British engineering icons: from the CT scanner to the world’s first electric digger


Professor Sir Jim McDonald, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, discusses how engineering will be at the heart of the effort to ‘build back better’.

Portrait of Professor Sir Jim McDonald

Engineering underpins our daily lives, drives economic growth and helps to ensure our readiness for the future. As we have seen in recent months, it also helps us to address major global challenges: engineers have been integral to the fight against COVID-19 around the world, from manufacturing ventilators to designing and building the Nightingale hospitals.

Indeed, some of our most powerful medical advances have been made possible through engineering – one of the most conspicuous examples is the CT scanner, a world first developed here in the UK by Sir Godfrey Hounsfield at EMI’s research laboratories. Less than 50 years later, computerised tomography (CT) has become a key imaging technology used routinely in hospitals around the world.

Thanks to its work on the CT scanner, EMI was one of the earliest winners in 1972 of the MacRobert Award, an annual prize that celebrates commercially successful UK engineering innovation with genuine benefit to society. Run by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the MacRobert Award has been presented to many leading British companies, from Johnson Matthey in 1980 for the world’s first catalytic converter to Raspberry Pi in 2017 for its iconic micro-computer.

CT scanner
CT scanner by Ted Humble-Smith

While our most urgent global challenge today is tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, we must not forget the longer-term threat to humanity from climate change. The task is far from easy. However I am confident that we can learn from our experiences, behavioural changes, rapid personal and professional impacts and economic evolution in the face of the coronavirus and bring a similar level of clarity, collaboration and pursuit of common purpose in the task of slashing carbon emissions.

British engineers already have their sights set on achieving the government’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and this year’s winner of the MacRobert Award - JCB - demonstrates that major improvements are possible, as the company has embarked on an ambitious programme to decarbonise its world-famous construction machinery.

JCB has developed the 19C-1E excavator, the world’s first fully electric digger. So quiet and emission-free that it can be used indoors, it demonstrates that powerful construction machinery can run with out an internal combustion engine. The current fleet has already saved the equivalent of 15,100kg in CO2 emissions across 5,616 hours of work, but these savings could reach billions of tonnes if it was used worldwide. JCB launched the new digger in 2019 and has sold hundreds since then.

Man reading a brochure in front of 19C-1E excavator in the bad

As we embark on a nationwide effort to ‘build back better,’ great British engineering will continue to play a critical role in developing the innovations and solutions we need to maintain and improve our healthcare, sustainability, wellbeing and prosperity.


All views expressed in this blog are the views of the guest blogger and do not represent the views of the GREAT campaign.