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Working with dinosaurs


The season is upon us and this week sees the launch of a new Secrets of the Ancients series on ancient engineering by BBC2. A rival series, by Channel 4 and big budget American television company WBGH, is due to come out just before Christmas. Another Channel 4 series called Crack by the producers of Mayday and Black Box is planned for the New Year, this time about engineering failures as opposed to shipwrecks and plane crashes.

It seems that engineering and dinosaurs can make good TV. The BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs has attracted 16M viewers and is breaking viewing records. Three years ago, the programme on Stonehenge achieved 6M viewers - one of the highest viewing figures for BBC2 that year. It was repeated a number of times and shown throughout the world.

Last year I received requests to work on four programmes, which would have taken me around the world to the Easter Islands, Mexico and China. I declined them all except one, which meant that I spent a week in Egypt earlier this year working with WBGH.

Members will not be surprised to see some prominent engineers in these new series. Chris Wise is following his Colosseum project by building a Roman bridge; Max Fordham, a future president of CIBSE, works on creating a Roman hypocaust; Jo de Silva produces a giant grappling arm that lifts whole ships out of the water; and Peter Guthrie transports and erects Olmec statues.

Others produce a working siege catapult; transport and erect Easter Island statues; and build ancient bridges in China. I attempt - and fail - to raise an obelisk in Aswan. Scott Steedman is working on Crack.

All good stuff and guaranteed to raise the profile of engineering in the public eye.

From a television point of view, the successful completion of these tasks is not essential, with viewers enjoying the scent of failure even more than a well planned and predictable success.

From my own point of view, the programme on the obelisk is a disaster.

While we meticulously planned the process of raising a tiny stone (40 tonnes in comparison with the 400 to 800 tonne stones that the Egyptians raised 3,000 years ago), the shoot ran out of control. Initial worries about our ability to rig the toppling mechanism turned into a nightmare and on reflection it is clear that we were lucky nobody was seriously injured.

The film will become a classic Pythonesque example for safety officers. The only professional action that I managed was, after a sleepless night, to call a halt to the filming. Not something one can do lightly given the pressures of the production company.

I have no doubt that a number of Members will claim that for my actions up until the final moment, I should be brought before a disciplinary committee for not upholding the dignity of the profession.

While I don't look forward to the time I may have to spend defending myself, it will ultimately be for the Members, and possibly Council, to decide whether this was fitting behaviour for a future ICE president. This brings into question whether any of us should involve ourselves in these forms of entertainment.

But we mustn't lose sight of the bigger picture, which is turning people on to engineering.

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