Tag Archives: engines

Engineering is all about ingenuity

Painting from Okemos High School Art Collection at MSU

Painting from Okemos High School Art Collection at MSU

Who was the first engineer?  It’s a tricky question to answer.  Some sources cite Ailnolth, who lived in the second half of the twelfth century and worked on the Tower of London, as one of the first to be called an ‘ingeniator’.  The word comes from the Latin and the Roman writer, Vitruvius, describes master builders as being ingenious or possessing ‘ingenium’.  Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was perhaps the first person to be appointed as an engineer.  The Duke of Milan appointed him ‘Ingenarius Ducalis’ or Master of Ingenious Devices.

So it would appear that an engineer is ‘a skilful contriver or originator of something’,  which is the third definition in the on-line Oxford Dictionary after ‘a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines or structures’ and ‘a person who controls an engine especially on an aircraft or ship’.  This type of engine, which uses heat to do work, is a relatively recent invention probably by Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen in the early eighteenth century.  Engineers have been contriving, designing and inventing ‘works of public utility’ [quote from my older hard copy Oxford English Dictionary] for many centuries before the heat engine hijacked the terminology.

Why does this matter?  Well, many people have a misconception that engineering is all about engines, the heat kind; and yes, some of us do design, build and maintain engines but very many more engineers contrive, design and invent works of public utility – in the broadest sense of the words, i.e. just about everything ‘invented’ in the world. In other words, engineering is using human ingenuity to produce something useful; preferably something that improves the quality of life – oh, but now we are moving into ethics and I will leave that for another day!


Blockley D, Engineering: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Auyang SY, Engineering – an endless frontier, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Little W, Fowler HW & Coulson J, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, C.T. Onions (editor), London: Guild Publishing, 1983.


And then we discovered thermodynamics

sunEnergy, matter, space and time came into existence in the Big Bang 13.5 billion years ago. 10 billion years later biological organisms started to appear. 70,000 years ago one of those organisms, man started to organise in structures, called cultures and history began. For most of history if you wanted something moved then you had to do it yourself or persuade someone else to do it. The agricultural revolution began 12,000 years ago and shortly afterwards we realised that if you fed fuel to an animal then it would ‘burn’ it and do work for you. And that’s how it remained for thousands of years – we didn’t know how to convert heat into work or work into heat. The average energy consumption per capita was about 20GJ per year. Then, 200 years ago we discovered how to imitate nature by burning fuel and producing power in the steam engine. We had discovered thermodynamics and our average energy consumption started rising towards 80GJ per year today.

As a consequence, ‘we have now all but destroyed this once salubrious planet as a life-support system in fewer than two hundred years, mainly by making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels’ as Kurt Vonnegut wrote. And that’s because nature starts from solar energy and recycles everything and we haven’t learnt how to do either very effectively. But energy or power engineering has been around for less than a blink of eye relatively speaking and we are just learning how to perform a trick nature has been using for billions of years: convert solar radiation into other energy forms. The sun delivers about 340 Watts per square metre to the Earth so we have plenty energy available.

If you would like to know more about energy engineering or thermodynamics and its potential then join the 5000 people who have signed up for the MOOC that I am teaching for five weeks from next Monday.  Listen to me interview Ken Durose, Director of the Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy on the prospects for renewable energy.



Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A brief history of mankind. London: Vintage (Penguin, Random House), 2014.

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005.

Skilled in ingenuity

traininstationIf you look up the word engineering in the dictionary then the first few definitions will probably refer to engines, structures and such like, but the third or fourth definition might describe it as ‘the action of working artfully to bring something about‘.  The origins of the word ‘engineering’ lie in the Latin word ‘ingeniare’, which means to contrive or devise.  Unfortunately, engines have been a phenomenal success and are now synonymous with our profession.  I say unfortunately, because it hides from the general public that we do far more that contrive and devise engines as sources of power.  The vast majority of engineers have nothing to do with engines and instead work artfully to bring about all of the other things in our man-made world.

The Roman poet, Lucretius in his poem De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things) wrote ‘Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use’.  In other words things did not evolve in nature to meet a demand but instead uses were found for what evolved.  Engineering is the reverse of this: its use is the cause of the existence of everything.  Well, perhaps not quite because people find uses for devices which were not thought of by even the most artful designer.



Press button for an exciting ride

Painting by Katy Gibson

Artist: Katy Gibson

Someone has suggested that I should write more about what engineers do.  So here is the first in a series of posts in that vein.

A few weeks ago, I went to the ‘Future Powertrains Conference‘ held at the National Motorcycle Museum near Birmingham, UK.  A ‘powertrain’ is the system that creates and delivers power to the wheels of vehicles.  It is at the heart of a motorcycle but they were not discussed at the conference and instead the discussion was about cars and commercial vehicles.  There was a big focus on achieving the EU commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) to below 18% of 1990 levels.

Electric powertrains figured strongly and would certainly improve the air quality in our urban environment but they shift the GHG emissions problem to our powerstations [see my post on ‘Energy Blending‘ on May 22nd, 2013 and on ‘Small is beautiful and affordable in nuclear powerstations‘ on January 14th, 2015]. Even so, the high energy density of fossil fuels means that they remain a very attractive option.  The question that engineers are trying to answer is whether their GHG emissions can be reduced to below 18% of their 1990 levels.

CO2 emissions vs mass of light commercial vehicles (see source below)

CO2 emissions vs mass of light commercial vehicles

When you plot CO2 emissions as a function of kerb weight for all passenger cars the graph reveals that the best in class achieve about 0.1 grams CO2 emitted per kilogram of kerb weight.  Kerb weight is the term used for the weight of a car without passengers or luggage but with a full fuel tank.  Of course, this means the simple answer is that we should all drive lighter cars!

The EU has assumed that most of us will not opt for lighter cars and has introduced legislation which is forcing manufacturers towards 0.02 grams CO2 per kg, which is a huge challenge that is being tackled at the moment by engineers, such as Paul Freeman at Mahle Powertrain Ltd who spoke at the conference.  To help meet this challenge, the UK Automotive Council has produced a series of technology roadmaps such as the one shown below and discussed by Dr Martin Davy from Oxford University during the conference.

As an alternative, we could move more quickly towards driverless cars which would both use the powertrain more efficiently and reduce the risk of accidents to almost zero.  A very small risk of accidents would allow lighter cars to be designed without a heavy crash-resistant cage.  But, as one conference delegate commented on ‘driving’ a driverless car “where would be the fun in that!”  Perhaps that shows a lack of imagination. After all, we can create exciting and safe fairground rides in which you have no control over the ‘vehicle’ into which you are strapped.  So why shouldn’t there be an ‘extra excitement’ button in a driverless car in just the same way that some modern cars have a ‘sport’ button.



Top graphic: http://ec.europa.eu/clima/events/docs/0019/final_report_lcv_co2_250209_en.pdf

Bottom graphic: http://www.automotivecouncil.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Automotive-Council-Roadmaps.pdf