The Cambridge Engineering Tradition


D.B.Welbourn FREng.

The first two Cambridge Engineers to be mentioned in the Dictionary of National Biography appear to be Phineas Pett of Emmanuel, and Edward Wright of Caius, both at the beginning of the 17th Century. Both were connected with the sea, Pett becoming Master shipwright to Charles I, while Wright made notable contributions to navigation. Wright (Ref.1) was responsible for the survey and levelling to bring the 'New River' from the Lea Valley into London in 1612. The man to whom engineers owe most, Newton, came up to Cambridge in 1661. In 1757 Edward Burrough, Master of Caius, was consulted on the design of the new stone bridge at Wisbech, (Ref. 2). Indeed, had not the general standard of the University been so low in the 18th Century, the feel for practical matters among the University's mathematicians and scientists might well have led to engineering being taught before 1784, when Isaac Milner, first Jacksonion Professor, started to lecture on the subject (Ref.3). Lecturing on practical engineering in a mathematical context, he anticipated the founding of the École Polytechnique in Paris by 10 years.

The École Polytechnique is rightly regarded as having set the standards and given the intellectual impetus for the founding of all the technological universities in continental Europe, despite the fact that mining academies had been established 50 years earlier in Germany. The strength of the École Polytechnique was that from the start it concentrated on teaching the mathematical physics which lies at the back of all engineering. Its weakness was that it was a technological university separate from the main stream of the university tradition in Europe on which it appears to have exercised no influence whatever. It might have done so had not Karlsruhe, the oldest German technological university, been founded separately from, instead of as part of, the traditional university of Goettingen, largely for bureaucratic reasons (Ref.4).

The development of engineering education in the universities in Great Britain seems to have owed little to continental influence. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that in Cambridge in Milner's time, any man who wished to take the Classics Tripos had first got to pass the Mathematical Tripos, and an examination of its papers shows that the whole of theoretical physics, astronomy, and what today would be called theoretical engineering, was covered in the syllabus. Early in the 19th century, when Professor Farish, who in 1775 had taken over Milner's lectures in practical engineering, was at his best, ('fairish' jokes used to be told about him (Ref. 5), about a third of the University was attending his lectures on practical engineering. The decline of the concept of the educated person dates in England from 1849, when for the first time men were allowed to sit for an honours degree in Cambridge without first having gained honours in the Mathematical Tripos. The seal was set on it in the late 1950s, when men and women were allowed to enter the University without even having passed in mathematics at 'O' Level; the paper in General Science was thought to be adequate!

The first examination in Applied Science in Cambridge was a so-called "Professors examination" for the pass degree in 1849. In 1865 the examination for the Ordinary Degree was recast, and one of the papers was on Mechanism and Applied Mechanics, covering the principles of mechanism, the steam engine, horology, heat, electricity and magnetism.

If little seemed to be going on with respect to engineering education in Cambridge during the first half of the 19th century, the outside world clearly did not think so.

Sir William Hamilton remarked in the Edinburgh Review in 1849, that "Cambridge stands alone in turning out her clergy accomplished as actuaries or engineers it may be but unaccomplished as divines".

The development of engineering education in Cambridge cannot be understood unless the influence of the Mathematical Tripos is fully comprehended. It maintained its dominant position until 1914, and typically men such as Willis and Parsons in engineering, Bertrand Russell in philosophy, Keynes in economics and Telfer in patristics had started their academic careers as Wranglers. This tradition was carried fully into the founding of the Cambridge "Mechanical Sciences Tripos", and Professor Charles Inglis was well aware of it; in giving his inaugural address to freshmen in the Engineering Department:

'Gentleman' he would begin, (I quote from memory), 'your fathers have sent you to Cambridge to be educated, not to become engineers; but they have sent you to read engineering because they believe that no better route to becoming educated exists. However, in ten years time 90% of you will have become managers, whether of factories, of sales or of design. The remaining 10% will have become successful lawyers, novelists and people of that sort.' He might have added that 2% would have gone into the Church; and he would certainly have been delighted had he known that a Ph.D. of the Department would in due course become a repetiteur at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Although the first examination papers in engineering had been set as part of the ordinary degree in 1849, not until 1875 was James Stuart appointed to the first chair in engineering, the chair of Mechanism and Applied Mechanics. The school of engineering in the form that Stuart, himself a Wrangler, established it, seems almost an aberration, since as a result of his upbringing in his father's works he placed great importance on teaching the use of tools in Cambridge. No engineer would question the importance of such skills to professional engineers; but few would feel that a university was the right environment in which to teach them.

