The 1960s was a formative time for technology, with many of the innovations we now take for granted, like lasers and computers, in early development. However, it also saw Britain indulge in one of its periodic bouts of anxiety about its industrial performance and declining international competitiveness. One of the root causes was ascribed to the low status of technology. To some, like outgoing Vice President of the Royal Society Professor Gordon Sutherland, the time seemed right to set up a new independent academy of technology, a view he aired in The Guardian in November 1963.

Not everyone agreed with him, particularly in the Royal Society, which had already championed pure science very effectively and many felt it could do the same for engineering and technology, as Dr Peter Collins, Director of the Royal Society Centre for History of Science, explained in a lecture to the Royal Academy of Engineering this week.

By 1970 the Royal Society appeared to be winning the argument and opinion turned against the idea of a new academy, despite the support of Technology Minister Tony Benn MP. It took six more years and the determination of Professor John Coales, Chairman of the Council of Engineering Institutions, to overcome the reservations and finally form the Fellowship of Engineering. The first 130 Fellows, enrolled at Buckingham Palace on 11 June 1976, were the finest British engineers of their day, including Lord Hinton, who had driven the UK’s supremacy in nuclear power, jet engine genius Sir Frank Whittle, design guru Sir Ove Arup, radar pioneer Sir George MacFarlane, bouncing bomb inventor Sir Barnes Wallis, and Sir Maurice Wilkes, father of the UK computer industry.

HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was a key player in the build up to the formation of the Fellowship of Engineering and has served as its Senior Fellow ever since. The Fellowship, which became the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1992, celebrates its 35th anniversary this year and now has over 1300 Fellows and continues to fulfil Sutherland's vision as the champion of excellence in UK engineering and technology.

View a video of the lecture on  raeng.tv

Notes for editors

  1. The full text of Dr Collins’ lecture The pre-history of the Fellowship of Engineering is at  www.raeng.org.uk/events
  2. 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