When I was a child a common response, from boys only I suspect, to ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ was ‘An engine driver’. Even if a few girls shared the dream, I doubt they would have spoken out to say so back then. I am – just – old enough to recall shunting yards with engines getting up steam and belching out dirty smoke in the process. I can recall the London pea-soupers too, as I walked to my primary school, although they were probably past their worst by that point, and the removal of the coal fires in my house as the Clean Air Act came into force in my London suburb. These memories have been triggered by a visit to the National Railway Museum in York during my recent wet holiday; the large covered yard housing so many famous steam locomotives from the past was a good place to be as the rain thundered onto the roof.
Now I am most certainly not what would be regarded as a steam buff. I don’t have nostalgic memories of the steamy journeys of my youth, as it were, and although I’ve enjoyed occasional relatively recent trips on tourist steam trains for a family day out (including one memorable trip in Somerset with a family member on crutches who struggled to clamber into the carriage) I had no particular reason to expect to be star-struck by visiting the Museum. But – and I say this completely decoupled from the fact that I am a Trustee of the Science Museum Group of which the York NRM is a member, although it was one reason I visited – it really was quite an experience. My first reaction was, this is just a load of old engines, but the more time I spent there the more impressive it all seemed. There was the first startled recognition at the sight of King George V, a fetching green locomotive familiar to me through a wooden jigsaw I used to do in childhood. Then there was Mallard, which I recall from a set of cards given away free in packets of Rice Krispies when a small child; I remember it because it was the last card I needed to complete the set, and it is a very sleek beast. And the iconic Flying Scotsman is there being renovated in their workshops under the public eye, being got ready to ‘fly’ again. If you’d asked me in advance to name some locomotives, I would have declared I didn’t know any; but I did.
However, merely looking from the outside is not really enough to excite, and it was the chance to get closer to the hardware that was so stirring. Climbing up to the footplate of the Duchess of Hamilton was where things really took off. There we found a wonderful Explainer (thank you Lorna!) on board to, well, explain the knobs, pipes and controls, as well as what life was like for an engine driver and his fireman, and just how hard the latter had to work to keep the fire stoked up. It seriously made me wonder why any little child should think this was a career worth pursuing, the height of their fantasies – but I’ll come back to this point later. Shovelling a ton of coal an hour in cramped, unstable conditions, exposed to the elements does not strike me as the stuff of dreams, but clearly that sort of fireman apprenticeship did not put the aspiring engine-drivers of yester-year off.
Having got a feel for the conditions of work for this team of two, we then heard a clear exposition of the innards of the locomotive and how it all worked together to generate the speed exhibited by the classiest engines, demonstrated by another excellent female Explainer (cheers, Lesley) in front of the sectioned engine of Ellerman Lines, a relatively late engine. It’s all very well to know the thermodynamic theories behind how these powerful beasts work, but this is totally different from getting to grips with the feats of engineering and design that made it really work. That’s what seeing the complex network of tubes and more tubes, the baffles and vents really showed up. It made real the words on the pages of textbooks. As a simple-minded physicist it was a wonderful lesson in the ingenuity of designers who probably didn’t want to sit down and consider the application of the 2nd law of thermodynamics to an ideal gas in an ideal Carnot engine. This was about solid, inventive reality, and very impressive it was too.
As I say, I am old enough to remember these giants in action. I am less clear how a child of the 21st century, lacking that context, relates to what may seem like ancient history to them. (As an aside I’d be keen to see more context discussed in the Museum, about how trains changed the pattern of people’s lives in Victorian times, and what these changes meant for industry, families and society then and thereafter). But the children in the Museum seemed happily engrossed in what was around them, charmed by its magic; it clearly satisfied something in them, even if briefly. But it did make me wonder whether a modern child, after visiting the Museum, might be sufficiently impressed by the workmanship, the scale and potential power of these beasts – even if not seen in motion in their glory – to think about engineering as a career (if not becoming an engine driver explicitly), or would it seem an irrelevant curiosity hard to position next to modern trains with their totally different source of power.
It is so hard to identify what triggers a lifelong love for a discipline/career. Museums have their place as one potential trigger, clear teaching and enthusiastic teachers are a sine qua non, some decent careers advice would seem more than desirable, but there is no single recipe for success. Much as I loved the Science Museum in London as a child, I am quite sure it isn’t why I became a scientist. But I cannot identify what did, and had I been asked as a primary school kid what did I want to do when an adult, I would probably have come out with the standard unimaginative answer for a girl of my generation – be a nurse. It was only when exposed to doing science, with good teaching, at my secondary school, that my enthusiasm could take off.