I can't think of a better illustration of the ignorance about engineers and engineering in our society. To take another example, the great stars of the motor-racing Grand Prix are household names, profiled in the press, always being filmed hugging glamorous girls and popping champagne. Yet the anonymous engineers who design the cars are probably of more importance in deciding who wins the races.
Engineers are invisible and that is why too few young people want to make a career in engineering. We have read of how well-qualified students are being turned away from universities because of a shortage of places. But the shortages are in arts and social sciences; engineering departments have ample vacancies. And if we are to survive economically as a nation we must, as the Prime Minister has acknowledged, produce more qualified engineers.
How many engineers can you name? Stephenson and Brunel, perhaps - but can you think of any living engineers? How many engineers can you think of from drama, literature or television? Dickens had a few engineers in his novels: Edwin Drood, Mr Roundswell in Bleak House, Daniel Doyce in Little Dorrit. One of Trollope's characters left the Church to train as a civil engineer. John Buchan's Richard Hannay was an engineer before he turned spy-catcher. Kipling's poetry and prose often saw engineering as a heroic endeavour. But these examples date from a time when engineering was in the forefront of British industrial development. How many engineers are there in contemporary fiction? Come to that, how many engineers do you know personally?
Yet engineers are all around us - there are at least a quarter of a million professional engineers in the UK - designing and building the roads, bridges, trains, aeroplanes, cars, television sets, refrigerators and computers that we use in our daily lives. The trouble is that their work does not always bring them into contact - as, say, a police officer's or doctor's work does - with ordinary members of the public. That is why they are invisible and why so many people have only the vaguest idea of what they do.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers believes that one way of making them more visible is to bring them into drama and literature. We have placed an advertisement in the Writers' Guild newsletter offering advice on how to introduce engineers into novels and plays. One newspaper thought this 'a very strange campaign indeed'. But why? Fortunes have been made out of books and television series on the police, prison officers, doctors, nurses, vets, journalists, airline pilots. One of the biggest box-office hits in America this year has been a film about lawyers.
The stereotype of the engineer is a bore in an anorak. Yet a highly qualified engineer leads a glamorous life of high earnings, international travel and the opportunity to change the quality of people's lives in a way that only the rarest medical mind and no accountant ever could. Engineers often work in spectacular locations: in the air, on the sea, in the sea, underground, and occasionally in outer space. They fall in and out of love like anybody else. Sometimes, what they do goes badly wrong: a failed aircraft or spaceship is the stuff of drama (as the makers of Star Trek recognised when they created Scotty, probably the most famous engineer of modern times).
We know that the characters portrayed in television soap operas have enormous influence on young people. Kylie Minogue played a mechanic in Neighbours and opened up a world to girls who would never have considered such work before. But she mended things - as does Kevin Webster in Coronation Street - and many people think that is what engineers do. It is not: engineers make the things that other people maintain.
This is the difficulty for writers and dramatists: they do not know what engineers do and they have no mental picture of what kind of person an engineer is, of how he or she behaves, of how engineers talk to each other at work. Hence, the institution's offer of help. The response has been encouraging: 24 inquiries after the Writers' Guild advert. Perhaps that is only the beginning. Take a close-knit group of creative, ambitious people, working desperately against competition (perhaps from overseas) to create a new product as interesting as a superbike or as vital as a car's safety cage. Add their rows, successes and failures, their families, their lovers. Add a few big-name actors. Surely there is enough here for a pilot show. Until then, engineers must be content to be listed in the credits as 'Second Man in Pub'.
The author works for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers but the views expressed are not necessarily those of its council.
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