850 – 3 February 1925)

A mathematician and engineer who reformulated Maxwell’s equations and proposed the existence of an atmospheric layer now known as the Heaviside-Keneally layer. He was awarded the first Faraday Medal. The medal is the IET’s highest honour and one of the world’s most prestigious awards for engineers and scientists. Winners include ground-breaking pioneers and inventors.

His ideas led to huge advances in communications and now form much of the bedrock of electrical engineering.

Despite having little formal education, he created mathematical tools that proved essential to the proper understanding and use of electricity.

Hertha Ayrton, physicist and scientist

(28 April 1854 – 26 August 1923)

Ayrton researched arc lamp efficiency and the action of waves and vortices in air and water, for which she was awarded the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal in 1906. Ayrtonwas the first woman to be elected as a member of the IEE in 1899.

Her husband, Professor William Ayrton, once remarked to her cousin, Dr Philip Hartog, “you and I are able people, but Hertha is a genius”.

Sir J J Thomson, physicist

(18 December 1856 – 30 August 1940)

Awarded a 1906 Nobel Prize for the discovery of the electron, Thomson was also awarded the Faraday Medal in 1925 and was an Honorary Fellow.

He was a highly gifted teacher, and eight of his research assistants went on to win Nobel prizes (six in physics, two in chemistry). His son also won the 1937 Nobel Prize in physics for proving wave-like properties of electrons.

Sir William Bragg, English physicist, chemist, mathematician and sportsman

(2 July 1862 – 12 March 1942)

Bragg was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1915 for his work on X-ray crystallography – a prize he shared with his son Lawrence Bragg.

He was awarded the Faraday Medal in 1936 and was an Honorary Fellow. The mineral Braggite is named after him and his son. He was knighted in 1920.

Henry Royce, engineer and designer

(27 March 1863 – 22 April 1933)

Royce co-founded Rolls-Royce and developed the Merlin engine. A member of the IEE, Royce is most famous for his car designs and aeroplane engines, which have a reputation for reliability.

Honorary Fellow Andre Blondel, French engineer and scientist

(28 August 1863 – 15 November 1938)

Blondel developed the electromechanical oscillograph, which was used to record high-speed electrical phenomena. He was an Honorary Fellow. He received the Faraday medal in 1937.

Dr Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, electrical engineer and entrepreneur

(9 April 1864 – 13 January 1930)

Ferranti, who invented the Ferranti alternator, pioneered large scale power generation outside of population centres and established the principle of the national grid using AC transmission.

He was awarded the Faraday Medal in 1924 and was an Honorary Fellow. He was IEE president from 1910-1911.

Herbert (Baron) Austin, automobile designer

(8 November 1866 – 23 May 1941)

Born in Buckinghamshire, Austin founded and chaired the Austin Motor Company. His Austin Seven model heavily influenced European car design. He was an Honorary Fellow.

Lord Rutherford, physicist

(30 August 1871 – 19 October 1937)

Rutherford was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his theory of radioactive half-life and for identifying alpha and beta radiation.

Rutherford went on to develop the atomic model and discover the neutron. He was awarded the Faraday Medal in 1930.

Guglielmo Marconi, inventor and physicist

(25 April 1874 – 20 July 1937)

Formed the Marconi Company and carried out the first transatlantic radio transmission.

An Honorary Fellow, Marconi pioneered long-distance radio communication and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1909 (with Karl Braun) for his contribution to development of wireless technology.

Charles Merz, electrical engineer and pioneer of alternating current (AC) power

(5 October 1874 – 14 or 15 October 1940)

Before the First World War, Merz had established the world’s first three-phase AC electrical distribution grid in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

He advocated the standardisation of voltages and frequencies.

He was also a past president.

William Richard Morris, Viscount Nuffield, automobile manufacturer

(10 October 1877 – 22 August 1963)

Lord Nuffield, a philanthropist and an Honorary Fellow, founded the Morris Motor Company and the Nuffield Foundation.

