Sue Arnold : I've always had a soft spot for engineers

'They wanted a lay assessor, a klutz, someone who couldn't tell a cog from a castanet'
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The Independent Online

Lying in the bath listening to my wind-up radio last Thursday, I heard a bee. So what, you say. So listen. The bee was buzzing, as bees do, but wait; this was no ordinary buzz. This was super-scud aggression buzzing all round my head, which should by rights have had me leaping out of the bath in terror and diving for cover.

Well, that's what the man on the radio said when the bee clip finished, this being a demonstration of the new advanced all-singing, all-dancing all-buzzing totally realistic stereo sounds that has just won this year's MacRoberts award for engineering.

You've never heard of the MacRoberts awards, I dare say, and neither had I until last Thursday which says a lot about our priorities. It also explains why Prince William is reading history of art at St Andrew's university (flakey) instead of civil engineering (feisty). Compared to the hype and hogwash that accompanies the Booker prize every year, the MacRoberts award which, at £50,000 is worth twice as much, barely gets a mention. Except by me. I've had a soft spot for engineers ever since the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) invited me in 1987 to be a judge for its annual Queens Silver Jubilee Awards. I said that while I was deeply flattered by their invitation I was probably not the best person for this task being pretty much incapable of changing a plug or even setting an alarm clock efficiently.

That was the whole point, said the man from IMechE – they wanted a lay assessor, a klutz, because the trouble with engineers being so brilliant and technical was that they often had trouble putting their ideas across to "ordinary people". He nearly said stupid people.

For this reason the competition was going to be judged in two parts – the invention itself and, as important, the presentation by the engineer of said invention to a panel of judges mainly sceptical but also stupid like me. The year before someone on the short list had had a concert violinist playing Beethoven on stage to demonstrate the cunning little gadget he had developed which would prove whether the Stradivarius you were buying was the real McCoy or a fake. It sounded less like engineering than extremely optimistic niche marketing to me but in any event fascinating so I agreed to do it.

The four shortlisted inventions we were judging were somehow connected to aviation integrity, date-stamping, temperature control in power stations and diaphragm pressure gauges. I am sorry I can't be more specific but the citations accompanying each invention were not over my head, they were stratospherically over my head.

The fellow who had invented the new type of diaphragm pressure gauge said that the simplest way of explaining how it worked was with a baby's bath and a plastic duck. Hang on, that may have been the one with the breakthrough technique for controlling power station temperatures. It definitely wasn't anything to do with rapid franking in post offices. I remember watching the plastic duck bobbing about in the baby's bath thinking less about diaphragm pressure gauges than the tedious selection of bath toys available for kids these days.

The best bath toy I ever bought cost sixpence from an old street vendor in Delhi. It was a boat made from a sardine tin with a birthday cake candle as a funnel. When you light the candle it heated the water, the steam rotated the propeller and it whizzed round the bath. I bet that could have bagged the MacRoberts award in company with past winners like the Severn Bridge, the Harrier Jet engine, the asthma inhaler and the Millennium Dome.

Don't laugh; as a piece of engineering the Dome was a masterpiece. It was the rubbish they put inside it that took the biscuit. As for this new super advanced stereo, I can live without it. I don't want a new sound system, I want a silent system that, like an anti-aircraft gun, blocks out all ambient sounds issuing from TV, videos, hi-fis, ghetto blasters, mobiles. Everything except my wind-up radio whose modest single speaker, thank heavens, keeps bees strictly in its box and not in my bonnet.

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