Since well before the industrial revolution, Britain has been a major player in the engineering world and continues to be so as the number of engineering vacancies increases in the UK. From Formula One cars to computers, from aeroplanes to heavy machinery, British talent is still a tour de force when it comes to engineering.
Of course engineering and engineers have been around since the days of spears and primitive weapons; without engineering skills back then man would have likely starved. However, the term, and the discipline, has come on immeasurably since then and there have been landmark moments like the wheel, the Industrial Revolution and the invention of flight.
Britain came on in leaps and bounds with the Roman invasion, where civil engineering brought us bridges, aqua ducts and new building techniques. The industrial revolution in 1760 brought us new manufacturing techniques, factories, steam power and machine tools, as well as stunning technical achievements like Joseph Locke and George Stephenson’s railway network. These were pioneers; there were few traditional engineering jobs and courses back then, but these great Britons changed the very fabric of society. It was never going to stop there.
While America’s Wright brothers beat us to the first powered flight in 1903, Britain has gone on to become a major player in the field of aeronautical engineering. As with so many engineering advances, it was war that caused our engineers to take great strides. Outgunned by the German Fokker and having watched the Allied forces get cut to ribbons in the skies above France, British engineers responded with the Vickers F.B.5, the Sopwith Strutter and, finally, the Sopwith Camel.
The war came to an end in 1918, but the race for the skies had just begun. The first commercial passenger airline went from London to Paris in 1919 and low-powered biplanes gave way, to be replaced by aluminium monocell machines.
But it was the advent of the Second World War that provided the next real thrust for development and resulted in Britain’s first operational jet-engined aircraft, the Gloster Meteor, taking to the skies in 1943. There were other stars of the war, however, including the legendary Spitfire and Lancaster Bomber. These were refinements of the existing technology and the way the Rolls-Royce-engined Spitfire sliced through the German Messerschmitt was a testament to Britain’s dominance in the arms race in the skies.
Britain kept taking the records. The de Havilland Comet was the first real passenger plane in commercial service in 1952 and though Britain fell behind during the public arms race between Russia and the US that was The Cold War, it was soon back with a bang.
The Harrier Jump Jet, which could take off vertically and was widely regarded as one of the finest fighter planes ever built, was launched in 1969 and that same year saw the first flight of Concorde. A tie-up between the British Aircraft Corporation and French operation Sud Aviation, the world’s first supersonic passenger plane was a landmark technical achievement that is still celebrated to this day alongside the Tornado and Eurofighter.
There were helicopters like the Westland Puma and Agusta Westland Merlin and Sea King, and British engineers also played their part in the space race, developing ballistic missiles and made Formula One their own.
Now there are a glut of engineering disciplines and in almost all of them, all around the world, you’ll find British engineers.