Engineering and technology meets culture and heritage in my feature articles
Until July 2020, Vitali Vitaliev was Features Editor at Engineering and Technology Magazine, a role he held for nearly 14 years. I knew his name from reading his work regularly in The Guardian, but it was through my friend and colleague Dea Birkett that I met him and began writing periodically for the magazine.
I liked working with Vitali – the E&T Christmas parties were in Fleet Street, for one thing, which allowed me to imagine fondly that I had blagged entry into the world of serious journalism. But in fact the title’s circulation of 140,000 made it just that, with a readership of professional engineers from the Institute of Engineering and Technology and a pretty good word count per feature.
My commissions usually came out of some conjunction of interests in technology, heritage and culture, and gave me the chance to speak to all kinds of interesting people about all kinds of random things. So here (only partly for my own convenience) are links to them courtesy of E&T (where Vitali continues to write a column, After All).
My first piece, Let the Games Begin (August 2008) developed the subject of active computer gaming that I explored in my book Powering Up, and spoke to athletes, engineers and technologists. At the time, computer games were making their debut at the Olympics in Beijing, albeit only in the welcome programme. They’re now being touted for inclusion in the 2024 summer games – but although there may have been little progress in Olympic terms, the range of calorie-busting games on offer has never been greater.
In Past and present of sound engineering (October 2009) I met Richard Ranft from the British Library’s Sound Archive to find out about the archive’s digitisation plans and its collecting efforts. In 2009, the archive was acquiring around 30,000 hours of new material each year, or about three minutes’ worth for every minute of real time that passes. I also learned more about the earliest recordings of sound – not by Thomas Edison but by Edouard Leon Scott de Martinville whose Au Clair De La Lune sounded like a trapped bee, until someone played it at the correct speed.
“When someone is speaking you are hearing their soul,” says Richard Ranft. “The voice carries their personality, with its defects, its emotions and its power.”
I explored the question of how tech and museums mix in a March 2009 piece called Exciting new-seums (freelancers don’t get to write the titles) and spoke to a range of designers and technologists who were working with museums around the world in innovative ways. If you read it now, museums have come a long way in some respects and less so in others.
Two technology features appeared in the October 2012 edition, one exploring biomimetics in Autonomous flying robots influenced by nature, and the other examining worries that Cyberspies were eyeing up all kinds of new security loopholes in our online lives – I had recently been hacked by Gmail scammers who persuaded a friend to send them hundreds of pounds, so two-factor authentication was high on my agenda.
Oramics to electronica was a feature about Daphne Oram, creator of the Oramics Machine and later founder of the BBC’s Stereophonic Workshop. The Oramics machine was the centrepiece to a Science Museum exhibition that told the stories of pioneers of electronic music in Britain, including Pink Floyd, Brian Eno and Pete Townshend, and the technologies that brought their sonic ideas to life.
Oram’s inspiration came on a BBC training course. “She saw an oscilloscope and asked the tutor, ‘couldn’t you do that backwards, by drawing a waveform?’.” The engineer dismissed the idea, but it stuck with Oram and led eventually to her Oramics machine, which interpreted waveforms painted onto film, while allowing the player to control pitch, volume and reverberation.
I had the pleasure of interviewing veteran designer Tom Karen for E&T in 2014, a feature you can see in full here along with pictures of the Chopper bike and other classics in his portfolio.
Dam floods and ponds (August 2014) brought together two contrasting stories about engineers’ struggle to control water as weather patterns change. Banbury in Oxfordshire had just completed a flood defence scheme to control periodic inundation that had drowned the town centre twice in a few years. A clever, passive system, it would last for the next century at least. Meanwhile, things were far from peaceful on Hampstead Heath, where plans to shore up the historic men’s and women’s swimming ponds to cope with storms had led to protests that the measures would ruin a watery oasis.
[At Hampstead swimming ponds] lifeguards maintain the safety of swimmers and are the only known in the country to be contractually obliged to swim several times a week to acclimatise themselves to the chilly water when its temperature drops below 12°C.
When I pitched a piece called Law: the last analogue profession moves towards digital (December 2014) I realised how significant it is to commission diverse writers. Some ideas inevitably spring from conversations you have with the pals you meet up with – and in this case emerged in discussion with a friend working in a law firm in London and a cousin who is a police detective. It was not relevant to the story that both are women, but it did result in a showcase for more female voices than usual as we explored whether the law could ever go fully digital.
In 2015 I did a couple of features about apprenticeships, with an eye both on the heritage of crafts and trades, and on the opportunities for recruits to gain vital hands-on engineering experience. One piece looked at how Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, home of HMS Victory and the Mary Rose, was training apprentices in traditional small boat-building alongside the local college. Another tried to see beyond the promises of the main political parties as the May General Election loomed, and discover who would deliver most for apprenticeships.
October 2015 I spoke to experts across Manchester as the Graphene Institute settled into the city, exploring how research could move from Graphene to gold and get into everyday use. I also looked at the history of Manchester’s buildings and streets as places of innovation and application, and talked to colleagues at the Science and Industry Museum as they tried to display the material culture surrounding graphene and its discovery.
Drone deliveries were a topic of equal interest and alarm in April 2016 and I examined how medicines were already being delivered successfully in remote areas of the world, what it would take for an autonomous delivery system to succeed, and whether it was a good idea anyway.
In June 2016 I spoke to individuals involved in the Beyond the Lab exhibition at the Science Museum, discovering how some of the most life-changing engineering was happening around kitchen tables. Engineering hacks were helping frustrated people live more easily with diabetes, monitor air quality in their city, and even run experiments to look for new antibiotics – all under the official radar.
I was writing my book Cracking the Elements during 2017 and 2018 and didn’t have a lot of time alongside museum work for pitching features. So my final piece for Vitali was in 2019 when I went to an e-bike summit in Oxford and found out about the potential for electric vehicles to revolutionise delivery services. Never mind that I managed to puncture the tyre of a folding e-bike called a Hummingbird while the company’s general manager Charlie Mellor looked on in horror… it was a memorable end to a decade of colourful stories.