He was a member of the Institution of Manufacturing Engineers (formerly the Institution of Production Engineers, which merged with the IEE in 1991) and was their president from 1937 to 1939. The IET commemorates the Institution of Manufacturing Engineers at Savoy Place, the London home of the IET, with the Nuffield Room.

Lillian Gilbreth, Honorary Fellow and an American industrial engineer

(24 May 1878 – 2 January 1972)

In the 1920s and ’30s, Gilbreth, who pioneered the time and motion study, and her husband Frank showed how productivity could be increased by reducing the motions necessary to perform a task.

A well-known experiment of the Gilbreths discovered that it was possible to reduce the number of motions in laying a brick from 18 to around five, increasing productivity and decreasing fatigue.

The Gilbreths also developed what they called therbligs (‘therblig’ being ‘Gilbreth’ spelled almost backwards), a classification scheme comprising 18 basic hand motions that is still encountered today.

Margaret Partridge, electrical engineer

(8 April 1891 – 27 October 1967)

Partridge ran her own business setting up rural lighting schemes in Devon and pioneered the sale of electricity to domestic homes in the south-west.

She also helped young women who were interested in engineering as a career by offering apprenticeships specifically for young women leaving school and was an Associate Member of the IEE.

Sir G P Thomson, physicist

(3 May 1892 – 10 September 1975)

Thomson was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1937 for his work on the wave properties of electrons.

He was the son of Sir J J Thomson and was awarded the Faraday Medal in 1960.

Sir Edward Appleton, physicist

(6 September 1892 – 21 April 1965)

Appleton was noted for his research into the upper atmosphere,for proving the existence of the ionosphere, a reflective layer, by radio transmissions, for which he received a Nobel Prize in 1947. Awarded the Faraday Medal in 1946, he was also an Honorary Fellow.

Pyotr Kapitza, Soviet physicist

(8 July [O.S. 26 June] 1894 – 8 April 1984)

Kapitza was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1978 for his work on low-temperature physics.

He invented new machines for liquefaction of gases and discovered the superfluidity of liquid helium. He was also awarded the Faraday Medal in 1942.

Alan Blumlein, electronics engineer

(29 June 1903 – 7 June 1942)

Described as the greatest British electronics engineer of the 20th century, Blumlein was famous for his work on stereo sound and airborne radar. He made great contributions to the fields of telephony and electrical measurements, mono and stereo recording and reproduction, high-definition television, electronics, antennas and cables, and radar systems of various types. He was killed during radar experiments in the Second World War at the age of 38.

Anne Shaw, expert and pioneer of time and motion studies

(28 May 1904 – 4 February 1982)

Shaw was an advisor on efficiency in engineering companies, notably Metropolitan Vickers.

She was an Honorary Fellow and author of ‘The Purpose and Practice of Motion Study’. Shaw worked with Lillian Gilbreth before moving to Metropolitan-Vickers, where she set up a centre for efficiency studies. She also set up several management training programmes and was awarded a CBE for her services to industry.

Sir Nevill Francis Mott, British physicist

(30 September 1905 – 8 August 1996)

Mott was awarded a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1977 for his work on the electronic structure of magnetic and disordered systems.

He was awarded the Faraday Medal in 1973.

Sir Godfrey Hounsfield, electrical engineer

(28 August 1919 – 12 August 2004)

Having developed X-ray computed tomography, Hounsfield was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1979.

He was awarded the Churchill Medal in 1976. He was also an Honorary Fellow.

Eric Laithwaite, electrical engineer

(14 June 1921 – 27 November 1997)

Laithwaite, who developed the linear induction motor and maglev rail system, was an Honorary Fellow.

Beryl Catherine Platt, Baroness Platt of Writtle, aviation engineer

(18 April 1923 – 1 February 2015)

Platt worked on testing and aviation safety, and was later made a life peer.

She was an Honorary Fellow and retained a strong interest in science and technology, particularly the role and advancement of women in these fields.

Sir Charles Kao, electrical engineer

(4 November 1933 – 23 September 2018)

Kao was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on fibre-optic communications.

