Grand engineering designs we know and love
Image credit: Dreamstime
When it comes to engineering designs that we love, you can’t beat the classics. Nick Smith takes a nostalgic look at ten of our favourites.
Concorde: supersonic nostalgia
Getting from London to New York in under four hours may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but in the closing decades of the 20th century it was a short-lived reality. Commuting across the Pond came to us via the supersonic airliner Concorde, which was twice as fast as any other commercial passenger plane in the sky. This was technology in its pomp: from the graceful tip of its tapering nose to the imposing broad spread of its delta wings, Concorde raced between Europe and the US at up to Mach 2.04 (1,350mph).
Concorde represented a moment of technological collaboration between the UK and France (both members of the European Union at the time). From the highest level of government to the mechanics who serviced it, these two nations worked together on an aircraft that could rival Nasa’s Apollo programme. While ‘concorde’ is French for ‘agreement’, there was little evidence of the project ever living up to its billing, as the escalating expense of the project created political scandals both sides of the English Channel. Even the aircraft’s name – the British wanted to spell it without the terminal ‘e’ – was controversial. And yet Concorde inspired such public affection that ‘she’ needed no definite article or marque number. It was just Concorde.
Only 20 of these aluminium flying machines were made, and while Concorde had a good safety record, there was one fatal crash in 2000 that ultimately led to the plug being pulled. By 2003, Concorde’s 27-year service had reached its end.
Vespa scooter: two wheels good
When silver-screen starlet Audrey Hepburn pulled away uncertainly on Gregory Peck’s scooter in the 1953 film ‘Roman Holiday’, the world went Vespa mad. Sales of the Italian motor scooter rocketed from 2,500 per annum to 100,000 overnight and the Vespa became the ‘go-to’ mode of transport for the movie industry. By 1962 there were more than 60 flicks featuring the Italian scooter.
Not bad for a moped born out of the ashes of the Second World War in Italy. With the nation’s aircraft-building facilities lying in ruins and its road infrastructure in tatters, industrialist Enrico Piaggio of the aircraft engineering dynasty of the same name, decided it was time to diversify by creating an affordable mode of two-wheeled transit to get his fellow countrymen back to work.
Piaggio drafted in the talents Corradino D’Ascanio who, despite being an aircraft designer and having a distinct dislike for motorcycles, was considered the man for the job. After a few false starts, he delivered a prototype – the MP6 – on the product-defining template of a motorised bicycle with a ‘step through’ frame, floorboards, and an enclosed engine. When Piaggio first saw the MP6 he said: “sembra una vespa” (“it looks like a wasp”), which is how the moped got its name.
By the spring of 1946, patents were filed for a ‘model of a practical nature’ constituting ‘a rational, comfortable motorcycle’” that would be easy to manufacture, affordable in a depressed post-war economy, and a style icon.
DeLorean DMC-12: Gull-wing dream machine
One of the most glamorous sports cars of the 1980s, the DeLorean DMC-12 is perhaps most fondly remembered as the vehicular star of the immensely popular ‘Back to the Future’ movie trilogy. But it could equally be remembered for being an economic regeneration initiative for Northern Ireland that squandered public money at a gargantuan rate. Or the car that landed its designer – the charismatic playboy John Zachary DeLorean – in hot water with US government agencies, charged with drug-trafficking and money laundering. It all seemed such a shabby end to a project spearheaded by the man famous for designing the Pontiac GTO, the first so-called ‘muscle car’, as well as the Pontiac Firebird. Only 9,000 DeLoreans were ever made.
No matter how easy on the eye the DMC-12 might be on the big screen, it was dogged by problems that ensured it also had a recurring role in its own soap opera. Born into a time of global economic crisis, the DMC-12 was manufactured in Northern Ireland (with the help of a £100m government grant), despite consultants rating the designer’s chances of making a success of the project at less than one in ten. Although the project created 2,000 jobs, the enterprise was a colossal flop, largely due to the anticipated wave of advanced orders failing to materialise. After DeLorean was caught trying to refinance his ailing company with a briefcase full of cocaine, his number was up, and the DMC-12 was no more.
