Our humble heroes

Brunel built the Great Western Railway in the 19th century and his name lives on. Norman Haste's Second Severn Crossing opens on Wednesday and no one's heard of him. British engineers, take a bow; we need more stars
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You probably haven't heard of Norman Haste. You probably have heard of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. To say that Mr Haste is the Brunel of our times may be over-egging the omelette, but he is the most successful civil engineer in Britain today.

He is the man who oversaw the construction of the Second Severn Crossing, which opens for business on Wednesday. It is one of the longest bridges in Europe, and the opening is this year's civil engineering high point. It was finished on time and within budget - remarkably, because in mid- 1994 a 200-ton concrete section crashed through the existing roadway at about the same time as the entire staff was sacked, amid rapidly souring industrial relations. It was Mr Haste who handled both crises (he did the sacking as well as the repair work afterwards) and who had to make sure the project caught up the three months it had lost.

His success has been recognised in the most tangible possible way - he has been offered another job. He is now project director of Heathrow Airport's Terminal Five, which Mike Winney, editor of New Civil Engineer, says "is the plum job in the industry".

He has co-ordinated a string of massive engineering projects: for 18 months he was running the Sizewell B power station project and the Severn job at the same time.

Brunel never had to do anything like that. So why is Brunel a household name while Mr Haste's fame barely spreads beyond his own household? To generalise, why were engineers some of the greatest heroes of the 19th century, while most people would be hard put to name a single modern individual?

"Who cares?" might be one reply to the question. To which the answer is first: engineers do. Second and more importantly, the country should.

Britain, where City figures too often dominate the business pages, needs more bright youngsters to become engineers. The increasing complexity of the world makes engineering ever more vital and interesting, yet its image remains as dull as ever; this must depress the quality of youngsters attracted to it. Surveys of undergraduates show that a tiny percentage are attracted by the profession, while more than half want to join "the media" and a fair slug want to go into the City.

Engineers believe they suffer from a poor image, and that this is damaging the profession. Many chartered engineers get angry when they see a washing machine repair man using their title. Jim Randle, former director of product engineering at Jaguar, says: "You can't call yourself a doctor unless you are one. I spent 11 years before I became a chartered engineer, but anyone can call himself an engineer. That matters to me." It rankles that the best known "engineer" in Britain is, according to a survey of children, the car mechanic Kevin Webster of Coronation Street. Brains of Thunderbirds is an engineer too - but he is almost certainly chartered.

Nick Goodall, head of corporate affairs at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, is less concerned by this than by the image of the engineer as an ill-paid drudge. He would like a well-heeled example to swan in and out of a soap opera to counter this. There is evidence that such devices work, he says. "There was a huge influx of women wanting to be engineers because Star Trek featured a leading woman engineer."

Would it make any difference if there were engineer superstars to act as role models? Mr Goodall has his doubts, but Mr Randle is convinced that role models helped determine his career. As an aircraft-obsessed youngster, his heroes were the likes of RJ Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire, and Sidney Camm, the Hurricane's designer. They were hymned in the boy's comics; their modern equivalents are not. "There are still some absolutely bloody wonderful people in this country," he says. "But we never sing their praises."

There are obvious reasons why this might be so. "It is partly in the nature of the way companies work," Mr Goodall says. "Most famous names date from a time when engineering wasn't an industry, so you could have individuals who were characters." It may be more sensible to draw a parallel between Victorian civil engineers and modern software engineers than between between Victorian and modern civil engineers. The likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were storming around shaping an embryonic industry when they were in their 20s. Brunel was doing the same: he convinced the Great Western Railway board to let him build its line when he was 27.

But the individual is still important in traditional engineering. A big engineering project may appear to be in the hands of a nameless team, but a single person is often the driving force behind it. That he cannot be identified as such is, Mr Goodall says, more to do with the nature of the engineer than with the nature of the project.

If you search for outstanding British automotive engineers, you will soon light upon Mr Randle. He was the man behind a string of Jaguars including the XJS, the XJ40 (the saloon launched in 1986) and the stunning XJ220 supercar - created by a group of people working in their spare time, held together by Mr Randle's enthusiasm.

So will he put himself in the public eye? "I'm not much into the cult of the individual," he says. "I agree we need role models, but I don't want to be one of them."

Mr Goodall says this is a typical reaction - most engineers are like dormice, shrinking from the glare of publicity. "It is almost an irreversible trait that modesty is their first, not middle, name," he says. When pressed to explain why other engineers will give up their holidays to help him, Mr Randle says: "I do seem to be able to con them into doing things." This is no new John Harvey-Jones.

What about Mr Haste, then, hero of the Second Severn Crossing? While making the usual self-deprecating noises about the importance of teams, he is more prepared to be considered for the job of role model. "It would be good to put engineers on a pedestal," he says. "There's a great deal of inward-looking in the profession."