He was awarded the Faraday Medal in 1989 and published his seminal paper on fibre optics in the IEE’s journal. Kao was known for his modest character and it was only decades later that his achievements were acknowledged. He became known as the ‘Father of Fibre Optics’ and the ‘Godfather of Broadband’ for his achievements.

Ratan Tata, Indian industrialist and philanthropist

(born 28 December 1937)

A former chairman of Tata Sons, Tata continues to head its charitable trusts.

He is an Honorary Fellow and recipient of two of the highest civilian awards of India, the Padma Vibhushan (2008) and Padma Bhushan (2000).

Azim Premji, IT pioneer and chairman of Wipro

(born 24 July 1945)

Premji received the Faraday Medal in 2005, the first Indian to do so, in recognition of his business leadership and contributions to elementary education in India.

Dame Sue Ion, British engineer and international advisor to the nuclear power industry

(born 3 February 1955)

Chair of the Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board and the only non-US member of the US Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, Ion is an Honorary Fellow.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, computer scientist

(born 8 June 1955)

Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and was awarded the Mountbatten Medal in 1996. He is also an Honorary Fellow.

He was a CERN employee when he distributed a proposal in 1989 for what would eventually become the Web.

Initially intended as a more effective CERN communication system, Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau proposed in 1990 to use hypertext to link and access information of various kinds. Berners-Lee finished the first website in December 1990.


Our Covid-19 heroes

Zuhlke Engineering Ltd

The development of the NHS Covid-19 app that is in use in England and Wales today started in June 2020 and was a collaborative effort by many organisations, including the Department of Health, the NHS, the UK National Cyber Security Centre, the Alan Turing Institute, Accenture, Rush, AWS, Google and Apple. Dr Wolfgang Emmerich, CEng MIET MIoD, CEO and Chairman of Zuhlke Engineering Ltd, said the company provided the engineering team (about 70 people) that built the app and continues to evolve and operate it. “The app has been downloaded by more than 23 million users, making it the second most popular app in the UK in 2020 after Zoom,” he added. “So far, the app has sent out 1.94 million exposure notifications, which indicate the need for users to self-isolate. A study by the Alan Turing Institute and the Oxford University Big Data Institute found this has prevented about 600,000 Covid-19 infections and several thousand deaths in 2020.”


The University of Oxford’s OxVent was an E&T Innovation Award winner last year. As part of the UK government Ventilator Challenge and in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a rapid design and manufacture low-cost ventilator was created. OxVent was designed, tested and manufactured by a group of doctoral students, professors, clinicians and industry partners at the university, Kings College London and Smith & Nephew.

Renishaw Plc

In April 2020, Renishaw, where many staff are IET members, responded to the UK government’s appeal for help with mass production of medical ventilators.Two of its devices were selected by NHS clinicians – an intensive care ventilator designed by Penlon, and an existing portable ventilator by Smiths Medical.

Professor Simon Maskell

Interviewed by E&T last year, Maskell’s work supporting the UK’s response to Covid-19 has significantly progressed. In February 2021, a Department of Health-funded member of Maskell’s team was seconded into the Joint Biosecurity Centre to support the full integration of the University of Liverpool’s novel Covid-19 model. This model has informed the R estimates used by the UK’s chief medical officers, public service providers, and in decision-​making at all levels of government since 12 February 2021.


M-Solv specialises in bringing printed large-area electronic devices from initial R&D to volume manufacturing in short timeframes – its focus in past years was on touch-panel displays and biomedical sensors.

Dr Grigorios Rigas MIET, head of advanced manufacturing at M-Solv, said the company received an overwhelming number of requests for support with the development and production of medical components when Covid-19 hit. These parts were for ventilators, DNA-RNA sequencing equipment, and biomedical sensors for drug discovery, with end recipients based in the US, China, the UK and the EU.

“Due to the unprecedented circumstances that were evolving, we decided to redirect all our technical expertise in both R&D and manufacturing towards fulfilling these requests,” he added. “In less than four months these novel parts were rolling out of Oxford and distributed around the world.”



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