Published in CAMBRIDGE, the Magazine of the Cambridge Society, 2001, 47, 11-18.

125 Years of Cambridge Engineering

David Newland

This year the Engineering Department celebrated the 125th Anniversary of its foundation. James Stuart was elected to a new chair of Mechanisms and Applied Mechanics in 1875. The event was not without drama. The University had taken a long time to respond to the recommendations of the Royal Commission of 1850 to set up an engineering department and, when it did so, elected a young Scotsman with political leanings and a champion of women’s rights, whom they chose in preference to the celebrated establishment figure E. J. Routh of Peterhouse. The University then allocated the most meagre resources to the new professor. Professor Stuart had two small rooms on the New Museums site and the half-time use of a lecture room. It was not long before he was battling for more rooms, for supporting staff to go in them, and trying to pilot onto the statute book an Engineering Tripos. To get more space he raised the roof (literally) of the Mineralogy Department’s building, but he failed to obtain approval for his tripos proposals, and the general disagreement that followed led to his resignation in 1890. Although the Royal Commission liked the word "engineering", Cambridge did not, and the Engineering Tripos only finally came into being about 80 years later when its predecessor the Mechanical Sciences Tripos, which had been started in 1893, was reorganised and renamed.

Departmental landmarks

Since 1875, over 30,000 students have passed through the Department and their achievements and those of the teaching staff have been formidable. One of the students who attended Stuart’s early lectures was Sir Charles Parsons, who invented the steam turbine. Later he designed the turbines that powered the s.s. Turbinia, a naval sensation in its day, and the forerunner of modern motive power for ships. Sir Alfred Ewing, who succeeded Stuart, had been the founding professor of mechanical engineering at Tokyo University in 1878. Our Japanese visitors are fascinated to see his portrait in our Faculty Board Room. While in Japan, he invented a seismograph to measure earthquake vibration and he coined the electrical engineering term "hysteresis". Ewing’s son-in-law Bertram Hopkinson became our third professor in 1903, at the age of 29. He devoted himself to the war effort, carrying out research on bombs, gyro sights, guns and ammunition. His death in a flying accident in 1919 was regarded as a great misfortune for British engineering, and he was given a funeral with full military honours in King’s College Chapel. Hopkinson’s pupils included Sir Harry Ricardo, who became a world leader in the development of internal combustion engines for cars, lorries and aircraft, and the Hon. C. S. Rolls, later to start the Rolls-Royce company.

Some of our older graduates remember Sir Charles Inglis, who unexpectedly became head of department on Hopkinson’s premature death. He presided over the great expansion of the Department between the wars, including the move from Free School Lane to the Trumpington Street site, which is still our headquarters. Although the University owned the land where the new Department was to be built, it had no money to pay for the building, a situation that we recognise today! In the event, work could only go ahead because of a surprise gift from an unexpected quarter. Sir Darabji Tata, a graduate of Caius, who was a successful businessman in India, paid for the greater part of what became the Inglis Building.

One of Inglis’ most important contributions to engineering science was a paper on the stresses in metal plates as a result of the presence of cracks. His military bridges had been adopted by the army and became forerunners of Bailey bridges that were used extensively later. He attached great importance to good teaching and was renowned as an entertaining and inspiring teacher. Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine, was one of his students.

Baker (later Lord Baker of Windrush) followed Inglis in 1943 and was Head of Department for a quarter of a century from 1943 to 1968. During his tenure, the Department changed fundamentally, as research activities were recognised and organised, many new professors were appointed, and new buildings were constructed and brought into operation. Sir William Hawthorne joined the Department from MIT in 1951, having previously worked with Whittle. Sir Charles Oatley became a lecturer under Baker and subsequently designed and built the world’s first successful scanning electron microscopes. To this day they remain essential research tools in high-resolution microscopy. One of the first people to use them in the Department was Mrs. Constance Tipper, the first woman member of staff, whom Baker brought into the Department and who made her reputation by research on brittle fracture which explained the hitherto mysterious breaking up of the Liberty cargo ships. Baker was a structural engineer, who had worked first on airship design, and who then applied plastic theory to the design of structures, including the Department’s own Baker Building, and, before that, the Morrison air-raid shelter of world war 2. John Baker’s name has just this year been carved into the rotunda of the Institution of Civil Engineers in London alongside the names of other heroes of his profession.

