‘Mesmerising worlds of gears, springs, wheels and ratchets’: a cultural history of engineering

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Many histories have been written viewing civilisation through the lens of art, literature, design or science. Not many, however, acknowledge the importance of engineering for its development.

Former BP chief executive turned writer John Browne tries to put that right in his latest book Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilisation, an extended essay — now available in paperback — considering engineering’s cultural, economic and political significance.

The book is at least as personal as his 2014 memoir. For Browne, who started at BP as a graduate engineer, and has gone on to serve as President of The Royal Academy of Engineering and Chair of the The Francis Crick Institute, engineering creates the very conditions for art, science and commerce. It builds the tools that artists, architects, designers and scientists use to turn ideas into reality.

Like the artist, the good engineer has a strong aesthetic sense, compelled by simplicity, beauty, efficiency and logic. Browne writes that the ‘impact that engineered structures have on us is influenced by the aesthetic response they provoke; for any designed object, how you feel is part of its function.’ Appropriately the book was written from his home overlooking Venice’s Grand Canal, one of the world’s great engineering projects, a sublime blend of beauty and technique.

He describes engineering as ‘a head with two sets of eyes: one looks to the fruits of discovery, while the other looks to the demands of commerce and customers.’ It is this concern for practical application, he suggests, that accounts for the field’s unfavourable comparison with the ‘pure’ disciplines of art and science. A natural aesthete, the young Browne’s concern to ‘do something practical that humanity wanted’ led him to choose engineering as his career.

The watchmaker and the gunsmith

The book offers a broad overview of engineering’s foundational importance for history’s great civilisations. The Mesopotamians built their cities by baking bitumen, and the Mayans with hydraulic cement. Ancient China its built power on the invention of the stirrup, paper, the compass and gunpowder. The Venetian Republic was founded on its engineers’ ability to build a great city on a lagoon, defended by a formidable navy. The epic engineering projects of the Victorians drove the Industrial Revolution, and mid-20th century computing breakthroughs like the EDSAC mainframe and the Intel 4004 microprocessor, established the framework for our digital age.

A few key themes emerge. Browne emphasises how fundamental engineering’s insistence on standardisation has been for technological and economic progress. He illuminates this defining distinction between engineering and craftsmanship by drawing an intriguing comparison between two 18th century innovators, the Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet and the French gunsmith Honoré Blanc.

Breguet created mesmerising ‘worlds of gears, springs, wheels and ratchets’, crafting each element by hand. He made watches for Napoleon and Marie Antoinette, the latter taking more than 20 years to design.

His contemporary Blanc, meanwhile, was able to produce thousands of muskets at short notice by designing a set of essential components which could be snapped together by anyone. Breaking with the convention that each gun should be handcrafted, Blanc showed how exact copies could be quickly assembled through the connection of interchangeable parts, and in doing so sketched the blueprint for mass production. Seemingly unremarkable innovations such as the standardisation of screw sizes were also of enormous significance for the development of the giant assembly lines that culminated in the rollout of the Ford Model T.

Browne offers today’s rapidly expanding space exploration industry as a compelling 21st century example of the power of standardisation. SpaceX and Blue Origin are just the best known of the many private firms for which access to space has been opened by the repurposing of existing machines. Even small companies can now construct micro-satellites made from the same off-the-shelf components used in consumer electronic devices.

Browne is also keen to stress engineering’s often overlooked contribution to healthcare. There are famous examples like Joseph Bazelgette’s design of London’s sewer system in response to the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858 that forced the evacuation of Parliament. Less noted is engineering’s role in the design and manufacture of medical equipment, and even the medicines themselves. Browne visits the laboratories of Robert Langer, often called ‘the Edison of Medicine’, to discuss drug delivery nanotechnologies such as polymers that release chemicals in slow, controlled fashion, through tiny microchip-driven devices that release their payloads by remote control.

