Sense And Sensor-history (An Idea)

Having written several times now about the place of engineering in culture, how I feel it is currently perceived in the UK or internationally and how I feel it should/could be perceived, it is no surprise to anyone that I’ve come around to engineering documentaries. This post is not going to be a rant however as I am actually quite pleased at the amount and quality of engineering documentaries on television recently, whether that is How It’s Made (Discovery Channel) or Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections (BBC Two).


No, this post is actually about an idea I have been thinking about for a new documentary series that I would love to develop if I knew how to go about doing such things (which I don’t). It has been inspired by various articles and encounters with the concept of “The Internet of Things“.

The theme of the series would be the history, development and future of sensors.

Now before you turn away in boredom, hear me out. I know that suggesting sensors are interesting is a very stereotypically nerdy thing to do, and it sounds like a very niche idea only designed for other sensor nerds out there. But I’m not joking when I tell you that if you actually were shown a documentary, that was well done and designed to actually account for a more general audience in a significantly non-nerdy way, then I could probably get the interest of those same people that ogle at light-viewing documentaries such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Extreme Bodies.

So here’s how it goes.


There are lots of different types of sensors in the world and the documentary could be split up by looking at a different one every episode. There are the more obvious fundamental ones such as temperature sensors and accelerometers, but there are also the more unusual ones that you might not have encountered in your day to day life such as tsunameters.

The episodes could begin with the story/stories behind the creation of them, the anecdotes about the invention and how they came to be. This is classic engineering/history documentary stuff which is always interesting to people if it is told right because it is the obvious human element that you can relate to and satisfies that nosiness about the lives of others.

thermocouples Early Geiger counter, made by Hans Geiger, 1932.1917detector

Then the attention would be turned to the necessary (? – these things can actually always be questioned) section on ‘how it works’. This is probably the most boring part for a layman audience, the reason why they are not themselves studying engineering already and often the hardest bit to communicate. However despair not, as sensors are not generally very complicated, often working on one or two basic principles for which there are always wonderful experiments that can be done to illustrate these things. For example last year we often used the triple point of water experiment (“boiling water into ice”) to much oooohs and aaahhs, used to identify the calibration point for temperature sensors, for outreach about pressure and vacuum science.

Then we get to the really interesting part – the applications of the sensors. There are probably three main groups of these

Replacement/assistance of human sensory organs/functions – e.g.

  • hearing aids
  • letting people feel through their prosthetic limbs
  • allowing prosthetics to imitate real limbs even more accurately by responding ‘instinctively’ to variations in pressure or with accelerometers
  • letting blind people see!

The ‘Internet of Things’ – products that form part of the interactive, space age, sci-fi, everyday household- e.g.

  • security that can tell whether someone is an intruder or just you
  • temperature sensors that adjust automatically for you based on the weather, your habits
  • the infamous ideal ‘internet fridge’ measures stock and reminds you when something will go out of date or when to replace items

Instrumentation i.e. Viewing the world from a different perspective – e.g.

  • imitating the views of other creatures in order for biologists to understand it better.
  • ‘seeing’ beyond the human capability – telescopes and spacecraft sensors with higher quantum efficiencies than the human eye, or abilities to see things beyond the visible light spectrum
  • detection of natural disasters and uses in search and rescue
  • mind reading?!

“The Quantified Self” – personalised medical diagnosis equipment

  • measures your heart rate etc and advises personal fitness routine
  • takes blood samples and analyses to alert you about illnesses
  • monitors your drinking habits and reminds you when to stop!

All of this is made possible by some tiny little pieces of very clever engineering that we never even notice most of the time (they notice you though). So it’s about time that we pointed them out to people and celebrated the parts they have played so far in our lives and the revolutions they promise to bring. I believe that a documentary series would be a grand way of doing this.

So I have written this article but, if anyone out there does know someone or something about making documentary series, or can think of an even better way of educating the general public about the awesomeness of sensors, then please feel free to let me know or just go ahead and make it (please give me some credit though!)!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s