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Artists and engineers

Published: 15 May 2023

At first glance, engineers and artists inhabit different worlds. But do they, though? At the heart of engineers and artists’ work lies a strong and shared spark of creativity.

Some people have described engineers and artists as having different agendas. The role of the engineer is functional and practical, while the artists’ work is a reimagining of the world as it is perceived now, and how it might in future be. However, many engineers’ projects are equally visionary. The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering has been awarded to engineers’ work which has changed the world, from the creation of the World Wide Web and internet, to the Global Positioning (GPS) system. Engineers can be just as visionary as artists. 

Atomic Oscillator Clock, Model FRK, by Efratom GmbH, Munich, as used to baseline the key concepts and hardware for the Global Positioning System (GPS) Science Museum Group
Atomic Oscillator Clock, Model FRK, by Efratom GmbH, Munich, as used to baseline the key concepts and hardware for the Global Positioning System (GPS) 1971-1974, and presented complete with gold cover to Hugo Fruehauf, the Chief Engineer for the GPS system, upon his departure from Efratom in 1996.

Thinking creatively

In fact, it has been argued that engineers and artists share a creative process. For an engineer, that process is built around particular ‘habits of mind’ – ways of thinking, which help to shape their work. Engineers excel at finding issues to be addressed, defining exactly what they need, learning from failure as they work on solutions, and smoothly managing the systems which complex solutions often bring with them. But, above all, engineers’ work depends on them being able to strongly visualise what they wish to achieve. Engineer Henry Maudslay realised this 200 years ago when he wrote, ‘First get a clear notion of what you plan to accomplish, then you will succeed in doing it’. When you can clearly see where you need to get to, it is far easier to plan a course in the right direction.

model of Diagonal Oscillating Engine built by Maudslay. Science Museum Group
Henry Maudslay’s clarity of thought and foresight made his engineering workshops in London a major training ground for engineers, and led to innovations like the first production line of the industrial age, making pulley-blocks for naval vessels in Portsmouth

Seeing things clearly

The Science Museum has many examples of how engineers try to see things clearly.

Drawing has always been a key part of the engineers’ skill set. As machines have grown more complex, so new ways have evolved to convey information about them in graphical form. Engineers often possessed sets of fine drawing instruments and paints to shade their drawings. Before erasers were invented, they might even use stale breadcrusts to rub out pencil lines.

seeing things clearly gallery

Engineers have often used three dimensional models to visualise their creations as well, rehearsing in miniature and resolving any problems encountered before building something at full scale. Models can range from metal models of engines created in an engineering workshop through to 3D prints of complete buildings made by building up layers of nylon into the right shape

Seeing things clearly 2 pictures

Digital modelling plays an increasingly important role in engineers’ toolkits, from simulation software such as MATLAB to ‘digital twins’ of everything from Formula 1 racing cars to the whole of Singapore recreated using digital technologies in immense detail. These twins can model everything from the effects of lighter car components on a car’s speed, to strategies for dealing with flash flooding in a highly populated area. But, the digital models also have an artistic quality of their own, bringing vividly to life things which are otherwise unseeable.

Mathematica 1.0 Software, by Wolfram, U.S.A, 1988, with a user manual for Mathematica 1.0 and various versions of Mathematic software Science Museum Group
MATLAB Version 1.3 Disc, made by MathWorks, United Kingdom, 1985 and MATLAB Version 1.0 Manual, made by MathWorks, United Kingdom, 1984.

Engineers who are artists

So, there are strong elements of art within engineering practice. Why should there not be? Although their training encourages them to think in very focused ways, engineers are human beings after all, come from the same rich range of backgrounds and with the same colourful range of interests and motivations as anyone else. Victorian engineer James Nasmyth (1808-1890) made his name constructing heavy machine tools, but his father was landscape painter Alexander Nasmyth, and James developed the remarkable ability to sketch everything from fantastical cityscapes to sumptuous interiors – and even the moon’s surface, based on thirty years of careful observation. Nasmyth followed a well-worn path, coming after Scottish engineer James Watt, who was deeply fascinated by sculpture, filling his workshop with a whole collection and developing the machines needed to make copies of it. In his old age he presented them to his friends ‘as the products of a young artist, just entering his 83rd year’.

James Nasmyth

Artists who are engineers

Flipping the coin, many artists’ work incorporates elements of engineering. Take for example Bruce Lacey, pioneer performance artist. He trained as a technician in the Navy, working on complex electrical and mechanical systems. Later, this led to projects making animated props for TV, touring theatre shows and gigs. Some of his robots lived lives few other machines have ever done. Bruce was not keen on human actors, arguing that they were expensive but only did some quite simple things repetitively. So, he built his ‘Electric Actors’, which appeared at London’s Establishment Club in the 1960s – Bruce would feign a heart attack mid-show, leaving the roots to carry on without him. Bruce’s robot ROSA BOSOM appeared at London’s landmark ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’ exhibition in 1968, performed at Bruce’s second wedding and the Alternative Miss World exhibition in 1985. Bruce built his artistic career on a firm understanding of new technologies and aspects of engineering such as remote control and cybernetics.

Three animatronic robots made by Bruce Lacey using maniquine pieces for limbs, house hold items and mechanical parts  to make them look  human like Science Museum Group
ROSA BOSOM Radio Operated Simulated Actress and actors by Bruce Lacey, British,1965

An art/engineering mash-up: James Capper

Rather than emphasising either art or engineering, both can exist side-by-side. Take James Capper. James says:

I think like an engineer, and work like a sculptor.

James started as a teenager working in a garage at weekends, then studied fine art. He describes himself as ‘less of a formal sculptor and more of a speculative engineer, an artist that builds machines or mobile sculptures’. Being speculative – tentative or unpredictable – is James’ engineering/art super-power. He sees each of his artworks as a prototype, raising issues and asking questions as it is built which the next one seeks to address. Rather than closely defining a problem and focusing solely on that, James asks, ‘if I make an artwork, what else can do?’ Looking outward to new possibilities rather than inward to a specific problem has created a body of work across four  ‘Divisions’, from Carving to Earth-marking, Material Handling, Offshore and Aviation.

Orange walking boat drawing made by James Capper Science Museum Group
James Capper’s set of coloured drawings, ‘Mudskipper Spray’, numbers 1 to 4, showing his ‘walking workboat’ Mudskipper


Engineers AND artists

In Britain we have often tended to see art and science as separate – what chemist and novelist CP Snow described as ‘The Two Cultures’. Both those cultures are now turning their attentions to  enormous shared challenges like climate change. The world needs it engineers, and people who share engineers’ ways of thinking, more than ever before. The shared creative potential of art and engineering is greater than the sum of its parts, helping us to find new and innovative ways to make the world a better place.

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