Routemaster Bus: double-decker icon
When we think of the public transport cultural icon that represents Britain as much as any Spitfire aircraft or London Underground train, what we’re really picturing is the red Routemaster (RM) double-decker bus. This was the vehicle that gave James Bond his designation ‘007’ – legend has it that the secret agent’s creator Ian Fleming was sitting in a London pub one afternoon idly counting the buses going past the window and after the seventh had his moment of inspiration. On the subject of Bond, Roger Moore learned to drive a Routemaster to play the part in ‘Live and Let Die’.
Despite their enthusiasm for the typical red London bus (that were also green in the country and gold for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012), the media and public tended to get specific models confused – a state of affairs much lamented by the Routemaster Association. There have in fact been eight different types of front-engine, rear open-platform Routemaster from the earliest replacement of the RT bus introduced in 1956 to the New Routemaster, or ‘Borisbus,’ whose introduction was overseen by the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in 2012. More than a thousand of the total production run of 2,876 still exist, mostly as display, training, and reserve units. The last ‘heritage route’ – the No15 from Trafalgar Square to Tower Hill – soldiered on until the coronavirus pandemic made its impact felt. In 2021, Transport for London confirmed that the route would not run again.
Rubik’s Cube: mind-boggling puzzle
The world’s best-selling toy is also one of the most intuitive. You don’t need instructions to instinctively tell you that when confronted by a scrambled Rubik’s Cube, the object of the exercise is to unscramble it so that each of the six faces becomes a single solid colour – white, red, blue, orange, green and yellow – made up of nine tiles. The reason the cube is so difficult to solve is that there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 (or 43 quintillion) ways to scramble it. Assuming you solved the puzzle on the last possible permutation, if you made one move per second, you’d spend 1.4 trillion years of your life getting to the end of the puzzle – considerably longer than the Universe has been in existence. And yet, the best ‘speed cubers’ can solve the problem in under six seconds.
Such rotatable puzzles had been used as spatial-awareness aids throughout the 20th century. But it was not until Hungarian architect Ernö Rubik devised his version of the teaching tool that solved structural problems of moving parts without the mechanism falling apart, that the potential for the device to become entertainment was identified. It started modestly enough when his ‘magic cube’ made its first appearance in a toyshop in Budapest in communist Hungary in 1977. From which point the Rubik’s Cube mushroomed into a craze, accelerated by guest appearances in Spice Girls’ videos and the sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Rubik went on to become president of the Hungarian Engineering Academy.
Great pyramid: standing the test of time
When asked if he thought the pyramids were made by extra-terrestrials, ‘Star Trek’ creator Gene Roddenberry was categorical in stating that “ancient astronauts” did not build them. He preferred the idea that engineers had come up with the greatest buildings in the history of human civilisation because “they’re clever and they work hard”.
It’s easy to see why Roddenberry thought the Great Pyramids at Giza as deserving of the accolade for being among the greatest engineering achievements since the dawn of time. Completed around 3600BC, at 147m it was then the tallest building ever constructed and remained so until 1300AD when Lincoln Cathedral’s spire soared 160m into the air. No other edifice has held the record for ‘World’s tallest building’ for so long. The statistics are mind-blowing: two-and-a-half million blocks of rock, weighing each on average three tonnes; a project duration spanning two decades; a labour force of as many as 100,000 workers, many of which were gifted masons who collectively expended billions of hours on the project.
If we ever doubt that engineering has any lasting impact on the public imagination, it’s worth remembering that this building attracts 15 million visitors per year. Not only is it the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World, but the only one that’s still standing. Unlike so many other civil engineering projects throughout history, the Great Pyramid was built to last. As the saying goes: “The Pyramids don’t fear time – time fears the Pyramids.”
iPod Classic: self-appointed master of music
Not even Apple would have the nerve to call a new product a classic. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 6th generation iPod was launched in September 2007 that the company gave the tag to one of its mature favourites. In a bid to create differentiation between its beloved (and yet quaintly out of date) bestselling MP3 player and their ground-breaking new models (such as the Shuffle and the Nano), Apple applied what linguists call a ‘retronym’. While to some it appeared arrogant, to others it was harmless vanity, with Apple having earned the right.
This is because the ‘classic’ iPod portable media player changed the way we listened to music, from the synchronisation to the mother-ship computer via iTunes, to those white earphones that became the cultural signal that told fellow commuters that you were listening to an Apple machine. By the time it was discontinued, the iPod had sold more than 400 million units.
