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Trevithick author accuses BBC of 'bad history'

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: January 29, 2013

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Young engineers will have been "corrupted for life" by the BBC's misleading portrayal of inventor James Watt in the debut programme of its series on scientific breakthroughs.

Philip Hosken, chairman of the Trevithick Society – which celebrates the life and work of Richard Trevithick – has accused programme makers of overlooking the huge contribution made to mankind by the Cornish engineer.

Mr Hosken said he believed the opening show, presented by Dr Michael Mosley, had "set the understanding of industrial power back a generation or more".

Author of The Oblivion Of Trevithick, which aims to set the record straight, Mr Hosken said: "While it is likely that the next programme in this series, on transport, will highlight the contribution made by Trevithick's invention of the high-pressure steam engine, its omission as the power that drove industry for a century is unforgivable.

"The BBC has a heavy responsibility in these cases because the first programme in the series enforced years of mistaken attribution. To have leapt from the work of Newcomen and Watt directly to Parson's steam turbine is akin to writing the history of aviation and jumping from balloon flight to the gas turbine, omitting the contribution made by the internal combustion engine."

Trevithick developed the world's first successful self-propelled road vehicle in 1801. Three years later he pioneered the world's first railway journey. Despite this, he has never been widely acknowledged.

"The fact is that the 'missing years' in the history of steam engineering endeavour are those between the conclusion of James Watt's extended patent on the steam engine in 1800 and the dawn of the Railway Age in 1830," said Mr Hosken. "During this vital time there was feverish activity in the production of steam engines as industrialists demanded the new, more efficient, compact, high-pressure engines and manufacturers rushed to supply them.

"In all this excitement, few historians accurately recorded how the new technology had emerged. The history of steam engineering has therefore been left with a gap that has been filled by crediting James Watt with something he did not do and subsequent engineers with having invented the engines they merely built."

The BBC did not wish to comment.

Genius Of Invention is on BBC2 this Thursday at 9pm.

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  • letigre  |  January 29 2013, 1:14PM

    I have this recorded and am determined to watch it, but I've been putting it off for this very reason. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise to any engineers who generally avoid 'science' shows on the beeb. The best engineering program I've seen on the BBC for a few years is without a doubt Cbeebies 'Nina and the neurons, let's go engineering'. Says it all really.