What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

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.

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11 Responses to What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’m pretty sure it was the science museum in London that made me become a scientist. Aged about 7, I saw a display about a nerve reflex when a person touched a hot radiator. A few days later, I deliberately burnt myself on the hob to see what the reflex felt like (it hurt and my mother was not impressed). Nearly 30 years later, I’m a neuroscientist. Other things contributed too, but museums definitely helped.

  2. cromercrox says:

    The Natural History Museum made me into a paleontologist, but I got better. Now I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up.

  3. My artist parents dragged me around art museums for my entire childhood. But I still turned out OK!

  4. I spent days of my holidays in museums and turned out an artist.
    With a serious interest in museums :)

    viv in nz

  5. Frank says:

    I don’t remember steam trains from my childhood, and had never really seen the great attraction. But during a recent visi to Norfolk we went on the Sheringham to Holt steam train and I admit that I was impressed by the enormous puffing monster that was the engine. It charged through the countryside, leaving trails of white steam and black smoke behind it. At one point we wee alongside the locomotive going in the opposite direction and had a clear view into the engine cabin, where the drivers where shovelling coal into a fiery hell-hole. That brought home to me the immense power that underlay the smoothly gliding machine.

    As for museums, I am praying for rain today so that I can persuade our visitors this weekend and their young children that we should take refuge in the NHM and/ or BM. But I fear we may end up in Madame Tussaud’s.

  6. Although I was given a train set (Clockwork) at an early age, progressing to electric powered train sets, my parents always claimed that I had declared at the age of 8 that I wanted to be a chemist (a REAL one). With several chemistry sets and getting hold of some chemicals from a supplier behind the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh, I built up quite a collection of substances which no doubt would be banned now. My dad and I burned the Formica table in the kitchen doing an experiment with magnesium metal. I did go on to do my PhD in inorganic chemistry (in Edinburgh), and was chatting to Lesley Yellowlees last week at the RSC about inspiration, teaching and why chemistry is so wonderful.

    My interest in trains remained slightly below compulsive train spotter level, being more interested in the railway network as a means for social change and travel. Last year I went to the new Riverside Museum in Glasgow, which houses the transport collection of the city of Glasgow. There are huge locomotives, trams and buses, but the most interesting aspect of this collection is the installation of two periods of Glasgow’s underground/subway system. With many audio clips it is possible to work out how people of my grandmother’s generation worked, played and even ‘got off on a lumber’. This Riverside museum in Glasgow was fascinating and though I’m visually impaired, I had a great time getting there by Glasgow underground and returning via a Scotrail connection. Not quite a live steam event, but plenty of hands-on within the museum collection for people like me to be included in an important social phenomena resulting in mixing of many people in what was a major cosmopolitan city. My conclusion is: we may need more train spotters and even stamp collectors. Thank you for your post.

  7. rpg says:

    Frank, if you’re taking refuge in the NHM/BM on Sunday give us a shout. I might persuade/drag the girls… it’s a long time since we’ve seen the NHM, actually, so it might be a good one to do.

  8. rgw says:

    Always liked plants, and gardening, but also interested in art. But advised/persuaded there’d be much less chance of getting a job in art/languages, so went into science. (Scientist father) At the time you couldn’t do both art and science at higher levels in school. My main compulsion – I have to know how things work, not “want to know” but “have to know”. In my PhD application I said I wanted to help improve agriculture(!) So now I’m a plant cell biologist who does a lot of imaging, some of it’s on crop species, so I am probably doing what I aimed to do. But don’t tell kids about the paperwork you have to deal with, put you off for life, but then, probably the same in most jobs these days…
    Museums seemed boring when I was a kid, but they seem fun now!

  9. Ghislaine Dell says:

    I’m fairly sure that it was my love of watching the news as an (approx) 12-yr-old that first made me interested in a career as a scientist. I remember watching articles about the ‘new’ science of genetic engineering (and at about the same time I read ‘Brave New World’) and decided that I wanted to be a genetic engineer (as it was then called) and create new ways of making people better, or find out what it was that made people ill. Not surprisingly, even though I’m no longer a scientist I am really passionate about the use of good, informative, engaging journalism and outreach to spark the interest of the next generation of scientists….

  10. Dave Paisley says:

    It wasn’t until fairly recently that I worked out that Thunderbirds (debuted when I was 9) and the rest of the Gerry Anderson canon were responsible for me eventually becoming an airplane designer/aeronautical engineer. There are a surprising number of my American colleagues for whom the same is true.

    And it’s been a long time since I can recall anyone confusing my vocation with “train driver/coal shoveller” but it has happened…

    Also nice to see a scientist appreciate the engineering :)

  11. Technogran1 says:

    Think how I felt then, growing up wanting to be an engine driver. Trouble was, I was a female!