Roy Lilley

Alright you anoraks, what do you know about engineering? I don’t mean plugging in the odd bit of extra RAM. I mean real engineering. Making huge things that cross oceans. Things you can drive through. Things that change the course of nations.

If big scale achievements give you goose-bumps and they do me, look no further that Isambard Kingdom Brunel. What a fabulous name. With a name like that you have to do something on a grand scale. This is not the name of a man that makes fairy cakes and drinks white-wine. With that name you have to be famous for doing something gigantic.

Brunel was born in Portsmouth on 9th April, 1806. By 1823 he was at work with his father, building the Thames Tunnel. In 1831, he was appointed chief engineer at the Bristol Docks, and later designed Plymouth, Cardiff, Brentford and Milford Haven Docks. I told you he did, big!

Excited? There’s better to come. What were you doing when you were 27 years old? Earning a living, getting by, doing a half decent job? Brunel was being appointed chief engineer to the Great Western Railway!

His work on the London to Bristol railway-line established Brunel as one of the world’s leading engineers. He built viaducts, introduced broad-gauge railways and tunnelled through two miles of limestone to create the Box Tunnel. He did long as well as big!

Awesome stuff? Of course it is. There’s more. Brunel persuaded the Great Western Railway Company to let him build a Bristol-to-New York steam boat. Called the Great Western, it was 236 feet long, (See, immense!), and made its first voyage, to America, in 1838. The journey took fifteen days and over the next eight years made 60 crossings. He did reliable, too!

The man’s achievements are phenomenal. He went on to build the iron hulled steamship, Great Britain, fitted with a propeller with six blades. Brunel later built the SS Great Eastern. It could carry 4,000 passengers.

Brunel died of a heart attack 15th September, 1859. He’s buried in Kensal Green cemetery, in London, on the Bakerloo Line. The construction of the London Tube system owes a lot to Brunel’s pioneering techniques. Brunel’s work created a revolution in travel and hence, communications. He made the world smaller.

I was thinking we would never see the likes of him again. I was wrong. We are seeing the likes of him, under our very noses. A work of engineering, just as historic, is underway.

We are taking the world’s largest remaining nationalised industry, the nation’s most vital public service and digging it up to lay a rail-track. Whilst over a million people a day use its branches, 8,000 people are ferried in, in a blue light panic and its field staff make 100,000 home visits, a modern day Brunel is at work. Whilst, each day, 2,000 new customers are born and 25,000 people have their lives saved, preserved or improved by a man with a knife, another man is at work on a very big project. And I mean shed-load big.

Richard Granger is at work plugging-in, rolling-out and installing the NHS’s national plan for the management of information by the use of technology. This national jewel that is a pencil and paper swamp is on course to do what any self respecting chip-shop proprietor can do at the touch of a button – figure out what’s going on!

Who’s doing what to whom, how well are they doing it, when are they going to do it and do we want it anymore are questions that we might just be able ask, with a good chance of getting a decent answer. We will have information. We will be well-informed, clued-up and up-to-date.

The word screens used to mean the curtains that got pulled around a bed to obscure the view. Screens are now what we will look into, focussing on the soul of the Service.

The other day I heard a GP moaning that no one had consulted him on what sort of screen he was likely to have on his desk. A nurse commented that no one had mentioned the IT Programme to her. A manager moaned that there was uncertainty about associated training costs.

Gimme strength! History is being made here! Granger’s work will create a revolution in healthcare, information and hence, communications. He’ll make the NHS bigger by making it smaller.

Perhaps only someone old, like me, who has seen debacle, after catastrophe, fiasco after shambles and disaster after disgrace, the history of the NHS’s legendary IT foul-ups, can appreciate what is going on.

The NPfIT is in the Brunel class and to paraphrase US management guru Orison Swett Marden; “Success is not measured by what you accomplish but by the opposition you have encountered on the way!"

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