Conceived in the late 1960s, during the excitement of the Apollo programme and the buzz of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’, the Royal Academy of Engineering was born in 1976, the year of Concorde’s first commercial flight. Since then it has continued to champion excellence in all fields of engineering and honoured the UK’s most distinguished engineers.
Initially called the Fellowship of Engineering, it had the enthusiastic backing of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who became its Senior Fellow. The new Fellowship met for the first time on 11 June 1976 at Buckingham Palace, where 130 of the UK’s finest engineers were enrolled – people who over the course of their careers had literally changed the world. Engineers like the jet engine visionary Sir Frank Whittle, design guru Sir Ove Arup, radar pioneer Sir George MacFarlane, bouncing bomb inventor Sir Barnes Wallis, Lord Hinton, who had driven the UK’s supremacy in nuclear power, and Sir Maurice Wilkes, father of the UK computer industry. There were also people who were yet to do their greatest work, like Sir Frederick Warner, who would lead the first international inspection team into Chernobyl after the catastrophic meltdown in 1986.
All 130 of the first Fellows of the Academy were men and the first woman was not elected until 1982. Even so, female engineers still make up only 4 per cent of the Fellowship, and this typifies the challenge for the Royal Academy of Engineering and the engineering institutions – to attract a more diverse mix of people into the profession and retain their skills. Despite an active diversity campaign, this remains an enormous challenge.