Fear of the ‘black box’

Though written from the heart the book bears the imprint of Browne’s years as a pragmatic chief executive. The tone is hopeful, though not utopian. Browne recognises that the progress engineering makes possible is gradual, often erratic, alternately propelled forward by emotion, and restrained by fear and vested interests.

Honoré Blanc’s musket production techniques were regarded with suspicion in his native France because of their threat to traditional craftsmanship. It was Thomas Jefferson, during his time as US Ambassador to France, who recognised their potential, inviting Blanc to America to produces tens of thousands of guns for the defence of the new state. And one of the great icons of 20th century modernity, the Japanese bullet train, was not a product of a systematic plan to develop the country’s transport infrastructure, but rather a patriotic desire to showcase Japan’s post-war rebirth in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Browne is sympathetic regarding the anxieties that accompany technological change. It is entirely understandable that there should be scepticism about ‘black-box’ technologies we don’t understand. Innovation is a double-edged sword, with light and dark sides. The Haber-Bosch process, for example, made cheap fertilisers possible, but also poisonous gases. The Manhattan Project facilitated the discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule, and the atom bomb. Today, drones promise to transform logistics, but enable assassinations. Facial recognition assists law enforcement, and allow mass surveillance. Browne is sceptical about the ‘misguided’ Silicon Valley mantra ‘move fast and break things’. Existing technologies often just work, and their ‘disruption’ should be scrutinised.

The long energy transition

But ultimately he believes ‘unintended consequences and intended abuses can almost always be counteracted or prevented.’ Browne’s cautiously optimistic philosophy is epitomised by his discussion of his own industry. He was, famously, among the first oil executives to concede the sector had to acknowledge its contribution to carbon build up. BP’s renewable energy division was established under his leadership. He has subsequently invested in the renewables sector — the book discusses solar photovoltaics, developments in battery research for use in aircraft, and hydrogen-based engines for cars. He has even visited the Vatican to discuss climate breakdown with Pope Francis.

But Browne is unrepentant about his long career in the industry, and continuing involvement with gas companies. Interviewed about the book, he told The Guardian: ‘I entered the energy industry to solve problems rather than to create them — it is a decision that I have never once regretted or felt ashamed of, because I believe the industry can, and will, be a part of the solution to its own problems.’ For Browne carbon-capture and market mechanisms must be critical elements in what he believes will have to be a long energy transition.

Into the future, cautiously

Browne is in many ways the ideal author for this book, combining a keen aesthetic sense with the realism of of the boardroom executive. It is that pragmatic strain that colours the book, for all its controlled passion, with a somewhat technocratic tone. Browne’s attitude epitomises the rational liberal belief in cautious, incremental progress. With its calm insistence that we are living ‘healthier, wealthier and longer lives’ his book recalls another recent liberal manifesto, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.

Browne’s businesslike concern with engineering’s usefulness means he doesn’t pay much attention to the field’s utopian impulses. Throughout history programmes for new technologies and gleaming new infrastructures have often been accompanied by visions of new societies. Consider, for example, the great engineering works envisaged by the French revolutionaries; Georges-Eugène Haussman’s and Le Corbusier’s plans to reconstruct Paris; the soaring visions of the Soviet constructivists; or even the high-minded hopes of the post-war planners who designed Britain’s New Towns. Engineering is often charged with hopes for radical social change, the reconstruction of physical infrastructures motivated by designs for political reconstruction. It’s an aspect of engineering history that doesn’t fall within Browne’s measured vision.

The book is also rather Eurocentric. It pays insufficient attention to China and South Korea, the setting for many of today’s most radical engineering projects, testified by the sci-fi skylines rising in response to rapid economic growth.

But all-in-all Make, Think, Imagine is an absorbing and much-needed attempt to assert the cultural importance of engineering by a vastly knowledgeable writer able to draw on a lifetime’s experience overseeing and sponsoring some of the world’s most complex engineering challenges.

Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilisation by John Browne is published by Bloomsbury. This review first appeared in the March/April edition of the SPE London Review.

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