Organisational change

The University’s second chair of engineering is the Francis Mond Professorship of Aeronautical Engineering, which was endowed in 1919. A small department of Aeronautics was started under Sir B Melville Jones, but it merged with the Engineering Department in 1931. Although a plan to divide Engineering into sub-departments was not implemented at the time, Chemical Engineering became a separate department after the war following a large benefaction from the Shell company, and our management group provided the nucleus of the Judge Institute of Management Studies when Sir Paul Judge gave a major part of the endowment in 1989.

The Department’s present administrative structure with its rotating headship was set up after Baker retired. Currently we have six academic divisions which are effectively sub-departments. They can be described broadly as A: Aeronautical Engineering and Turbomachinery, B: Electrical Engineering and Nanotechnology, C: Mechanical Engineering and Design, D: Civil and Environmental Engineering, E: Manufacturing Engineering, F: Control Engineering and Information Technology. Each has a professorial head and typically about 20 university teaching officers, of whom several are professors. Each division is itself organised into several research groups, usually with a professor in charge. In addition there are three Deputy Heads of Department, one responsible for undergraduate teaching, one responsible for graduate student admissions and progress, and one responsible for research strategy and performance. A key member of the administration is the Secretary of the Faculty Board who handles all staff appointments, examinations, Degree Committee business, and Faculty Board committees. The post of Director of Research was established in 1995 and in addition there are senior administrators for each of personnel, finance and teaching.

For many years, the Department has grown at about 0.5% per year. Apart from a step change when the 4-year course was started, most of the recent growth has been the steady rise in postgraduate students and research. Currently about a quarter of our students are postgraduates. That position is likely to change. The recent introduction of Gates scholarships should lead to a significant increase. Also industrial companies now contract out research to universities to a much greater extent than before. For many years the Department’s Whittle Laboratory has been one of Rolls-Royce’s University Technology Centres and this arrangement will soon be expanded to form a University Gas Turbine Partnership which will carry out basic engine research for Rolls-Royce. Several chairs of aeronautical, mechanical and electrical engineering have been permanently endowed by substantial benefactions, but there is now a trend to fund chairs on rolling grants. We have a chair of turbomachinery funded by Rolls-Royce, and soon there may be two. The GKN company recently supported a chair of manufacturing engineering, DERA provides a chair of photonics, Crescent Petroleum of Sharjah pays for a chair of petroleum engineering, AEA Technology and the Royal Academy pay for work on sustainability. And there is substantial support for major departmental research programmes from companies like AT&T and Seiko-Epson. Marshall Aerospace funds the Sir Arthur Marshall Institute of Aviation in the Department.

Managing industrially-funded staff and research projects has introduced a new dimension into our work. We can no longer be certain that a post will be funded for the working life of a member of staff. Forward planning is essential to cope with changes of emphasis and new research priorities, and that is necessarily time-consuming, often difficult and sometimes painful.


It is not easy to provide the space and resources for continuing growth. The headquarters of the Department at Trumpington Street is highly developed, but in recent years there have been major refurbishments and in-fill building projects. The Library was doubled in size and brought up to date in 1997. A new suite of research offices and accommodation for the Structures Laboratory was built and the old Lecture Room 3 complex (dating from the 1920’s) refurbished in 1998, and a completely new Engineering Design Centre incorporated into a loft development in the Inglis building. A fifth floor was added to the north end of the Baker building in 1999 to accommodate the new professor of communications engineering and provide research accommodation. And a substantial redevelopment of the old Thermodynamics Laboratory is currently underway. But some staff and students are still living in portakabins on the main site, and there is great pressure for further expansion.

