Issue number 21                                                                                                                                     
July 2018
When life gives you lemons, make... a battery.

Even a genius of invention can only be as good as the materials available: materials and technique are inextricably entwined in the history of engineering. This issue of our newsletter considers some of those moments at which innovators rethought the materials they knew... and looks at how we continue to renew what we thought materials could be.
Materials and how we use them
Let's start at the very beginning... the Stone Age axe "factories" in Cumbria are not just stunningly evocative, but can also claim to be Britain's first industry. Langdale, pictured above, has proved to be the surprising source of an estimated 27% of stone axe heads retrieved from all over England and Wales (as described on engineering timelines).

photo : copyright The Eternal via

Stone... Bronze... Iron... names that are instantly recognizable as the materials that, since the 19th Century, have been used to categorize the three Ages of prehistory. If bad workers blame their tools, then surely by contrast, good workers credit theirs.

Earlier this year, a fascinating exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, USA, examined the variety and beauty of Stone Age artefacts more often noted for their similarity than for their difference. Although "First Sculpture: From Handaxe to Figure Stone" finished in April with, apparently, no plans to travel, Anne Wagner's write-up in The London Review of Books makes interesting reading, with several photographic illustrations.

Whether you're looking for a visitors' guide or an armchair experience, long-ex Teardrop Explodes frontman and current prehistory expert, Julian Cope, offers exhaustive, often-opinionated, hand-gathered information about Stone Age sites on his website, The Modern Antiquarian, and in his book of the same name. Of its kind, it's an unparalleled initial resource for anyone with an interest in exploring Stone Age Britain (and Europe) on foot or from the great indoors.

Playing fast and loose with several thousand years, let's zoom forwards not to the first Iron Age, but to what some have called second: the late 18th Century and Abraham Darby III's Iron Bridge.  Its custodians, English Heritage, have described the revolutionary cast iron structure as the "symbol of the birth of the modern world". This newsletter has featured the bridge before when we announced its planned restoration - English Heritage's largest such project ever.

Work is now underway, which means that visitors have a rare opportunity to view both damage and repair up close. A walkway with explanatory notices is open 10am-6pm until the end of August only. Visit the English Heritage website's Iron Bridge conservation campaign pages to find out more.
Everything is "iconic" these days, from the Apple logo to Kim Kardashian's hairdo. Nonetheless, engineering timelines would argue that Abraham Darby III's Iron Bridge over the River Severn in Shropshire is truly worthy of the description - it's Britain's best known industrial monument and heralded a new era for the use of cast iron in construction. This picture was taken in July 2017, before the bridge went under wraps for extensive restoration, as described above.

photo : copyright engineering-timelines
Modern day conservation work owes a great deal to related scientific advances, not least radiography. In an aside that may interest our readers, the photographic archive of the Cavendish Laboratory has recently gone online as part of the University of Cambridge Digital Library. The Cavendish is, of course, associated with x-ray pioneer Lawrence Bragg, who was its director, as well as extraordinarily numerous other Nobel prize-winning scientists. Treat yourself to a quick browse...

As Darby was to iron, so - one might argue - Sir Henry Bessemer was to steel: his eponymous process revolutionized the production of steel for industrial purposes (as described here on engineering timelines). His pivotal role in facilitating new uses of steel enables engineering timelines to correct a grievous omission from these pages by including here a long-overdue link to the collections overseen by the Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust. These notable heritage assets include, on Kelham Island, one of the world's few remaining Bessemer Steel Converters (pictured below with an image from historian Mike Higginbottom's informative blog and website).
Under suitably grey skies, here's the massive Bessemer Steel Converter preserved by the Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust at its Kelham Island site. It's one of the few remaining examples of the invention that radically altered the viability of steel as an industrial material.  In case you don't have the chance to visit, Mike Higginbottom of did, and you can read about it here.

Considering those materials with an important impact on engineering progress, one might be forgiven for at first forgetting glass...
The nano-engineered glass disc depicted above - rather smaller than a 10p piece - is a so-called "Eternal 5D digital storage disc", created by researchers at the University of Southampton. The example pictured contains Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and will reportedly last for billions of years - aka an unimaginably long time. It's on display at London's Victoria & Albert Museum as part of The Future Starts Here, running until 4 November this year.

photo : copyright engineering timelines
On 21 August, the Society of Antiquaries in London is hosting what promises to be a fascinating lecture titled, Paying the Tolls: glass in time and the regulation of the free trade state. Its tantalizing blurb opens with the words: "In the stores of the British Museum are three exquisite springs, made in the late 1820s and 1830s, to regulate the most precise timepieces in the world. Barely the thickness of a hair, they are exquisite because they are made entirely of glass."

