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Brunel's birthday Engineering's cheerleader

Working lives - Organising a 200th birthday party for Brunel is a challenge Julia Elton is only too keen to embrace.

An antiquarian book dealer may seem an odd champion for civil and structural engineering, but Julia Elton is a self confessed 'engineering nut'.

Elton dreamed up the initial 'fantasy' of staging a major conference to celebrate next year 's Brunel bicentenary (see feature, page 20). And it is her friendships with many at the forefront of engineering that is helping to transform that fantasy into reality.

Her love affair with engineering, and Brunel, is something of a family trait. Her great, great, great, great grandfather Sir Abraham Elton presided over the groundbreaking ceremony for Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Covering the event, the Bristol Mercury of 21 June 1831 wrote: 'The [bridge] committee, most of them accompanied by their ladies, took their station around a pile of stones, the first that had been removed. Mr Brunel then entered the circle, and taking up one of the stones, presented it to Lady Elton as a memento of the commencement of the undertaking.

'Sir braham lton en addressed the assembly to the following effect: He observed before him a gentleman on whom all the inhabitants of this great city might repose with confi dence.

'He congratulated that gentleman on his singular good fortune in being selected, young as he was, to conduct an undertaking of such magnitude.

He could anticipate the time, when, as that gentleman walked along the streets, the cry would be raised, 'There goes the man who reared that stupendous work, the ornament of Bristol and the wonder of the age'. Sir Abraham concluded amidst loud cheers.' Five generations on, Elton's father was a keen collector of engineering memorabilia, drawings and paintings - he owned the famous depiction of the banquet in the Thames Tunnel. His daughter was 24 when he died, and in lieu of death duties his collection was assigned to the then new Ironbridge Gorge industrial heritage museum. 'It fell to me to record and catalogue his collection, and though very sad, that process opened my eyes to engineering for the first time, ' she says.

On the strength of her cataloguing Elton got a job with antiquarian book dealer Ben Weinreb. 'He'd always seen engineering as an interesting but untapped market. He had bought the books, and turned me loose on his engineering collection to catalogue. I learned the subject by doing. I read and read and read as I went.' Weinreb's shop was a popular haunt of engineering luminaries such as Alec Skempton and Frank Newby, with whom Elton quickly fell into close, lifelong friendship.

'Everybody who was interested in engineering history came to our office. I would meet someone who told me about prestressing and Freyssinet, and I would bat my eyelashes and say 'how fascinating'. But I really was fascinated.' And that launched her into an environment in which engineering was not just a consuming work interest but which pervaded her social life as well.

'I joined the IStructE history study group in 1975, and spent a lot of time asking questions, asking questions, and asking even more questions: What's a cantilever- Explain pore pressure.' Elton considered studying engineering but was put off by 'Skem'.

'I'm innumerate, and he told me ever so gently that I'd be floored by the maths. It took me years to realise that engineering now is a highly numerate and mathematics based subject.

All my friends talked with their hands and talked visually, and drew things on napkins with pencils.' In 1985 she set up her own specialist bookshop, Elton Engineering Books, in Chiswick, west London, instead.

Although not a natural campaigner, she succeeded with NCE's help in 1994 in getting Brunel's Thames Tunnel spot listed the night before it was scheduled to be relined with shotcrete. 'The Thames Tunnel is about geotechnics and the invention of the tunnelling shield. The campaign was about protection of a concept and a heroic undertaking.' The passion for engineering history Elton shared with many of her engineer friends got her involved in the mid-1970s in the Newcomen Society, a learned organisation studying the history of engineering, industry and science.

'There's a little coterie of civil engineers really interested in the history of their profession - if only there were more of them, ' says Elton. The Newcomen has 800 members, but she is confident next year's Brunel conference will boost membership. 'It's been as high as 1,200 in the past and almost certainly will be again.' Now 55, Elton takes on a two year presidency of the Newcomen Society in October.

'It's a great coincidence that I'm going to be in charge during Brunel's 200th anniversary year, ' she beams.

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