Our future plans include moving the Department’s Manufacturing Division to a new purpose-designed building on the University's West Cambridge site as soon as the money for this can be arranged. Unfortunately this will not release space at Trumpington Street because manufacturing is taught at the Old Press site at Mill Lane, which the University has other long-term plans for. We plan to raise money for new clean rooms for nanotechnology, which is one of the fastest-growing areas of our work. A proposal to obtain government funding for clean rooms failed at the last hurdle, but we are confident that alternative industrial support will allow this to happen soon. If possible it will be incorporated in a larger building for electrical engineering which badly needs better facilities for photonics and mems (micro-electro-mechanical-systems) research. Another possibility is for some or all of our control and information technology to move into a new building that is already being built at West Cambridge for the University’s Computer Laboratory and a second new building that will be built with funds provided by the Marconi company.

Current estimates are that it would cost over £100 million to move the whole Department to West Cambridge and, while that remains a long-term possibility, it is not achievable at present. The investment in undergraduate teaching provision at Trumpington Street (11 lecture theatres and rooms and extensive undergraduate teaching laboratories) is so great that our strategy is to retain Trumpington Street as a central teaching resource for the whole of engineering and a long-term research centre for civil, mechanical and aeronautical engineering. The synergy of civil engineering with that of our nearby Department of Architecture makes closer collaboration with architecture an important research and teaching priority. Preliminary discussions about joint developments have already taken place and now await the appointment of a new professor to the vacant chair of architecture.

Future priorities

The internet revolution has naturally affected all we do. Research in information technology and communications has expanded tremendously. Professor Andy Hopper became our first professor of communications engineering in 1997 and there is pressure to include more computer science in the curriculum. These proposals have strong support, but implementing them within the boundaries of our existing triposes is extremely difficult. New teaching material can only be introduced if something is dropped, unless we bring in a wholesale reorganisation with additional teaching streams. Probably that will be the way ahead. It means moving to a modular system with greater freedom for students to choose the content of their degree course than has been the tradition. This has far-reaching implications, not just for the Department, but for the arrangements for accreditation by the professional engineering institutions. This is important for our students and for the department. We have to persuade the institutions to be more flexible, while not forgetting that premature specialisation may lead to narrowness which can be a bar to innovation and to sound judgement. I remember criticisms of chemical engineers after the chemical plant explosion at Flixborough in the 1970’s: this accident was found to have been caused by their ignorance of basic mechanical engineering principles. But it is right to question the content of traditional teaching programmes, and I am confident that carefully thought out changes in the Engineering Department’s courses will be taking place.

The biggest effects of technology have been and will continue to be where technology impinges directly on people. The reason that information technology in its broadest sense is bringing such profound changes into our daily lives is because its fruits are available directly to the user. But the present euphoria for IT developments should not blind us to the seriousness and importance of other technological challenges. We neglect the rest of the world at our peril. Engineering graduates have a particular responsibility to be aware of world engineering problems because they are the people who will have to deal with them.

By 2050 the world’s population will have increased by 50%. Most of this increase will be in the "under-developed" countries where many live in abject poverty, without sanitation, running water or electricity. As they strive to reach western standards, there will be massive new energy demands and enormous new requirements for transport systems. A vast army of people will demand electricity for the first time. Estimates by the US Energy Information Agency suggest that the world’s demand for energy will rapidly outpace the increase in population, increasing by 50% within 20 years. By 2020, energy demand in China will be 2½ times its present level, while India will reach 3 times present consumption. Although renewable energy sources are predicted to increase, they will still only contribute 6-7% of the overall energy burden, so that fossil fuels will remain the predominant energy source. Therefore world carbon emissions will increase roughly in proportion to energy consumption and grow very substantially. We are left with the greatest technological challenge on earth. To relieve poverty, to prevent disease, to provide housing and transport, and to provide the means for education, all require energy. We cannot yet provide this energy without polluting the atmosphere we breathe with all the consequences for global warming about which we hear so much. Nuclear energy is a possible solution, but it has not won public confidence because of the inherently hazardous nature of nuclear power production.