The true genius of the iPod was, of course, that you weren’t just buying a machine on which to play music. You were buying into a lifestyle built around music. The adverts with their dancing silhouettes, the name of the product and those famous white earphones had nothing to do with music. It was all about messaging: and the message was that the vinyl album was dead. As Steve Jobs said on the launch of the first ever iPod, you could now carry “1,000 songs in your pocket”.
Forth Bridge: national icon
Spanning the Firth of Forth nine miles west of Edinburgh, the Forth Bridge of 1890 (often incorrectly called the ‘Forth Rail Bridge’) is a national symbol of Scotland and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At 1,709ft (521m), it is the world’s second-longest single cantilever span. The challenge confronting the Victorian engineers Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker was to deliver a design that could was not only capable of carrying the heaviest freight trains, but would also leave the Firth of Forth navigable to sea traffic. Originally planned as a suspension bridge, their undertaking was particularly sensitive as it came in the wake of the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 in which 59 people were killed when the bridge collapsed under the weight of a train.
As with many iconic constructions, the Forth Bridge has made appearances in popular culture. It featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film ‘The 39 Steps’, Irn-Bru adverts, Alan Turing’s paper on artificial intelligence and even in the video game ‘Grand Theft Auto’. It has also appeared on British coins and banknotes.
Maybe it is because it was constructed with 54,000 tonnes of steel, but it has passed into the public’s imagination that painting the Forth Bridge is a never-ending task. While it is beyond doubt that painting the bridge is a massive undertaking (a quarter of a million litres of paint is required), thanks to modern paint technology a new coat is only required every few decades or so.
Zippo lighter: fire in your hand
We know that humans had the knowledge and ability to make fire at will as far back as 100,000 years ago. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that we could finally do so reliably, repeatably and instantly with a compact mechanical device, and crucially using only one hand. In 1932, the Zippo lighter satisfied all these requirements, cost a mere $1.95 (£1.44), came with a lifetime guarantee, and changed the way we make fire. To this day the manufacturer of this all-American classic proudly states: “It works, or we fix for free.”
The Zippo is one of those engineering designs that is so beautiful in its simplicity, so efficiently thought out and so suited to mass manufacture that it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t invented alongside the lawnmower and the sewing machine a century before. The world had persevered with so-called automatic lighters until a dinner party in Pennsylvania in 1931, when the man who would become known as Mr Zippo, George G Blaisdell, watched a friend struggling to use an automatic lighter two-handedly. Blaisdell decided on the spot to redesign it. The problem was that his eureka moment had struck him during the Great Depression that made it almost impossible for entrepreneurs such as Blaisdell to succeed in such enterprises. The Second World War came to his rescue: his lighter went on to become known as the GI’s friend, and the Zippo would sell more than half a billion units.
LNER Class A3 4472 ‘Flying Scotsman’: going loco
Almost a century ago, on 24 February 1923, what would become the world’s most famous locomotive left the Doncaster works where it was built to enter service as the first non-stop shuttle between London and Edinburgh. The Flying Scotsman (pictured above) would notch up two world records. In 1934. it became the first steam locomotive to post a speed of 100mph (160km/h). In retirement, while on tour of Australia in the late 1980s, it claimed the longest non-stop distance by a steam locomotive: 422 miles (679km).
The engine made its first impact on the public at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. Destined to become a media superstar, the Scotsman featured heavily in the London and North Eastern Railway company (LNER) promotional activities. By 1929, it had also appeared in the black and white thriller ‘The Flying Scotsman’, showing Hollywood heart-throb Ray Milland performing death-defying stunts on the fast-moving train. This so disturbed the Scotsman’s designer and chief engineer at LNER, Sir Nigel Gresley, that a disclaimer was later added to the film distancing the operator from the ‘dramatic licence’ used in portraying the locomotive’s safety equipment and procedures.
After the Second World War, Britain’s rail network was nationalised and out-moded steam engines were replaced by diesel trains. By 1963, a mere 40 years after its arrival, the Flying Scotsman was withdrawn from service. Today, the locomotive is owned by the National Railway Museum in York and is scheduled to make post-coronavirus public appearances in 2022.
Suggest your own favourites
We’d like to find out what your favourite engineering designs are that aren’t on this list! Email us at email@example.com to tell us about the innovations you find truly inspiring.
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