When Stuart resigned in 1880, Alfred Ewing re-founded engineering education in Cambridge in the tradition from which it has never since departed, the tradition of teaching the theoretical fundamentals which lie behind all engineering, while at the same time providing experience in the art of measurement on real engineering equipment, and of comparing theory with practice. This was the path on which John Hopkinson, in his notable memorandum (Ref. 6), helped to set it, and which has been maintained even in the teaching of management studies. His son, Bertram Hopkinson, succeeding Ewing in 1903, consolidated and developed the changes that had been begun in this direction. Perhaps, since Bertram married a Siemens, both father and son were aware of Werner von Siemens views, expressed in 1882, in a letter to the first Professor of Electrical Engineering in Vienna:

'In brief, young people should learn at the university all those parts of electrical engineering which they cannot conveniently learn with us in industry: when they come to us, they should be able to measure, to use mathematics, and they should be clear about the fundamentals. The rest is not part of the job of the University, and cannot be taught by it in the way that we need.'

This represents a tradition which draws a firm line between education and training, and to which Cambridge and the five leading Grandes Écoles in France have remained more faithful than have the other continental engineering schools.

Perhaps a word should be said about Bertram Hopkinson, who, after obtaining first class honours in the Mathematics Tripos, qualified as a barrister at the age of 23, and at the age of 29, already an FRS, succeeded Ewing as the Professor of Mechanical Sciences. He had already solved the problem of oscillations in electric alternators by the use of damping windings, and while doing much to raise the mathematical standards of the Mechanical Sciences Tripos was himself active in research. He encouraged Harry Ricardo to pursue while an undergraduate his researches into internal combustion engines, and merely to obtain a pass degree.

Another aspect of the Cambridge system that has played an important part in the Engineering Department has been the supervision system, which was just starting to emerge in 1875. Until 1945 virtually all of those who supervised (i.e. taught undergraduates tutorially, usually in groups of two) were prepared to do so in all subjects in the Tripos, covering all aspects of engineering; before the second world war (WWII) this meant for all the compulsory 'A' papers, after it for the whole of Pt.I. This had a profound effect on undergraduates, who conceived naturally of engineering as being a single subject; and when they graduated and went into industry, they did not initially regard themselves as being civil, mechanical, or electrical engineers, but just engineers. As a result, many were to move without any feeling of constraint from one branch of engineering to another, and to venture into new fields such as gas turbines and nuclear energy.

Whittle, a Cambridge graduate, had in his team W.R.Hawthorne, G.B.R.Feilden, and G.W.Bone, all near contemporaries, all of whom were to leave their mark on British engineering. At the national Aeronautical Research Laboratory, Hayne Constant, developing the axial flow gas turbine, also came from Cambridge. Lord Hinton of Bankside, another graduate from the Department, founded the atomic energy industry. Today few supervisors are prepared to supervise for even most of Pt.I, a loss to the undergraduate, which may perhaps be compensated in the increase in research in the Department. Time alone will show.

Another aspect of the supervision system has been its effect on faculties of engineering elsewhere in Britain and indeed overseas. During the 30 years after the end of the second world war, some 41 members of staff of the Engineering Department went as Professors to other universities, and three went as Vice-Chancellors. Of the staff who went elsewhere, a large proportion had experience of supervising for the whole of Pt.I; they brought to the founding of new departments of engineering education, or to the problems of running a specialised department, a view of engineering as a whole which put them in a strong position when arguing with heads of other specialised departments brought up in a specialised tradition.

Supervision has also had an important effect on consulting work in industry, a field in which members of the staff of the Department have always been in considerable demand. One of the reasons for this is that a large proportion of the problems in which industry has sought advice from Cambridge dons has required a really sound knowledge not of advanced work but of first year fundamentals and indeed of fundamentals of many branches in engineering, since practical problems have a habit of refusing to be compartmentalised. Many have found that supervising for the whole of Pt.I is the best possible preparation for such work.

