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Choosing what to study

Top ten greatest engineers

Looking to study engineering? Be inspired by these engineers, from all walks of life and made the world what it is today.

Elon Musk

10. Fazlur Rahman Khan 

1929–1982 

Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Fazlur Rahman Khan can claim the title of father of the modern skyscraper. This structural engineer and architect came up with tubular designs that allowed for easier construction of the high rise structures we know today. Khan was one of the first to utilise computer-aided design techniques, and he gave the US the Willis Tower and John Hancock Center.

9. Burt Rutan

1943

American-born Burt Rutan is an aerospace engineer and modern entrepreneur. Rutan's aircraft were often peculiar-looking but they always proved to be light, strong and energy-efficient. His greatest achievements number Voyager, the first plane to fly non-stop around the world, and SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded spacecraft to make regular and successful trips into sub-orbit.

8. Ada Lovelace 

1815–1852

Daughter of the poet, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace was a mathematician who engineered the first computer programme. She worked with Charles Babbage, where she was instructed to translate an Italian article about the ‘Different Engine’. She added her own comments to the translation to a great extent, thus creating an algorithm that was to be used by the machine. Following this, Lovelace developed many further methods for computers so that they could do much more than calculate numbers.

7. Elon Musk 

1971

Engineer, businessman, inventor, genius – four of the many labels often attached to South African-born Canadian Musk. Founder of SpaceX, which is working towards taking humans on holiday to space; Tesla Motors, where electric cars are created to discourage the use of fossil fuels in transport; and SolarCity, which provides solar panels for businesses all over the world. Other achievements include starting the Elon Musk Foundation, which funds engineering education and research.

6. Alice H. Parker 

1895–1920

Born in New Jersey, Alice H. Parker is the reason why you have central heating in your home. Dissatisfied with the effectiveness of her fireplace in cold winters, the African-American inventor designed a heating system which exchanged cool air for heat. Using natural gas for fuel, unlike wood and coal which had previously been used, the warmth could be spread to rooms around the house. This invention also reduced the risk of fires in buildings from excessive use of fireplaces.

5. Ellen Ochoa 

1958

Inventor, former astronaut and director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Ellen Ochoa has had a huge impact in the aerospace industry. She co-created three inventions: an optical object recognition method; an optical inspection system; and a method for noise removal. Ochoa was the world’s first Hispanic female astronaut and has spent more than 950 hours in space. She is also the second woman to be director of the Johnson Space Center.

4. George Stephenson 

1781–1848

We could easily have included George Stephenson’s son, Robert, on this list, who is known as one of the greatest engineers of the 19th Century. Stephenson senior gets the nod, however, for doing it all first – he built the first public inter-city railway line between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830. His rail gauge is still used all over the world as the standard measurement for rail tracks.

3. Emily Warren Roebling 

1843–1903

Known as the first-ever female field engineer, Emily Warren Roebling played a significant part in the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. Her husband was a civil engineer who developed a disease during his time working on the bridge. He was unable to continue, so Roebling took the reigns and became chief engineer for the project for the preceding 14 years. After it’s completion in 1883, she was the first person to cross it.

2. Isambard Kingdom Brunel 

1806–1859

Isambard Kingdom Brunel has had an overwhelming impact on the infrastructure of modern Britain. It's appropriate he's on a list on this site too, having given his name to a modern-day university (Brunel University London). His achievements include the Great Western Railway and the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. Brunel built railways across England, Wales, Ireland and Italy, and advised on rail lines in Australia and India.

1. Leonardo da Vinci 

1452–1519 

Da Vinci was good at many things – painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, invention, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history and cartography. His engineering concepts were unfathomable at the time and still carry an air of magic with them today – flying machines, a type of armoured fighting vehicle, concentrated solar power, an adding machine and the double hull. Few were feasible then, but are central to how we live today

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