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Brunel and Dyson pip Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as biggest engineering pioneers

Survey shows engineering appeals to a new generation of young minds and the impact on society seen as a bigger influence than salary and career.

A GE survey of nearly 900 UK engineering undergraduates today highlights the brightest and best engineers through history. From Newton to Dyson, UK students gave their opinion of who has most inspired them, as well as what they see as the key challenges they wish to tackle in the future. The survey was conducted as part of a GE report on the future of UK engineering as perceived by these undergraduates, The Young Minds Monitor. (1)

Asked the question, "Who do you consider to be your hero/icon in your field?" students gave a fascinating range of answers, from well-known historical figures such as Brunel, Einstein and Newton, to modern day technology icons such as Steve Jobs and James Dyson. Reassuringly, of the top ten selected, half of them are British innovators whose work is still very much in evidence in today’s society.

The Top 10 Engineering Heroes are:

1. Isambard Kingdom Brunel – leading civil engineer of 19th Century, built bridges, dockyards and railways.

2. James Dyson – industrial designer who developed a new generation of vacuum cleaners and actively supports engineering projects in the UK.

3. Steve Jobs – co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc., which developed some of the most iconic personal technology products including the Mark II computer and iPod.

4. Nikola Tesla – inventor and engineer whose work formed the basis of modern alternating current electric power systems.

5. Bill Gates – co-founder and Chairman of Microsoft, who developed the industry standard operating system for personal computers.

6. Frank Whittle – RAF engineer who is credited with inventing the first jet propulsion engine.

7. Isaac Newton – physicist and theoretician who developed the concepts of mechanics, gravity and the laws of motion and invented the reflecting telescope.

8. Albert Einstein – theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity and is considered the founder of modern physics.

9. Charles Rolls & Henry Royce – developed early engine technology and luxury motor vehicles.

10. Thomas Edison – inventor of the first commercially viable light bulb, motion picture camera and phonograph who revolutionised electrics and communications.

Mark Elborne, President and CEO of GE UK said: "Our research shows that iconic figures – both historic and modern – continue to inspire a new generation of engineers. We continue to see the impact of these icons all around us today; and our research shows that we have a proud tradition of pioneers and innovators in this country, which should be celebrated. With the very significant environmental, energy and healthcare challenges we face today and will face in the future, it is critical that we continue to inspire young people into engineering and science, nurturing future generations of Brunels, Newtons and Edisons."

The research also looked at the innovations that most inspired this new generation of engineers (2). Asked what they thought the most world changing innovations were over the past century (3), the students listed their top five as being:

1. Computers and Electronics

2. Communications Technology

3. Transportation Technology

4. Power and Energy Technology

5. Manufacturing and Materials

The GE Young Minds Monitor also looked at what students saw as the biggest challenges that engineering technology should look to address. (4) The top five were listed as:

1. Energy

2. Environment

3. Food, Water and Natural Resources

4. Societal Issues

5. Quality of Education

The study indicated that young people are increasingly positive about the prospects of engineering technology in the UK. 92% of students say that engineering technology has a "positive image" and the same number was confident or very confident about their career prospects on graduation.

Mark Elborne continued: "In today’s celebrity obsessed culture, there is a risk that engineering will not be seen as particularly trendy. However it is crucial to our economic growth and prosperity; to our international competitiveness as well as to our future. It is refreshing to see that a new generation is turning to engineering – not just because of the career or salary prospects, but because engineering gives them the skills and tools to address some of the world’s biggest challenges. This in itself is inspiring and very encouraging."

Both lecturers and students see developing a more positive societal attitude regarding the benefits of engineering (86% and 77%) and investment in higher education and vocational training (82% and 64%) as the most important ingredients for developing a best in class engineering technology culture in the UK.

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