Interview with Professor Brendan Walker


Professor Brendan Walker is a ‘renaissance showman' known for his brand of live entertainment, contraption building, and scientific experimentation which crosses the arts and sciences. He originally trained as an aeronautical engineer at Imperial College and worked for British Aerospace Military Aircraft for five years before taking an MA in Industrial Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art.

Ahead of the Golden Jubilee, engineer and showman, Professor Brendan Walker presents a new four-part series celebrating the science behind the inventions and innovations that transformed the way we lived in 1950s Britain. Brendan will learn from practical, hands-on experience exactly what it took to bring about the 50s revolution by reconstructing a house. Each programme will focus on a room and fast-forward it through the 1950s, showing how progress in the home triggered dramatic social change.

Tell us about the series?
We use a house as a lens to examine what scientific, engineering and technological innovations were happening in the 50s, and tell the story of how they changed Britain for the better. We reconstruct a typical suburban house as it would have appeared on the 1st January 1950. We then follow the story of the innovations of the time, and how they were used to create a modern house on 31st December 1959. I think viewers will be quite amazed at the transformation from the dark ages into something recognisably bright and modern.

Why did you decide to get involved in the series?
Science, technology and engineering enables, and often inspires, some great design innovations, which we experience in everyday life. We very rarely question the story of how the things we know and love around us came into existence. They affect the way we live every day - especially our domestic environment. As a designer, with a penchant for technology, the 50s was the first recognisable modern decade where these innovations began to arrive. It was a magical era, on the cusp of consumerism. I wish I'd been a teenager back then - although I probably would have been a science geek inventing washing powder, rather than grooving on stage with an electric guitar.

What are your top five inventions featured in the series? Which single invention do you wish you'd invented?
From episode 1 it's got to be Formica! Came from an innovation in aviation engineering, and found its way into the kitchen.
From episode 2, polyurethane foam - where would funky furniture (or Ikea) be without it?
From episode 3, ladies' nylon underwear - I'm not justifying this choice.
From episode 4, the Comet, the world's first commercial jet plane. Imagine the excitement of normal people being able to fly in a jet. It'd be like getting a flight on Virgin Galactic today.
However, if there's one thing I'd like to be credited with inventing in this decade, it would be the first stringless tea bag. Behind every good technical invention and design innovation is a good brew. I was Cub Scout champion tea maker in 1982, so I know what I'm talking about.

How many inventions were created by British designers/engineers?
In the series we only cover a fraction of what was going on. If you were to chart all the inventions, you'd need a small library.

Do you think they heyday of British engineering/design is over?
Are you joking? I teach some of the young scientists, designers, artists and engineers coming through Britain's universities and schools, and work with some of the best creative minds in the British industry. I still think we've got a cheeky can-do mentality, sense of adventure, and risk-taking attitude, backed up with skills and know-how, that'll continue to make Britain a creative technical hot house for decades to come.

Why do you think the 50s was a catalyst for so much change?
It was a sweet spot in history. The war forced many innovations to be fast-tracked for military reasons. After the war, nobody was entirely sure what to do with innovations already created, and also the massive capabilities for generating more innovations. There was a turn in the 50s when disposable income climbed, and consumerism blossomed. People were fed up with having to make do with the same old stuff, and they wanted something futuristic, and space exploration was just around the corner. Add to that the death of the king, and the coronation of a beautiful new extremely young queen - what a mix! Who wouldn't want to paint the living room yellow, and buy a bright blue carpet?

Which of the inventions do you think prompted the most social change?
I think that polymer science and plastic had the most immediate effect; there was an explosion of plastic consumer goods. As for the invention that had the longest-term effect, the transistor. Where would modern communications, computing and entertainment be without it?

Are there any products from the 50s that you would un-invent?
Freeze dried coffee. An abomination to hot beverages and the human palette.

We often think of the 1950s as a buttoned-up, even, depressing time; does the series throw up any surprises?
Oh yes! It saw the birth of the teenagers, rock'n'roll, dancing, and Saturday night glamour. That really paved the way for the 60s, which is commonly thought to be the decade of social revolution. You really get a sense of the excitement everyone would have felt in the 50s in the series. It was like the dawning of the rest of the century.

Do you consider the 50s the most important decade of the last century in terms of technological advancement? If not, which one would it be?
Each decade has got its own brilliant success stories. Space travel, computers, the Internet, mobile phones, supersonic flight, microwaves. If you're interested in science, technology, innovation, design, and how it all affects ordinary people, then you could get lost in any decade. But I do have a special fondness for the 50s, as it's the first decade that we can truly recognise as modern, where ordinary men, women, and children were able to experience technological advancements for themselves. It really sets the pace for the decades to come in the rest of the century.


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