Not content with developing the world’s highest density, most environmentally friendly telephone switches, Colin Tregenza Dancer is helping to change conventional images of engineering by working with artist Paul Fryer to create stunning engineering-art works.

Now Colin has won a prestigious Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal for his outstanding personal contribution with a commercial benefit to British engineering. Colin will receive the medal at the Academy Awards Dinner at London’s Guildhall on Monday 7 June from Nigel Whitehead FREng, Group Managing Director of Programmes & Support at BAE Systems, title sponsors of the event

“As engineers, we know there is a lot more to engineering than metal and oil,” says Colin, “but even so we often view science as simply providing us with new materials and tools and view art as something to appreciate in our spare time.”

Colin’s day job is Director of Architecture at Metaswitch Networks, one of the UK’s leading technology companies, making flexible, cutting-edge communication equipment, particularly for voice-over-internet and mobile telephony. From a standing start in the late 1990s, Metaswitch is now the market leader in this sector in the US and has just won the Queen’s Award for technology innovation.

“For the last 19 years, Colin has played a key role in the development of the company, pushing both the boundaries of high-performance, high-availability, scalable platforms, and also shaping the training and management frameworks required to allow small focused groups to achieve technical feats which have eluded larger, richer organizations,” says Chris Mairs FREng, Chief Technical Officer at Metaswitch Networks.

Colin’s epiphany on the art side came five years ago when he received an email out of the blue from Paul Fryer, who was trying to make a lightning sculpture using Tesla coils. “These are resonant transformers that allow you to produce millions of volts and writhing arcs several metres long using a normal 13 amp plug,” says Colin. “He’d found out on the web that I’d built Tesla coils as a hobby and asked me to help.”

Damien Hirst bought the resulting piece of art – called ‘Deus Ex Machina’ – for £27,000. It was the first of many, ranging from the red hot, cast iron skulls of ‘The Pit and The Pendulum’ to the inertial electrostatic confinement or mini fusion reactor nicknamed ‘Star in a Jar’. This work, formally christened ‘Perpetual Study in Defeat’, posed huge engineering challenges, not least how to spot weld a grid of tantalum wires to enclose a white-hot ball of plasma. The effort was worth it, says Colin, after seeing people’s reaction to it. “The slow breathing motion of the star, and the way its appearance evolves as the pressure changes, unfailingly draws people in to the work. In fact the first time I got the prototype working I stood and stared at it for over an hour myself! And when people finally break away, it’s often with a desire to understand more about both the engineering and science behind what they’ve just seen.”

Notes for editors

  1. For a more detailed article on Colin and Paul’s collaborative art, see Engineering art from science

    Colin can be reached directly at Sophochrome, the company he is setting up with his wife Melanie (also a scientist) with the intent of facilitating the interplay between artists, engineers and scientists, along with educational outreach.
  2. The Academy's Silver Medals were instigated in 1995. They are awarded annually to engineers who have made outstanding contributions offering a commercial benefit to British engineering but have been working as an engineer for no more than 30 years. Up to four medals may be awarded each year.

    This year’s other Silver Medals go to Roger Ridsdill-Smith of Arup, Andrew Harter of Real VNC Ltd and Dr Nicholas Longfield of Corus.
  3. Metaswitch Networks is a leading provider of the technologies and solutions that are powering the migration of communications networks to open, next-generation architectures. Hundreds of network operators worldwide depend on its reliable, scalable carrier systems solutions, while its high performance, fault-tolerant software technologies are licensed by all the world's leading communications equipment manufacturers. For more information, visit www.metaswitch.com
  4. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636; email: Jane Sutton

or Zara May at Cohesive Communications
tel. 01291 626200