Following on from fictional engineers I couldn’t help wondering whether the iconic ‘things’ of a subject have any influence on the stereotypes? You see, when people say biology then the iconic DNA double helix appears in my head and similarly the LHC or space for physics. Yet for some reason we are not really as specific as this for engineering.
For most, engineering tends to be some sort of cogs and gears and indeed this is what Google Images assumes you want when you type in “engineering”, suggesting also “engineering cars” as a common related search term as many of us viewing bridges and vehicles as the main interests of the world of engineering out there. Does the field of science that actually results in products not have any better ‘mascots’ to represent it?
There have been a few different places across the internet trying to make lists of important science images, the most well known probably being the discussion over at Quora . Most of these lists are dominated by iconic NASA images (especially the various top physics photos lists) or things relating to DNA if biology is involved. There were a few lists of iconic structures but other engineering achievements thrown in with the mix of general science lists.
So, finding that the internet had once again failed me, I set about making me own list of engineering images that I believe either are, or should be, iconic and represent the awesomeness we have actually achieved so far! I have loosely used the term images to include those that are not necessarily known through a specific photograph or drawing.
STEPHENSON’S ROCKET, 1829
It may appear a dull Victorian vehicle but Robert Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive represents all the brilliant inventions to come out of the Industrial Revolution. Not the first steam engine but with its quirky shape and massive influence on generations of steam engines to come, it really showed the engineering drive to design bigger, faster, stronger that still persist today.
FIRST PHOTOS OF A HORSE RUNNING, 1878
The history of photographic and film equipment is a long and slow one, every engineer/inventor contributing just a tiny bit to its development, but eventually it was good enough for Muybridge to help Stanford win his bet about whether horses’ feet lifted entirely off the ground in these famous series of photographs. This was the moment when the technology had eventually become better than the human equivalent, able to discern the moment that we couldn’t.
FIRST X-RAY OF THE HUMAN BODY, 1895
The other scientists may discover lots of cool things but it takes an engineer to make something useful out of those discoveries. Wilhelm Röntgen’s x-ray photograph of his wife’s hand was pioneering the trend of taking niche advanced physics and creating a practical medical tool out of it.
THE WRIGHT BROTHER’S BIPLANE, 1903
They actually did it. They learnt to fly. That flimsy looking plane represents for so many how engineering achieves the impossible.
THE FIRST PHOTOCOPY, 1938
Photocopiers are a good example of engineering that has become so key and common that we no longer appreciate it fully, assuming it will be always be there when we need it.
FIRST PHOTO FROM SPACE, 1946
From an altitude of 65 miles, before the Space Race had even begun, a camera on a V-2 missile took the first photographs of Earth as seen from space. It has since been overshadowed by the many colour NASA photos but the need to look back at ourselves and not just further out to space has been important for many fields such as meteorology and this pioneering piece of work deserves more credit.
FOETUS ULTRASOUND, 1956+
There’s always been an aspect of engineering involved in bringing science to everyone, letting them see the wonders that otherwise would be the preserve of the top scientists in research institutions. As telescopes and binoculars let people people see the stars, so ultrasound technology lets people actually see their own child in development. That familiar image of a foetus as viewed by ultrasound should be remembered not just as an iconic medical image but one enabled by engineering.
MOORE’S LAW GRAPH, 1965
The squared paper and scrawly handwriting of Moore’s hand drawn graph to illustrate the most influential theory of technological development in the 20th and 21st centuries.
NEIL ARMSTRONG IN THE MOON LANDING, 1969
We got man on the Moon! … Or did we? We are reminded of the real political motivations for this feat of engineering by the focus of the image on the US flag, the space race showing that the state of your engineering industry can be representative of the power of a country.
Lenna has become famous within technological history for the use of her photo as a test image for image processing algorithms. The rise of the computer geek somehow feels summed up in the First Lady of the Internet, maybe that’s just me?
BRUCE MCCANDLESS, 1984
The first untethered spacewalk is the long descendant of the Wright brothers’ photo, inspiring feelings of awe at the sight of a single fragile man against the curvature of our blue planet.
HUBBLE DEEP FIELD, 1995
I would advise looking at the full image somehow and zooming in and in and in and then look up the sky and realise that all of that is up there, we just needed the power of technology to make seeing just a section of it possible.
VACANTI MOUSE, 1997
The Vacanti Mouse is the sort of image that stays in your head for some time once you learn that it is real and not edited, although it is worth noting that it was not a result of genetic engineering. Both impressive and yet disturbing, engineering now works with living organisms as a resource for better or worse.
GOOGLE HOMEPAGE, 1998
No matter what minor changes are made to the Google homepage design, nothing takes away from the revolutionary ad-free white page, simple blue links and its famous logo, occasionally turned Google Doodle, in the middle. The company shows both the power of the internet but also the freedom and novelty of modern engineering.
ATLAS, LHC, CERN, 2008
The STFC’s poster image of the most well-known science project of the last decade. The complexity of the machine is the first thing you notice and then, when you realise that there’s an engineer in there and get a sense of scale….
Even the newer generations currently being raised with fancy digital HD televisions know the grey pixels of a static television screen. The shared global recognition of this pattern captures the international nature of technology and its influence.
The shape of a wind turbine has come to represent all the ongoing debates and arguments and campaigns involved in the pursuit of renewable energy. The minimalist design is controversially too ugly for the countryside and coast but it has become the reassuringly familiar icon of many things ‘eco-friendly’.
DUBAI COASTLINE, 2012
There was a time when civil engineers played with coastlines just to keep places from flooding or crumbling away entirely. Then there came Dubai, viewing the desert as a genuine sandbox to create what it felt like. That should be empty coastline desert were it not for engineering.