The Royal Academy of Engineering, which is 35 years old tomorrow (11 June) congratulates its founder and Senior Fellow HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on his 90th birthday today.

A series of celebratory events has been organised to mark the occasion, including:

  • the 35th anniversary Awards Dinner at Guildhall on 6 June
  • two special lectures by Academy President Lord Browne of Madingley on ‘Resources for Humanity’ (30 June) and ‘The Education of the Engineer’ (5 July)
  • seven platform events at the Cheltenham Science Festival (June 7-12)

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.

Initially called the Fellowship of Engineering, it met for the first time at Prince Philip’s instigation 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. They included 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 later lead the first international inspection team into Chernobyl after the catastrophic meltdown in 1986.

Engineering has reshaped the world in a remarkable way since 1976, not least in transport networks, when the Intercity 125 made its first journey, from London to Bristol, leaving on time and arriving three minutes early. Concorde also took to the air for the first time in a commercial capacity and the Boeing 747 really started to make its mark in the 1970s, enabling mass air travel on a global scale.

The first personal computers appeared in the year 1976 and we have witnessed a phenomenal change in the size and power of computing devices, in addition to a revolution in the way we communicate. By 1976, fibreoptic cable communication showed real promise and was in active development, particularly in the UK as British Telecom pursued the technology. Motorola patented a portable mobile phone in 1973 and NTT created the first cellular network in Tokyo in 1979, but the UK’s first mobile phone call was not made until 1985. The mobile communications industry has since expanded globally and exponentially.

The year 1976 also saw the first serious public acknowledgements that humankind’s activities could affect the earth in a detrimental way. The World Meteorological Organisation warned in June of that year that ‘a very significant warming of global climate was probable’. The US National Academy of Sciences also published a report warning that the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigerants could damage the ozone layer, although it was not until 1985 that the Montreal Protocol was enacted to phase them out.

Thirty-five years later, engineers are today wrestling with the grand issues that climate change and an ever increasing population bring: reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, supplying secure and sustainable energy, providing clean water and food security. 

To help overcome these varied global challenges, and those of the future, engineering must attract an equally varied workforce. The Academy is committed to becoming a champion for diversity by cultivating a fellowship that reflects the society in which it exists. In 1976, all 130 founding Fellows of the Academy were men, 35 years later females now represent 4% of the Fellowship. The next 35 years will be a very different story.

Notes for editors

  1. 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