Lost engineering skills

I was recently discussing energy strategy, and it was pointed out that reopening deep coal mines in the UK is easier said than done because the skills and body of knowledge relating to coal mining have now been practically lost. It's all there in books, but the number of people in the UK below retirement age who still possess such skills and knowledge are very few in number, so experienced people will have to be brought in from foreign countries in order to resurrect British deep coal mining.

This made me wonder what other engineering skills have largely been lost in the UK - or even worldwide - over the past few decades?

Are there any endangered niches where no formal training and education still exists, so anybody who wants to learn such skills has to do so via self study or workshop dabbling unless they personally know somebody with the skills?

Are there any areas of engineering where skills and knowledge are being lost because it's too risky (from a career perspective) for young people to devote too much time to learning them?

  • This happens all the time. In the 1970s my great uncle (a train driver all his life)was brought out of retirement to move a steam train the length of the country to get it to the railway museum, he has been dead for about 40 years now, and  I'm quite  sure all the mechanics from that era are also now long gone.

    In plumbing the ability to make decent wiped joints has gone, and in electricity and electronics all sorts of stuff has gone.

    It is not normally a problem - as the delta mask CRT has followed the horn gramophone into the scrap heap, the knowledge on how to set one up remains for a while as a fading memory, and then is lost. I can design valve amplifiers, but there won't be many much younger than my age group who can, and discrete analogue design of any kind is not a strong topic these days but then no one needs it -  as designs move onto silicon and nothing can be repaired economically, we do not need so many people who actually understand it.

    You do get strange inversions -  have been told that due to interest in re-enactments, there are at least as many if not more makers of chain mail now than there were when it was actually needed ;-)


  • One specific skill that has been largely lost is terminating MICC cable. When I worked for a maintenance contractor, I suspect that I was the only employee able to do this.

    On a more general note, there seems to have been a decline in basic electrical knowledge, as distinct from following regulations. Wiring a conventional two way light switch seems increasingly baffling, and as for switching from more than two locations, forget it.

    There seems to be a general lack of  common sense regarding replacing basic components with slightly different parts. And not high technology or specialist components but generic lamps, ballasts, batteries, and relays. Example- a small central battery emergency lighting unit "could not be repaired" due to a failed relay that was no longer available. This was a common type of heavy duty changeover relay. About £10 from RS.

    I recently met an electrician who believed that fuses do in some way regulate or control the amount of electricity used under normal use. They have fitted one amp fuses to many appliances and are expecting a substantial reduction in consumption.

  • This feels like a symptom of the modern age. When I was younger I took pride in knowing how to do the basics all over the place, under the car bonnet for example, or wiring a plug. These days everyone is discouraged from tinkering, things are sealed, warranties at risk of being voided, and so whole generations have lost the ability or confidence to even be curious.

  • I was a Sirius Minerals investor; I believe I am correct in saying that the company was undertaking staff training which started with the teaching of basic literacy, because their potential work force could not read, write or do basic arithmetic. 

    If you don't know what I am talking about, you should!

  • It has been joked that real plumbers (yes, plumber is a Latin term for a worker of lead) are virtually extinct because lead pipework is rarely used nowadays, and what remains is being replaced - mostly with plastic.

    A delta mask CRT is an electronic Rubik's cube. The people who knew how to set one up were TV factory workers and repairmen more so than electronic engineers. There are still a few vintage TV enthusiasts who know how to set one up in less time than it takes to solve a Rubik's cube, but I'm doubtful that younger people will take an interest in wood cabinet TVs from the 1960s and 70s although there is a small but thriving market for good quality 4:3 CRT TVs from the 1980s and 90s for retro gaming.

    Designing sophisticated circuits around discrete transistors is something that a large number of electronic engineers were adept at in the 1960s and 70s, but it's definitely one of the most prominent lost engineering skills of the past few decades. There is still demand for such skills designing linear and mixed signal ICs. Do many universities in the UK teach this subject effectively?

