Celebrating Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s contribution to and involvement with engineering

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth

The only reigning monarch most Britons have ever known, Queen Elizabeth II was feted this week in celebrations nationwide. As a flotilla proceeded down the Thames, the Royal Mint issued a commemorative £20 coin and a Blippar app imbued British bank notes with interactive content, The Queen travelled to Scotland to open the £300million Borders Railway in Edinburgh.

Underpinning all of these events is a field which The Queen has referred to as “a noble profession… a modest profession, which tends not to blow its own trumpet”: engineering.

Queen Elizabeth II had, quite literally, a first-hand encounter with aspects of mechanical engineering when, aged 18, Her Majesty joined the Auxilliary Territorial Service as a Subaltern during WWII. By the culmination of the war, The Queen had completed her course at the No.1 Mechanical Training Centre of the ATS and passed out as a fully-qualified driver.

In 1956, a decade after securing the somewhat unusual accolade of being the first reigning monarch to change a puncture (Her Majesty was also, incidentally, the first reigning monarch to fly in a helicopter), Queen Elizabeth II opened the world’s first nuclear power station at Calder Hall, in Cumberland. The town of Wokington, 24km up the Cumberland Coast, became the first town in the world to derive heat, energy and power from nuclear energy.

More recently, the huge diesel generators of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the 65 000-tonne future flagship of the Royal Navy, powered up for the first time at the home of the UK’s aircraft carrier programme in Rosyth earlier this year. The warship, a feat which marries multiple branches of engineering mastery, is due to be handed over to the Ministry of Defence in 2016.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth changing a wheel

Queen Elizabeth II pictured changing a wheel during her time in the ATS.

Engineering forms a fundamental backdrop to British and global society. Engineers are at the heart of nearly all of the country’s vital sectors: from transport and energy through to healthcare and construction.  They not only underpin the economy, they are vital to the essentials of life: water, energy and food production. While the processes of engineering are often invisible, the field is essential for social and economic advancement, having a more positive transformative effect on human lives than any other human endeavour. In 2011, 24% of UK turnover was dependent on engineering – 182 000 engineers need to be recruited annually until 2020 to retain economic growth.

While luminaries in physics, chemistry and medicine are often lauded with globally recognised awards, engineers – whose work is often an essential enabler to those scientific advancements – generally continue with business as usual (not unlike The Queen, who spent the morning that marked her as the longest reigning monarch continuing with official engagements).

In 2013, The Queen lent her support to highlighting the impact of engineering, through her affiliation with the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, a global, bi-annual £1million prize that celebrates breakthrough innovations that advance the field and benefit humanity. Speaking at the inaugural awards ceremony, held in October 2013, the same month as the announcement of Nobel Prize laureates, The Queen recognised that, “at its heart, engineering is about using science to find creative, practical solutions” to the world’s problems.

The second Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (awarded this year to Dr Robert Langer for his pioneering work with controlled release large molecule drug delivery) will be presented in October 2015, alongside a new report exploring global attitudes to engineering. As the awards ceremony draws closer, we are reminded of the exponential advances in engineering fields including communications, transport, healthcare, genetics, robotics and computing that Queen Elizabeth II has presided over during her reign and the promise engineering holds for creating a sustainable future for humanity.

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