Professor Heinz Wolff

Professor Heinz Wolff, who passed away on 15 December 2017. Photo by P.G. Champion

Have you ever thought “If it wasn’t for that person, I wouldn’t be here doing this now”?

There are many people in our lives who probably fit this description, but for me, and for the makers, scientists, and engineers in the UK who recently gave their own tributes, Professor Heinz Wolff, who died in December aged 89, was a huge influence.

Professor Heinz Wolff was a scientist, an inventor, an academic, and a television personality – he was best known for hosting BBC Two’s The Great Egg Race from 1977 until 1986. He made being inquisitive, clever and enthusiastic, and even being a geek – cool. This was back before the internet, when my main role models were from the TV or magazines.

In The Great Egg Race, teams of three were asked to “perform miracles in science and technology using the sort of materials which you would find in your household or in your garage”. This ranged from moving an egg, powered only by an elastic band, to making a cup of tea. Professor Heinz Wolff had a natural sense of fun, and, through his enthusiasm, he managed to share the enjoyment he found in engineering.

I believe The Great Egg Race was the first programme on TV that highlighted making things using creativity and imagination. To me, this helped make being a Maker become acceptable. People building things in their own homes and sheds. Inventing, designing, and making was not just for academics or big industry. The Great Egg Race led to other technology shows, such as Scrap Heap Challenge and Robot Wars.

Professor Heinz Wolff thought it was very important for people to be able to use their hands – in a lecture he gave, when awarded the Edinburgh medal, he said:

“Let me tell you an anecdote about my two sons – from the age of three, each had a work bench that I had made, that had telescopic legs, so that as the children grew, the workbenches grew with them. They were furnished with proper adult tools, which gave rise to comments amongst concerned relations about how dangerous this could be, however, my reply always was ‘even a three year old will stop sawing before the finger fell right off’.”

If the measure of your life is how you positively affected the lives of others, Professor Heinz Wolff absolutely lived life to the full.

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