Britain's 'blindingly cool' engineering innovation

BBC Technology 24 Jun 2020 11:43
By Jonathan Amos BBC Science Correspondent
1972 winner: EMI Ltd, for the application of X-ray techniques for diagnosing brain diseaseImage copyright Ted Humble-Smith
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Ted Humble-Smith is a conceptual still-life photographer. He's well known for his fashion work. Ted can take a lipstick or a watch and with his extraordinary vision and skill turn the beautiful into something even more gorgeous.

But speak to him for just a few minutes and it's clear he sees not just the colour and form of his subjects, but the engineering that underpins their design.

In fact, it's obvious Ted has a passion for it. He points to the 4-inch stiletto heel.

"Everyone laughs when I talk about it," he told me. "But you have this thing that's so elegant, so beautiful - and yet at the same time, there has to be some serious engineering and mathematics in there as well.

"Eight stones at least is going through a square centimetre. These are big loads but you rarely see people snap their heels these days."

Ted has just put his inquisitive eye to a project for the Royal Academy of Engineering.

2019 winner: Bombardier, for developing an innovative, resin-infused advanced composite wingImage copyright Ted Humble-Smith

The photos are clearly conceptual in nature but the ideas that went into their creation are drawn directly from conversations with the engineers involved.

An illuminated, transparent skull is cut through by a rotating disc. The visual narrative describes the process through which X-rays are able to build a picture of the brain, slice by slice.

1989 winner: British Gas, for the 'intelligent pig', allowing internal inspection of operational pipelinesImage copyright Ted Humble-Smith

Ted builds many of the objects he photographs. At first glance, you might think he's done everything in a software package on his computer. You'd be wrong.

Witness the picture he produced of Quantel Paintbox (MacRobert winner: 1988). Wholly apposite in this context.

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In his image, Ted encodes this in his mind's-eye as paint flying around curved plastic sheets. "You can freeze liquids in photography now so well. I wanted it to look like paint was exploding on to the screen. So, you can do it in a very complicated way with robots and paint cannons, or you can do it in the slightly haphazard fashion that we did. Basically, you fling paint around."

In the studioImage copyright RAENG

The finalists for the 2020 MacRobert award have just been announced. There are three on the shortlist and they are all recognised for contributing innovation to a greener future. They are:

2002 winner: CDT, for Light-emitting polymersImage copyright Ted Humble-Smith

Prof Sir Richard Friend is the chair of the judging panel. He's also himself a past winner for his work on "plastic electronics" - technology that has attained ubiquity in the touchscreens of our mobile phones.

It's a theme emphasised by Ted Humble-Smith, who confesses to have gone on something of a conversion during his photographic projects.

1969 winner: Rolls-Royce, for the Pegasus engine used in the Harrier aircraftImage copyright Ted Humble-Smith and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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TedTed HumbleRoyal Academy of EngineeringSevern BridgeSmith