Engineering timelines has searched in vain for an image of those "exquisite" springs, manufactured by Edward John Dent, the famous watchmaker and designer of Big Ben (although we did stumble across this very nice 8-minute clip from the Discovery Channel about keeping Big Ben's clock mechanism accurate - nothing to do with glass!). Any readers who are able to go to the lecture will learn more... (it's free, but booking is advised).
The environmental scourge of single-use plastic packaging is much in the news these days, but the extraordinary advances that plastics have made possible are evident in every aspect of our lives. Here, in an image from a Turkish construction industry website, Efalon (PTFE) slide bearings are installed to mitigate the effects of heat expansion on a supporting structure - a technique that's been in use in bridge building since the 1960s.
photo : copyright
In a 2017 blog post about bakelite - the first fully synthetic plastic - Curator Sophie Waring of the Science Museum in London proposed that the new material "heralded in an age in which we were no longer dependent on the products of nature."

The significance of this technological leap can hardly be overstated - not least for the construction industry which, the (necessarily partisan) British Plastics Federation tells us, is "the second highest user of plastics after packaging." For an ostensibly unbiased account of plastics history, you might prefer to turn to the BBC's news magazine article from 2014.

The Plastics Historical Society, based at the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3), is a non-profit organisation providing a rich informational resource, particularly for anyone sufficiently keen to become a member. These plastic people clearly have a sense of humour, as evidenced by their web address -

If you happen to be in Somerset and you really like historic plastic, engineering timelines can recommend the lovingly curated Bakelite Museum in Williton - a collection created and owned by a founder member of the Plastics Historical Society. It  has very little to do with engineering, but it is crammed with intriguing artefacts and (we're only human, after all) the tea room is memorably excellent. Read one cheering account of a visit on delightful crowd-sourced travel blog,

Back in the present, anyone with an eye on the news will know that the enormous range of plastic-making and plastic-using industries face very real challenges as well as equally enormous opportunities. US educational organization, the Science History Institute, provides as specially-created web-based resource, Conflicts in Chemistry, to encourage educators and young people to discuss the pros and cons of plastics use. You can delve deeper into their materials here.
Is it packaging? Is it tripe? No! It's liquid-printed pneumatics, created in collaboration by BMW and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Self-Assembly Laboratory. And it's on display - again - until 4 November as part of The Future Starts Here exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum. To see it in action, watch the brief video here.
photo : copyright engineering timelines

"There's nothing new under the sun," says Ecclesiastes, and neither are pioneers of space exploration expecting to find Kryptonite - or any other new materials - on their travels (despite the decade-old assertions of the Daily Telegraph). What's becoming increasingly likely, if contemporary reports are to be believed, is the possibility of mining familiar but valuable minerals from outer space resources.

Back here on earth, however, the rate of creation of new materials - from elastic glass to self-healing polymers - has become breathtaking, even if their practical uses are not immediately apparent. While many are generated by the requirements (and the funds) of space exploration, the more prosaic terrestrial industries are no slackers in their uptake.

A striking example is the reinvention of one of our oldest building materials, timber, in the form of laminates that enable the construction of increasingly high-rise buildings. This BBC Global article gives an intelligent and readable summary.

Most mysterious and exciting of all is the entirely new world of nanotechnology. As NASA put it in a prescient online article in 2002, "Three of the fastest-growing sciences of our day--biotech, nanotech, and information technology -- are converging to give scientists unprecedented control of matter on the molecular scale. Emerging from this intellectual gold-rush is a new class of materials with astounding properties that sound more at home in a science fiction novel than on the laboratory workbench."

The Nanoengineering and Technology Society of the University of San Diego, California, provides a concise and enjoyable explanation of the field, complete with wacky video. Boggle your mind!
If there's one resource that engineers haven't historically made good use of, it's women. One aim of the Government's current Year of Engineering is to emphasize the appeal of the engineering professions for girls as much as boys.
The Women's Engineering Society is teaming up with Lottie (pictured above) for a third time this November to demonstrate that engineering is, indeed, a career for girls to aspire to. Could you be on the team? Check out the job vacancy linked below...
photo : copyright Lottie / WES
Making innovative use of existing materials, as good engineers do, the Women's Engineering Society is working with Lottie, the doll-maker, on a family event that changes perceptions about who becomes an engineer. You can read about it and other wes activities, here - or, if you meet the criteria, apply for the job of WES Centenary Trail Project Officer (closing date 13th August).

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