What's an egg race got to do with inventing?

Wallace and Gromit in space rocket; Heinz Wolff on bike Wallace and Gromit have picked up where Heinz Wolff left off

As the BBC re-releases episodes of its cult show The Great Egg Race, what is it that cobbled-together contraptions tell us about the art of inventing?

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Wallace and Gromit with cheese
  • Wallace and Gromit's World of Invention starts on BBC One, Wednesday 3 November at 1930 BST
  • There's a competition to build a clever contraption - perhaps to move Gromit from A to B
  • Sound familiar? It's like The Great Egg Race, newly digitised on the BBC Archive

Mad hair. Perhaps a lab coat. Or questionable knitwear. Few inventors fit this stereotype, just as few inventions are flights of fancy worthy of Heath Robinson.

Not that there's anything wrong with an elaborate contraption bristling with cogs, pulleys and water clocks, that boils a kettle while simultaneously tipping its owner out of bed and straight into a natty vest/corduroys combo.

But often the best inventions come about because an ordinary person has a problem that needs solving.

It's this spirit which infuses cult TV classic The Great Egg Race - newly digitised from the BBC archives - in which teams built eggmobiles or automatic tea-making machines, all from everyday tools and materials.

The DIY science show, which ran from 1979-1986, was hosted by Professor Heinz Wolff, all wild hair, bow tie and German accent - the very image of an eccentric inventor, and deliberately so, says co-judge Professor Ian Fells.

"I asked him once why he played it up, and he said 'if I have to appear as a clown to make people listen to what I'm saying about science, so be it'."

Professor Heinz Wolff with breakfast contraption Heinz Wolff - now 82 - in his Egg Race days

But why Egg Race? At first entrants built rubber band-powered eggmobiles. But as its popularity grew, keen amateurs were effectively forced out by companies keen to showcase their engineering skills on primetime TV.

"It became immensely competitive - Rolls Royce, for example, put two people onto it fulltime," says Professor Fells. "So we had to change it."

The challenges diversified but, by and large, the competitors were cut from similar cloth - quiet, serious men with elaborate facial hair and double denim. This gender imbalance so annoyed Professor Fells' wife Hazel that she applied under her maiden name.

Her crack all-female team - thought to be the only one in Egg Race history - comprised a technology and design teacher, a "very practical housewife", and she herself worked in computing at Newcastle University.

"We scored 85% for our engineering," she recalls fondly of their challenge to build a contraption to ferry bike parts off a desert island, to reassemble said bike, and ride it around the studio.

Why build an eggmobile?

"We all hear enough about the need to conserve and the need to use the energy we have more efficiently.

So here is one simple source of energy - a rubber band - and let's see how we can get the maximum output from it. One way of illustrating this particular challenge is to build an eggmobile - a machine to get a 70g egg the farthest distance along a track using only one rubber band as a power source.

Why an egg? It's a very simple payload, but also a very fragile one. So the whole business of moving it demands very careful thought."

From The Great Egg Race, 1979

"The workshop was set up as if it was your kitchen, garage or shed at home. That's how it was in those days - if something broke, you didn't get a man in to fix it, you did it yourself," says Hazel Fells.

The show's celebration of homespun inventiveness is acknowledged by one of Britain's greatest living inventors, Sir James Dyson. It started just before he began work on his vacuum cleaner.

"I certainly identified with it. Ideas are less likely to come from eureka moments than experimentation," he tells the BBC News website.

"As children we naturally experiment: whether it's through play, building a den or pulling things apart. At that age we're not bound by a right way of doing things because we don't know what that is yet. So we try and figure things out by being creative."

Another competitor on the show, Malcolm Thomas, who took part in the tea machine episode, says the appeal was to put one's practical skills to inventive use.

"I was working in engineering, and another team member was always stripping down motorbikes and putting them back together.

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"Our machine involved a ball bearing setting off all the stages of tea making. As it rolled down a wooden track, a tea bag was lowered in and out of the water."

It's just such a contraption that might appeal to Wallace and Gromit, says Merlin Crossingham, creative director at Aardman, whose job involves dreaming up the duo's inventions.

"Wallace often invents things to make his life easier and more modern. The root of a lot of inventing is laziness."

The claymation pair front a new BBC TV series and competition to encourage budding inventors young and old to design and build their most inventive contraption, made entirely from household objects.

It's apt that Wallace and Gromit have picked up Heinz Wolff's DIY inventor baton, not least because Aardman devised the Egg Race's opening sequence of an egg on a rollercoaster made of kitchen utensils.

Crossingham, too, remembers putting the Egg Race's make-do-and-mend principles into practice.

"I was always making things as a child. If I wanted to do a jump on my bike, I'd race off to find some wood and make a ramp. Invention is a very official term but what it's about is curiosity."

His top tip for inventors, amateur or otherwise?

"Record every idea - draw it or write notes. You never know when some stupid thought might turn to gold. The best inventions make you smack you head and think 'why did no-one else think of that, it's so obvious' - but it's not obvious, someone's spent time thinking about it."