Members of the staff undertake to promote the wellbeing of the University as a place of 'education, religion, learning and research.' Until the coming of Sir John Baker in 1943 as Professor of Mechanical Sciences, education and learning had been supreme; research had been an amiable, if virtuous, eccentricity, mainly conducted individually, although with one notable exception. Professor Sir Melvill Jones had built up a research team in the 1920s and 1930s. Baker brought research, and research teams, into the forefront of departmental activities, and in doing so established the Engineering Department as leader in a wide range of technologies. He coupled research firmly with final year Pt.II undergraduate teaching, and also with postgraduate teaching, not merely of research students, but perhaps more importantly, of men already in industry brought back to deepen their education in new fields while attending teaching courses lasting a full academic year. The first of the three courses, which paved the way for the M.Phil courses which came later, was in structural steelwork design, to propagate his ideas of plastic design. This course was followed by one in modern control theory, in which Professor J.F. Coales was doing pioneering work. The third was in engineering design methods in mechanical engineering, a field pioneered in the UK by M.J. French in parallel with what was going on in Germany. This form of further education would have warmed the heart of James Stuart, one of the fathers of extra-mural education in Great Britain.

Professor (later Sir John and later still The Lord) Baker's vision of work in research being something which needed carrying over as fast as possible into industry also led to the Engineering Department revolutionising at least one branch of it every ten years. His own work in the plastic design of steelwork started to make an impact in the 1940s, beginning with the "Morrison" air-raid shelter. Sir Charles Oatley's scanning electron microscope appeared in the 1950s, Professor K.H. Roscoe's work on soil mechanics had a radical impact on civil engineering in the 1960s, and the Department's work on computer aided design and manufacture started to revolutionise the tool-making industry in the 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s advances in such fields as speech and audio signal processing, control engineering theory, materials science, nanotechnology, and computational fluid dynamics, have gained international recognition and wide-scale industrial application.

In 1939 Cambridge engineering graduates represented about one fifth of all engineering graduates in the country; in 1949 one eighth; and in 1969 about one thirteenth. At the end of the millennium it is about 2 1/2 %. Gerstl and Hutton (Ref. 7) commented in 1966:

'These trends are likely to continue, and their implications must be faced. For instance, will the other universities be able to produce engineering administrators as successfully as Camford ?' (i.e. Cambridge and Oxford).

Since neither of these authors is a Camford man, the question must be taken seriously.

One important development has been that of the position of women in the CUED. During WWI, women examined for the Mechanical Sciences Tripos, and after the end of the war, there was a little flurry of women students, stimulated by their experience driving lorries and the like during the war. One or two of these made successful careers as engineers. No women, however, enrolled in the 1930s, and only in 1949 did Mrs. Constance Tipper DSc become not merely the first woman member of the teaching staff, but also the first Reader.

The Engineering Department started the academic year 1938/39 ( i.e. the last year before WWII ) with 575 undergraduates, none of whom were women, 12 research students, 2 professors and 24 other staff. The figures for undergraduates in the year 1999/2000 are not strictly comparable, since the degree course now lasts 4 years instead of 3 before the war. However, there are now 1100 undergraduates, of whom 20% are women, 300 research students, 19 professors, 19 readers, 83 lecturers and 175 "post-docs", a class which did not exist before WWII.

As a proportion of undergraduates in the University, the figure has fallen from just over 10% in 1939 to 9.4% in 1999, the reason being the increased number of women undergraduates in the University, few of whom read engineering. The proportion of Research Students has however increased dramatically from being less than 5% in 1938 to 7 1/2% in 1999.

Clearly, the Cambridge Engineering tradition is one capable of development and change; perhaps before another century is past professional historians will recognise its importance. Peter Searby, in "A History of the University of Cambridge Vol.3 1750-1870 " gives only one reference to engineering in his index, and that is merely a geographical mention of where its buildings now are. He fails to notice the importance of what was being debated and done in the build up to the founding of the first chair of Mechanism and Applied Mechanics, or to realise that this was the build-up to a department which was to produce Whittle and the other Cambridge engineers whose work has had far more effect on our lives than has the work of most of the people whom he discusses.



1. Gough, J.W. "Sir Hugh Myddleton" (OUP 1964)

2. Walker, N. & Craddock, T. "The History of Wisbech and the Fens" (Richard Walker 1849)

3. Hilken, J.N. "Engineering Education at Cambridge University" (CUP 1967)

4. Meyer, L."Die Zukunft der Deutschen Hochschulen und ihrer Vorbildungsanstalten" (Berlin 1874)

5. Hopkinson, J. "Original Papers" Vol. I (CUP 1901 )

6. Gerstl, G.E. & Hutton, S.P. "Engineers: The anatomy of a Profession " ( Tavistock 1966)