An opinion poll commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering indicates that a high proportion (88%) of the British public are proud of the UK’s engineering achievements and two thirds of those aware of these achievements believe that the UK will develop the next breakthrough technology. The vast majority (90%) also said they believe that engineering is important to the UK economy.

However, the poll also indicated that many people are unaware that some of the world’s most significant engineering breakthroughs have been made by British engineers. Out of a list of ground-breaking innovations, only the steam engine was correctly identified by a large majority (82%) as having been developed in the UK.

Just 52 per cent knew that the World Wide Web was created by a British engineer – Sir Tim Berners Lee OM KBE FREng FRS – while less than half (49%) were aware that the first jet engine was invented in the UK by Sir Frank Whittle OM KBE CB FREng FRS.

Even fewer (45%) knew that the colour television was a British invention, while just one fifth (19%) knew that the world’s first bionic hand was developed in the UK.

The findings, based on a nationwide survey of 2,000 people, come as the Royal Academy of Engineering prepares to announce the finalists for its prestigious MacRobert Award, the pre-eminent prize for UK engineering innovation, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

UK computing pioneers were also largely unknown to the public. Just a third of those polled (35%) had heard of Ada Lovelace, inventor of the computer algorithm, while Tommy Flowers, responsible for the world’s first programmable computer, was recognised by less than a fifth (12%).

Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng FRS, Chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award Judging Panel, said:

“The UK has a rich engineering heritage and this poll suggests that people want to hear more about modern engineering developments. It is very encouraging to see that the public is positive about what the future holds for UK engineering and its importance to our economy. Celebrating current engineering excellence is crucial if the sector is to receive the support it needs and to inspire the next generation of engineers.

“For the last 50 years the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award has celebrated ground-breaking engineering innovations that have established the UK as a global leader. Leading the judges for the MacRobert Award over the past five years I have been privileged to see at first hand the engineering behind products that are changing our lives for the better. The incredible work being undertaken around the country right now will help to generate jobs and growth in the future.”

The shortlist for the 2019 MacRobert Award will be revealed in June, with the winner announced on 11th July. Last year Cambridge-based Owlstone Medical won the award for its ground-breaking ReCIVA Breath Sampler, which can detect signs of cancer and other diseases at an early stage.

The joint first winners in 1969 were Rolls-Royce for the Pegasus engine that powered the Harrier jump jet, the world’s first vertical take-off and landing aircraft, and Freeman, Fox and Partners for the innovative deck design of the Severn Bridge.

Notes for editors

  1. YouGov poll

YouGov surveyed 2,000 UK adults during April 2019 to find out about their knowledge of the UK's engineering heritage, and whether they are positive about the UK's future as an engineering power. The research was conducted online. 

  1. MacRobert Award for engineering innovation

First presented in 1969, the MacRobert Award is widely regarded as the most coveted in the industry, honouring the winning organisation with a gold medal and the team members with a cash prize of £50,000. Founded by the MacRobert Trust, the award is presented and run by the Royal Academy of Engineering, with support from the Worshipful Company of Engineers.

  1. Royal Academy of Engineering

As the UK’s national academy for engineering and technology, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers from academia and business – our Fellows – to advance and promote excellence in engineering for the benefit of society.

We harness their experience and expertise to provide independent advice to government, to deliver programmes that help exceptional engineering researchers and innovators realise their potential, to engage the public with engineering and to provide leadership for the profession. 

We have three strategic priorities:

  • Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation and businesses
  • Address the engineering skills and diversity challenge
  • Position engineering at the heart of society

We bring together engineers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, business leaders, academics, educators and the public in pursuit of these goals.

Engineering is a global profession, so we work with partners across the world to advance engineering’s contribution to society on an international, as well as a national scale.