John Porter

Why did I support the Maker Space at the School of Engineering?

A number of events, not least the 150th anniversary of the first Regius Professor at Edinburgh, had set me thinking about the engineering training I had received at Edinburgh and what, with the benefit of hindsight, were the features that were missing.

I had gone straight from an academic school to first year Mechanical Engineering in 1951. Although the school had a technical department, it wasn’t aimed at the high-flyers of whom I, presumably, was one. Professional engineers were gentlemen in business suits, not boiler suits.

During my three years at Edinburgh I had vacation spells in a shipyard and a steelworks but neither gave much hands-on experience. After graduating, and a further degree in naval architecture, I did my spell of ‘practical experience’ as required by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. For many new graduates, fortunate enough to be taken into the well-organised and mentored programmes of the likes of Roll-Royce or W H Allen, this was a useful time. In my case, I chose to join Shell Tankers who were still feeling their way in training the young engineers they needed to operate their ships. They, and other British shipowners had only recently concluded that a shipyard apprenticeship did not necessarily provide all the right qualifications. They arranged for their apprentices to spend only some time in a shipyard together in addition to the more academic training at colleges.

I was sent to the Wallsend Slipway and Engineering Company, a firm with a fine engineering record, but there was no mechanism for ensuring that the inexperienced young men (in every sense) actually had a structured training covering all aspects of the craft skills. This was still the time of union rules and demarcation. Welding, turning, etc were different trades even if they would be of great use to a ship’s engineer at sea. The scheme did not last long before this was realised and all training moved to technical colleges. But I was in the middle of it, trying to learn something in a world that had little interest in me. As a result, I did not feel well-equipped when the time came to go to sea and operate and maintain steamships. I soon came to realise I was not the only one with insufficient knowledge but, perhaps, I was too conscious of my limitations compared to most others. A fully time-served fellow engineer trying to demonstrate how to braze with the aid of a soldering iron soon illustrated my point.

Maker Space is not intended, of course, to be a substitute for workshop training or experience of the shop floor. What I see it offering is an opportunity to stimulate an interest, to give an opportunity to try things out in supportive surroundings, to achieve something. By so doing the necessary confidence will be created to build on the experiences waiting in the wider world outside.

And, perhaps, a little stroke of genius may have the opportunity to flourish.


John Porter B.Sc., (1954). C.Eng., F.I.MarEST.

11th December 2020


John is pictured in the middle of the front row, standing, with the Civil Engineering class of 1954.