    These strange inversions are intriguing. I once watched a documentary about flint knapping, where modern day attempts to make replicas of ancient high quality flint tools took so much skill and practice that the conclusion was a toolmaker must have been a full time job. I also read about an engineer who designed and manufactured balance bikes for young children only using materials and techniques available centuries ago, and concluded that they could theoretically have existed in the Roman times and earlier, even if they were just a plaything for children rather than a serious form of transport.

  • I'm not so sure, I tend to think it's just the nature of working in technology - it moves on and develops. So skills moved on from repairing wooden waggons to repairing cars to rechipping cars. I think the curiosity and tinkering is still there, but just as when I was starting engineering in the late 70s mechanical engineers were dismayed that we were curious about electronics rather than mechanics, now it has moved on again to curiosity within a virtual world. 

    I'd also a bit take issue with Mike about steam railway engineering, from what I see of the preservation movement (including mainline running), I'd wouldn't be surprised if there's actually more expertise there now in the UK than there was maybe 30 years ago. (The company I work for, which is a very hard nosed engineering consultancy division, includes a mainline steam loco certification business for the UK.) Similarly with valve audio, it's very much alive and well, and again probably if anything more active than when I left the audio industry in the early 90's - it got a big boost when the iron curtain fell and we had access to eastern European valve plants.

    Personally I think it's very rare that we really lose engineering skills, to the point where it's actually almost impossible to recover them. I believe getting the colours in medieval stained glass is one that was lost (a few hundred years ago). My father's area was the manufacture of coal gas (town gas), there are probably some skills that have been lost there. but I suspect the underlying knowledge is still recorded. Personally I've lost the skill of servicing motor uniselectors but that's good - that was a skill I never wanted in the first place and hope never to need again Slight smile

    And there are positive things those of us with experience can do in these interconnected days. I hang around on a couple of pro-audio forums and give people nudges regarding analogue audio design. But that said, I think they'd probably get there without me, I can just save a bit of time - and occasionally debunk myths about how we used to design things! Audio is a particularly strong field for having a fabled "golden age" of engineering that never really existed - those of us who were in it are often credited with having far more skill and knowledge than we actually had, and sadly many late career / retired engineers don't do as much as they could to dispel that "black art" aura. So I think overall that's my feeling about this, if you genuinely have a "dying" skill that's useful then there's often opportunities now - which didn't exist 30-40 years ago - to support people who want to learn it. But if no-one's interested, maybe it's just time to learn something new. Which can be personally tough admitting that a hard earned skill is maybe not that useful any more. (Which is why I now only do analogue audio design for my own enjoyment, not as a day job. Admittedly it is also much more fun doing it just for myself!)



  • I'm doubtful that younger people will take an interest in wood cabinet TVs from the 1960s and 70s

    One of these days I must show my granddaughters their great-great grandmother's old telly, which sits in the attic. I don't see why it shouldn't still work - it was working when it was inherited.

    In olden days there were television repair men/women who would come round and fix televisions (or take them back to their workshop). Nowadays if you are lucky, somebody might replace a board.

  • One lost skill is the ability for the UK to design and manufacture high speed trains without significant foreign help. The Intercity 225 is a marvel of technology that was built within my own lifetime, but the UK no longer has the ability to design and manufacture such a machine nowadays, so had to rely on companies like Hitachi (which just so happens to have almost vanished from consumer electronics).

    From a viewpoint of many foreigners, it could be argued that the British have some fetish for (or even an obsession with) steam trains. Interest and desire is effective at keeping skills alive.

  • Are you sure you are referring to an electrician?

    I received information from an engineering manager that mains powered equipment was fitted with 1A plug fuses for extra safety whilst failing to realise that the plug fuse protects the mains lead, not the equipment itself. The manager only had O Level education and had almost no further education or training on anything electrical.

  • I believe that there are many engineering professions which are slowly dying with the advent of automation systems and lack of succession planning strategy. Young engineers are having difficulties to cope in regards to existing engineering systems.

    For example, in Kenya they have discovered oil which is a great thing, but lacking the engineering expertise for its extraction, they had to hire the services of foreign experts.