Below is a selection of your comments

My partner is an engineer and likes to play around with bits and bobs in his spare time. His job could be classed as inventing - he builds test equipment for people doing scientific research, so has to design something new for a particular purpose. He's not the only one in the house who likes to solve problems and make new things - when I was at school, I took part in a competition where we had to build something that could protect an egg dropped from the roof. To win, the egg had to spend the most time in the air before hitting the ground as well as remaining intact. It was great fun and sounds much like the Great Egg Race. Neither of us wears double denim, thankfully, although I own a lab coat and my partner does have some rather good facial hair.

Gemma, Reading

Just a few weeks ago I was very pleased to actually meet Prof Heinz Wolff, and found him just as enthusiastic about science as he was then. I have very fond memories of watching TGER. I did my best not to miss a single show, no matter what the subject matter. The BBC should bring back the Great Egg Race - one version for adults and one for schools. Pupils in particular would benefit - taking part or just watching - and it would be a great way to inspire interest in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics).

Jerry Stone, Welwyn, UK

Our school holds an annual egg race and this year's race is on Friday. Students compete in teams to build strange contraptions from plastic cups and wooden sticks. There's even a staff team that manages to get disqualified every year. It is hosted by the science departments and a little help from DT.

L McCartan, York, North Yorkshire

As an design engineer (inevitably inspired by this programme) I find the difficult part of inventing is not the ideas themselves but finding people with the problems and budgets that need them solving.

Steve Manton, Stockport

As a competitor in the "When the petrol runs out" episode, Egg Race was a shining example of the ingenuity and inventiveness that lies deep within everybody. When the klaxon sounded and the cars drove in, I admit my heart sank. But within 24 hours, three teams had produced three completely different cars that could be driven without petrol, carry three adults, and could be lifted over a one-metre-high wall. Had we been told what we were expected to do before, we might have said it was impossible. Completing the task in front of TV cameras proved "necessity is the mother of invention".

Jon Davison, London

Fact is always stranger and more interesting than fiction. The specification for the Citroen 2CV - used in the petrol runs out episode - included carrying 4 farm workers and a basket of eggs across a ploughed field.

Paul Gill, England

It is necessary to be somewhat underemployed if you want to do something significant - James Watson. American scientist.

Elwin Tennant, Halstead, Essex

I completely agree with Merlin Crossingham that the mother of invention is often laziness, or as I prefer to think of it, energy efficiency. Whenever I'm faced with a repetitive task, I always look to see how it can be automated. Time is one of the most precious resources we have, so the less we waste doing the same thing over and over again, the more we have to do the things we enjoy.

Stuart Green, Croydon, England

Thank you BBC for digitising this wonderful programme. I cannot wait to get home and watch this great show; it may make my wife's eyes roll, but it will be my great guilty pleasure

Stewart, London

It was a brilliant TV series (its modern successor of course being Scrapheap Challenge) and I remember watching it with my Dad. A few years later we were both Scout leaders and used to use the Egg Race template to get the scouts to solve problems and build strange machines. Everyone loved it and it really encouraged their creative thinking, teamwork and problem solving.

Stuart, Northampton

I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that men/women in sheds are the future. I read last week (and do hope it's true) that 80% of useful patents taken out are submitted by non-scientists. So don't moan about the state of things - get in your shed and make something useful - or in my case make something ridiculous.

Bernie, Harrogate, UK

About 20 years ago my brother told me that if you want to find the easiest or fastest way to do something, don't give the job to the hardest worker in your team. Give it to the laziest. They will find every shortcut. I have found this to be true. So inventors are hard-working but lazy people?

Hadenough, Grimsby

Hadenough, perhaps we're looking at this the wrong way. Maybe laziness is simply a side effect of intelligence - surely only a fool would work hard if they knew they didn't have to?

Rawlyn Watson, Truro, UK

It's the making of things (and drawing ideas) that develops into an invention, rather than the moment of inspiration. But the Great Egg Race was a great inspiration to get out (into the shed?) and get tinkering. My brothers, electrical engineers, used to tell me that an engineer is someone who will go to extraordinary lengths to make life easier. These days it's the programmer or software engineer.

David, Durham, UK

I remember watching this as a child and being mesmerised by the fantastic inventions. There was something truly great about being able to see the creativity possible with objects which were familiar to me. The Great Egg Race would be a big hit if it returned and was able to keep its simple charm. It could perhaps go a long way to enthusing a new generation to get involved in science and who knows it could contribute to our next great young inventor finding his calling in life.

Stephen, Belfast, Northern Ireland

This reminds me of a joke about two lazy men who lie in bed all day and only come out to have something to eat. One day one says to the other he has thought of inventing a series of pipes which will deliver food to them while in bed and so save them from the one effort they cannot at the moment avoid. To which the other replied: I had thought about it but I was too lazy to tell you.

David , London

I just loved The Great Egg Race, I used to rush home from school to catch it on BBC Two. It was a unique formula of quirkiness, ingenuity, and challenge, which I doubt can be replicated. For all geeks who enjoy a challenging task, this was *the* programme.

Fai Lee, Beckenham

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