The prosperity of many industries hinges on the sucess of engineering innovation and endeavor.
Unfortunately engineers are often only remembered once their well oiled machines, that thrust society forward, stop working. And sometimes they don’t get the recognition they deserve. The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering has tried to change that disappointing fact.
First awarded in 2013, the QEPrize sets out to aard engineers for their innovation in engineering, with specific focus on innovation that has globally benefited humanity.
This year, the QEPrize was awarded to Michael Tompsett, Eric Fossum, George Smith and Nobukazu Teranishi. They received £1 million as recognition for creating the technology that allows us to take ‘selfies’ with our smartphones.
Celebrating the culmination of thirty years of work, these engineers were lauded for creating the “charged couple device (CCD), the pinned photodiode (PPD) and the complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS). Basically, the technology that has improved the quality of the photos we capture with our smartphones today.
The engineers have promised to use the prize money to create a scholarship that would encourage females to follow their engineering dreams.
Despite the prize engineers will continue to go unrecognized; some will receive it, but only after very many years.
The Black Box
David Warren, the Australian inventor behind the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder (or as we like to call it, ‘the black box’) waited 50 years for his 15 minutes of fame. Warren engineered the ‘black box’ after the first commercial airline disaster in 1953. He said:
“There were no witnesses, there were no survivors, and there wasn’t any obvious reason for what had caused it. Now, you gotta find out what caused it, to stop it from happening again.”
Warren came up with the idea for the recorder after visiting a fair and observing a miniature personal voice recorder that typists would use to type up transcripts of what their bosses wanted them to. He implemented a similar system into his first prototype for the black box.
The in flight recorders crucial to airplane crash investigations we know today, are all thanks to David Warren. It was only in 2002 that he was recognized and deemed the Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for “service to the aviation industry, particularly through the early conceptual work and prototype development of the black box flight data recorder.”
Years later, David Warren’s son, Peter, has said he believes that “scientists and people of vision”, in Australia, are not sharing their innovations with the world because of a “colonial mindset” that has made them believe that they are not able to innovate for a global market.
The President of the United States, Donald Trump, in a recent signing of an executive order, encouraging the hiring of women in STEM fields said:
“Today I’m signing two bills that promote women entering and leading the STEM fields - science, technology, engineering, and math. Currently, only one in four women who get STEM degrees is working in a STEM job - which is not fair…”
There is a battalion of women in STEM fields that have paved the way for the future women engineers, however. They are only now getting their names stamped into the history books and Hollywood movies.
The true-story-turned-movie, Hidden Figures, is a story that encourages not only females to follow their dream careers in STEM fields, but encourages black women to do it too. The film follows the black mathematicians that assisted NASA with their expertise in the Space Race.
Margot Shetterly, the author of Hidden Figures, the book the movie is based on, spoke to Al Jazeera:
“They happened to be very talented, good at their jobs, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, but they were also just normal people. I got an up-close look at the fact that science could be done by anyone.”
Shetterly’s father was a climate scientist at NASA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Based on her research, she reports that, in 1970, 1% of Americans engineers were black. It had risen to 2% by 1984.
In an excerpt from the book, Shetterly writes that at least 50 black women were involved in mathematical, scientific and engineering roles from 1943 to 1980:
“NASA’s African American employees learned to navigate their way through the space agency’s engineering culture and their successes in turn afforded their children previously unimaginable access to American society.
Of course, there is a long history of not giving female STEM professionals the recognition they deserve. The media forget to applaud the women who helped put American men on the moon.
Margaret Hamilton, a systems engineer who wrote the code that defined the Apollo 11 mission, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2016.
She was the Director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Library. She and her team developed the on-board flight software for the Apollo space program.
In a photo she is seen standing next to the books of code she wrote.
Margaret Hamilton with her code, lead software engineer, Project Apollo
If history is anything to go by, the future of STEM professionals (male and female) is bright. And hoefully, at some point, they will be recognized for the work they are doing today.
AlJazeeraEnglish. "The Stream - NASA's 'Hidden Figures'" YouTube. YouTube, 15 Sept. 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
"Hidden Figures: The History of Nasa's Black Female Scientists." The Observer. Guardian News and Media, 07 Feb. 2017. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures. Place of Publication Not Identified: William Collins, 2016. Print.
Tovey, Alan. "The Engineers Who Made 'selfies' Possible Share £1m Prize." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 01 Feb. 2017. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.