Sunday, 21 November 2021

TV review: Engineering Connections, series 3, Amazon Prime (2011)

Like ‘Grand Designs’, this show is geeky but wry humour used by host Richard Hammond takes the weight off the viewer as it lets you relax while taking in a solid whack of information. Sort of like those times when, at school, the teacher would open the class by telling everyone that she’d show a video. Like a stand-up comic pressing serious issues on his audience, Hammond allows the viewer to grin and shrug while being educated. A sly quip leavens a goofy experiment designed to prove a point being made as the host tries to show how small, incremental innovations in physics or chemistry have changed the way that – for example – buildings or ships are constructed, or cars for that matter. 

Hammond serves up complex ideas with simple sauce. My dad was an engineer and met his wife through his classmate Geoff. My uncle when I went with him on a trip to his holiday house 15 years ago stopped on the verge next to a bridge spanning a deep, heavily wooded gorge situated in the picturesque periurban approaches just north of Sydney to point out for me how it was built. I don’t know why I still have this memory in my mental stockroom, but it clings to the fractured lining of that space despite all of the negative things that also happened in that period of my life, a marker on the path to a brighter future. Geoff would’ve loved this program as it’s been made for men of vision and dreams (forget crime and the trappings of the fast buck): here’s another kind of magic, for technology resembles the occult and the arcane in the way that a tiny shift in the way something in the real world is done can have radical outcomes.

Like the petrol tank inside an F1 racing car, made of Kevlar and rubber because one is strong while the other is watertight. Or the rotating front door of a skyscraper that functions like an airlock on a space station, allowing someone to transit from inside a lobby to the street outside without creating an obstructive gale. ‘Engineering Connections’ takes you on-site but you also spend time in a kind of range of temporary skunk works, places used by Hammond to demonstrate how, for example, the windage of a cannon – the gap between the shell and the inside of the cannon’s cylinder – can cut its effectiveness because of lost energy, or you how a dimmer switch can cause fires because to operate it requires that the current be turned on and off rapidly, a process that produces heat that can catch on combustible materials found in the built environment.

On the racetrack, on the manufactured island of a desert hotel, or out in a field, Hammond creates an engaging ambience for each individual episode as he illustrates principles of design and construction that led to improvements in manufacturing and engineering practice in an array of different fields. I was particularly entertained by the Rion-Antirion Bridge story. This Greek structure required a number of innovative solutions in order to be built as it is constructed in a zone prone to earthquakes and high winds. The two shores on which it’s been made are separating, furthermore. The ways that all of these problems have been overcome is ingenious, but it inheres in an array of different technologies. One is a hammock (to avoid destruction in case of an earthquake). Another is a series of piles driven into the mud underneath the structure (to fight against liquefaction). A third is a device to fight against vortex shedding, a thin strip of material winding around each of the cables. 

When looked at by using a simple experiment the vision behind the massive, 75,000-tonne roadway with its 90m columns becomes intensely present and I’m reminded of TV programs that would play when I was a boy in order to demonstrate individual solutions to common problems. One program was run by a man named Julius Sumner-Miller. Richard Hammond is the professor’s modern analogue.

No comments: