National Science and Media Museum celebrates 50 years of MacRobert Award for engineering innovation10 June 2020

Soil Machine Dynamics, Undersea cable plough, Winner 1994. Photo by Ted Humble-Smith

The National Science and Media Museum was due to host a new temporary exhibition of photographs this summer to celebrate 50 years of the MacRobert Award for engineering innovation. However, due to current circumstances, the museum is now bringing the exhibition online (launching 10 June).

The photographs, taken by conceptual photographer Ted Humble-Smith, were commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2019 for the special anniversary. First presented in 1969, the MacRobert Award celebrates outstanding innovation as well as tangible societal benefit and commercial success from a new engineering application.

Founded by the MacRobert Trust, the award is run by the Royal Academy of Engineering, supported by the Worshipful Company of Engineers. The first award was made jointly for two innovations: to Rolls-Royce for the Pegasus engine that powers the Harrier Jump Jet and to Freeman, Fox and Partners for the aerodynamic deck design of the Severn Bridge. Subsequent winners have included the engineers behind advances such as catalytic converters, the roof of the Millennium Dome, intelligent prosthetic limbs and the Raspberry Pi microcomputer.

Alice Parsons, interpretation manager at the National Science and Media Museum, said: “Although we had to change our original plans to put the photographs on display in the museum, it is great that we can still showcase this exhibition and its remarkable photographs online. The MacRobert Award represents key innovations that have changed the world and as part of the Science Museum Group this reflects our ambitions to inspire future makers and engineers and to encourage our visitors to think big. As with many sectors, we are having to adapt while the museum is closed and it is great to be working with partners to bring our subject to life online.”

In the project supported by the UK Intellectual Property Office and the GREAT Britain and Northern Ireland Campaign, Humble-Smith talked to the engineers who developed the concepts behind 10 former winners, with the photographs created aiming to capture a sense of the innovative thought processes behind the breakthroughs.

The 10 MacRobert Award winners represented in the exhibition are:

EMI Ltd: CT scanner, 1972 winner

Quantel Ltd: Paintbox TV graphics system, 1988 winner
Cobalt Light Systems: Insight 100 airport security liquid scanner, 2014 winner
Microsoft Research: Kinect for Xbox 360, 2011 winner
Soil Machine Dynamics: Undersea cable plough, 1994 winner
Rolls-Royce: Pegasus engine for the Harrier jump jet, 1969 joint winner
Freeman, Fox and Partners: Severn Bridge, 1969 joint winner
British Gas: Intelligent PIG, 1989 winner
ICI: Klea134a ozone-benign refrigerant, 1993 winner
Bombardier: Resin-infused advanced composite wing, 2019 winner

Commenting on the exhibition, Professor Sir Richard Friend FREng FRS, chair of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said: “The UK has a rich heritage of engineering innovation and has been the driving force behind many technological developments that we now take for granted and these stunning images represent a small selection of the most iconic innovations that have won the Award over the last 50 years. We hope they will get people thinking about engineering innovation and the impact it has on our lives. But engineering innovation is not just part of the UK’s legacy, it’s also key to our future success – through this exhibition we want to inspire the next generation of engineers who can truly make a difference to the world around us.”

Humble-Smith said: “Photography really is a special way of storytelling. It is a magical way to work, you have one moment to tell the tale, and you have to get everything you are telling in the story in one image. A hard task normally, but especially hard when the stories are big and complicated. All the MacRobert Award winning innovations are massive and incredibly complicated, so when working on a project like this, you have to go through a sort of distillation process to get across something that people are going to understand. For me it was incredibly exciting to start with an innovation, then go back and do the research, taking the opportunity to meet the engineers who worked on these projects and then planning how to capture that story in one image.”

This year’s shortlisted innovations will be announced on 15 June and the overall winner w/c 6 July. Meanwhile, to explore the MacRobert Award exhibition online, visit the Science and Media Museum website.

Adam Offord

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