Because they can understand the issues, our students have a unique responsibility to contribute to the debate, and to find solutions. This means that they must address the ethical and moral issues of their work as well as the purely technological. This year an experienced civil engineer, Peter Guthrie, has started work in the Engineering Department as a Royal Academy Professor of Sustainability, funded by a consortium led by the Royal Academy of Engineering. His task is to develop teaching for engineers across the environmental agenda, both for Cambridge and for other universities. We welcome his contribution, which marks a new direction for the Department and a recognition of the growing importance of environmental issues for our students.

International collaboration

We have had strong links with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since Professor Hawthorne was recruited from there for our Hopkinson chair in 1951. Several of our faculty members have taught or been graduate students at MIT. I was an assistant professor there in the 1960’s. So we welcomed the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement in November 1999 that HM Government was funding a 5-year period of collaboration between Cambridge and MIT. The Chancellor’s objectives are to improve competitiveness, productivity and entrepreneurship in the UK. The intention is that Cambridge will become the hub of a network to spread the benefits of our collaboration to the whole of the UK. Engineering is naturally a large part of this. It is a challenging task for us. There is much to be gained by our closer collaboration. Faster communications allow us to exchange ideas and teaching material, and run integrated research projects without leaving our desks, not only with MIT but with other world-class universities, wherever they are.

Last March I spent a week at MIT discussing the details of this collaboration. Their problems are very similar to ours. We are both trying to emphasize scientific fundamentals and rigorous analysis, but we also want to encourage creativity and make the curriculum broader. We both try to give academic staff autonomy to pursue their own interests, but we want to ensure that they work together with common goals to innovate and respond to changing engineering priorities. We both want to attract the brightest and best students and make engineering exciting for them by collaborative projects and creative activities. We both want to support basic research yet work more closely with industry. And we want to reduce the time stress on our staff, while at the same time doing new things. In short, we are both trying to reaffirm traditional values, yet innovate and reduce costs at the same time.


To mark Engineering 125, the Royal Academy of Engineering held its Summer Soirée in the Department on July 13 and the Cambridge University Engineers’ Association held a reunion of old members on July 14. Both were royal occasions. The Academy’s Royal fellow, HRH The Duke of Kent, attended the Soirée with many other distinguished guests, and the Chancellor, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, attended the reunion of some 400 members and guests of the Cambridge Engineers’ Association in his capacity as its Patron, which he has been since 1953. The Association was started by Professor Inglis in 1929 with Sir Charles Parsons as its first President, and (except for the war years) has continued with annual events ever since. Our current President, and the first woman to hold this position, is Baroness Platt of Writtle, who was an undergraduate under Inglis. We were delighted to welcome the Vice-Chancellor back to his old Department on both occasions. Sir Alec Broers was the last research student to work under Charles Oatley on scanning electron microscopes, and on his return to Cambridge in 1984 set up and led the Department’s pioneering work on nanotechnology.

To support its anniversary celebrations, the Department arranged an exhibition of its work and collaboration with industry and there were over 40 exhibition stands spread throughout the Department and into the Scholars’ Garden of Peterhouse, which the College generously made available to us for the occasion. Part of our strength is our fruitful collaboration with so many people outside the Department, and an impressive collection of engineering companies, many part of the high-tech Cambridge phenomenon, were represented.

It is good to pause occasionally and reflect on the past, provided that we do not lose sight of the continuing need to plan and work for the future. This was the first time since our centenary in 1975 that we had held a major celebration. Probably it will not happen again for another quarter of a century. By then our present students will be at the peak of their careers. I hope that they will be able to look back on their time in Cambridge with the same goodwill and enthusiasm that so many members of the Cambridge University Engineers’ Association brought to our reunion in July.


David Newland is Head of the Engineering Department and a Deputy Vice-Chancellor. He is a Fellow of Selwyn College.

Figure captions  (Figures not available with this version)

Fig. 1 Terence Cuneo’s painting of the opening of the Baker Building in 1952.

Fig. 2 Plan for the new building for Manufacturing Engineering.

Fig. 3 The Duke of Edinburgh, Patron of the CUEA, at the Department’s 125th anniversary.