He is keenly aware that his French equivalents have a much higher profile. "They have much stronger hierarchies so a number of individuals have come to the fore and are widely revered," he says. In Germany, of course, the status of the engineer is enshrined in his title: Herr Doktor Ingenieur is still a valued handle.

So who is he, this man you should thank as you whizz along the M4? Norman Haste was born in Cleethorpes, and decided early on that he wanted to build things. He had to leave school at 16 because both his parents died, but managed to qualify first by doing night school, then by putting himself through a civil-engineering course at what is now Salford University. He joined John Laing and worked his way through a gamut of projects: his first command was building a water treatment works in Hampshire. In the late Seventies he was responsible for a chunk of the Humber Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world, then for part of the Littlebrook power station in the Thames Estuary. Here he discovered just how much responsibility he had personally to bear when four men were killed. "I had to address the bereaved families and deal with a lot of criticism, while trying to find the cause and rebuild morale."

When he was only 36, Laing made him chief engineer, but a year later he left to work for a New Zealand company in Singapore. Jobs there included secretly blasting a channel through an atoll in the South China Sea. By 1985 he was back in England with Laing. It asked him to run its bid for Sizewell B, and then to build it. That took him until August 1991 - though for the last 18 months he was also working on the Severn Crossing.

The rough design of the bridge had been decided by consulting engineers - was there an individual you could say designed it? Mr Haste does not know. As project director he had great influence on how it was built, but his key task was handling the people. "My job is pulling together specialist teams and keeping them on an extremely tight programme," he says.

After the concrete unit smashed through the bridge in 1994, he says, "the recovery had to be very carefully managed. You need to have a great deal of resolve to pick people up." This was not helped by the industrial- relations crisis. "It was very lonely," he says. "If I had made the wrong decision, I would have carried the can." But, he says, the moderates put the militants under pressure and the atmosphere improved. The workforce seems to have forgiven him.

Like Mr Randle, Mr Haste has his role models. One is Thomas Andrew, the contractor who built the Severn rail tunnel 110 years ago, "surviving just about every adversity". His other god is Brunel. "He was way ahead of his time," Mr Haste says. "Even French engineers treat him as their hero."

In the box (left) we shine the spotlight on a selection of the country's engineering superstars. It will not do any harm - and it may well do some good. Whether they will thank us is another matter. "I wonder what the people who now become engineers would have done in the old days," Mr Goodall muses. "Maybe they would have been monks who spent their time illuminating manuscripts."

Britain's unsung heroes have made their mark

IN civil engineering Norman Haste is the man of the moment. Mike Winney of New Civil Engineer describes him as a "brilliant manager". Mr Winney also points to Tony Ridley, the man behind the Tyne and Wear and Hong Kong metros who is now president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Sadly, he is better known as the head of London Transport who resigned after the Kings Cross fire.

The Institution of Electrical Engineers gives out Mountbatten and Faraday medals annually to outstanding individuals. Recent Faraday winners include John Parnaby, an academic/industrialist and director of Lucas, who has done much to bring the best manufacturing techniques to Britain; and Stewart Miller, engineering director at Rolls-Royce and the man behind the world's most powerful aero engine, the Trent.

Sir Peter Bonfield won the Mountbatten medal before he moved from ICL to be chairman of BT. He started work as a designer for Texas Instruments and was one of the first people to work on the solid-state techniques that allow modern computers to be so small. Another winner was David Potter, founder and chairman of Psion, which makes tiny computers. He was a physics lecturer at Imperial College before setting up Psion with some of his ex-students.

There are many highly regarded British software engineers. Perhaps the most influential is Tim-Berners Lee, father of the Internet's World Wide Web. Jon Waldern, founder of Virtuality, is important, too. He is one of the bright folk who have given Britain a lead in virtual reality.

Mechanical engineering has always generated its share of unusual characters - the car industry was largely built up by eccentric bicycle makers. Alex Moulton (top picture) continues the tradition: independently wealthy, he invented the revolutionary rubber suspension for the Mini as well as his own small-wheeled bikes. Jim Randle is less flamboyant but equally passionate: the windows on the XJ220 (second picture) are the same shape as the wingtips of his beloved Spitfire. Britain dominates racing car design and has a share of potential engineering heroes: the doyen is perhaps Gordon Murray, technical director of McLaren who has designed many racing cars as well as the McLaren F1 supercar. At the conventional end of motor engineering is Richard Parry-Jones, now in charge of developing Ford's small and medium cars worldwide. "He virtually singlehandedly persuaded Ford that its cars should be good to drive," says John Simister of Car magazine.

Trevor Evans, chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineering, says that the best-known people are those who have got to the top of companies - "though they are not often identified as engineers". He lists Ian Robinson, chief executive of Scottish Power, Keith Taylor, chairman of Esso UK, Gordon Taylor, chief executive of Courtaulds, and Danny Rosenkranz, chief executive of BOC.

These are all engineers who are either still working or have recently retired. It would be invidious to fail to mention that one British legend is still alive, albeit elderly. Sir Frank Whittle, 89, inventor of the jet engine, now lives in the US.