Top 10 Engineering TV Shows
Phillip Keane posted on June 07, 2017 |
Television shows that pique STEM interests.
Angus MacGyver (Image courtesy of CBS).

Angus MacGyver (Image courtesy of CBS).

How many people do you suppose became engineers because they were inspired by something they saw on television?

Quite a few, I imagine.

Here is a totally unscientific rundown of the top ten TV shows that inspire (or at least entertain) engineers, as voted for by me and also my editors. Some are fairly obvious, some are fairly obscure and most, if not all, are enjoyable, informative or even hilarious.

So settle down, fire up your YouTubes and let’s take a look at the Ten Most Awesome Engineering Shows of All Time Ever!

10. Extreme Engineering (2003-2011)

This narrated series covers such projects as Hong Kong International Airport, Woodrow Wilson Bridge, Oakland Bay Bridge and, just in case you experience bridge-fatigue after 9 seasons, there’s an episode on the M1 Abrams tank. This informative and well-produced series will most likely appeal to civil engineers, architects and project managers.

9. MacGyver (1985-1992)

You probably guessed this one would make the list. You know the plot: Richard Dean Anderson plays the Vietnam vet bomb disposal expert/scientist recruited by a government agency to thwart bad guys by making bombs out of household goods with his ever-present Swiss Army Knife.

MacGyver had such an impact on pop culture that it’s now officially a verb in the English language, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as to “make or repair (an object) in an improvised or inventive way, making use of whatever items are at hand.”

The series was rebooted in 2016, but watching it is like having a booby trapped septic tank explode in your face, so don’t watch it. For a far superior 21st century MacGyver substitute, check out Scorpion.

8. Impossible Engineering (2015-)

Extreme engineering not extreme enough? How about some impossible engineering?

This series, launched on The Science Channel, is pretty much the same format as Extreme Engineering, albiet with much more diverse content. It covers such topics as megastructures, high-speed travel, space exploration, submarines and the Tesla factory.

Both Impossible Engineering and its predecessor are equally well-produced and informative. Take your pick or binge-watch both.

7. Look Around You (2002-2005)

Written by Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz (the latter being the voice of Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace) this satirical series was inspired by Open University STEM educational videos from the 1970s and 80s.

The first series followed a narrated documentary format consisting of nine 10-minute episodes (referred to as “modules”) covering such weighty subjects as “Calcium”, “Maths” and “Ghosts”.

The second series altered the format to an in-studio type program, inspired by earlier BBC series like Tomorrow’s World. The second series features Serafinowicz himself as the host, with cameos from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (before they became megastars), a useless medical robot (MediBot) and the Petticoat 5 (the world’s first computer for women).

6. Top Gear (UK) (1977-)

Started in 1978 as an informative consumer motoring show, Top Gear eventually evolved into a spectacle of comedy, very expensive stunts (the Robin Reliant space shuttle being one of the most memorable) and, unfortunately, racism.

From its humble beginnings in a Birmingham studio, Top Gear rose to become the most widely broadcast factual television program in the world. This was largely due to the chemistry and humor of the 3 main presenters Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond.

Whether you’re a fan of Clarkson or not, you can’t deny his abilities as a writer, evidenced whenever he waxes poetic about the history of motors.

5. What the Victorians Did for Us (2001)

Historian/scientist Adam Hart Davis presents this British documentary series on the social and technical achievements of the Victorian era. The first episode in the series, named “Speed Merchants” covers the Victorian fascination with speed and is the strongest episode in the series.

Adam Hart Davis is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and makes history fun, as he does with his other series (e.g., What the Romans Did For Us, What The Ancients Did for Us). All of his series are great, but from an engineering standpoint, the one which focuses heavily on the Industrial Revolution is most interesting.

4. Modern Marvels (1993-)

Modern Marvels is a general engineering documentary show which started on The History Channel way back in 1993. It’s still releasing new episodes to this day, chalking up over 600 in total. The show covers pretty much anything technological that has an influence in our modern-day world (hence the title).

It’s not particularly heavy on the technical details but dose devote a fair amount of time to the history and development of each episode’s particular subject.

The Helicopters episode is a great example of engineering TV with a historical bent, as is the episode covering the development of The Magnum.

3. Silicon Valley (2014-)

Having worked with quite a few Silicon Valley people (who shall remain nameless), this comedy show from Mike Judge strikes me more as a documentary than a work of fiction. Judge perfectly skewers the BS buzzspeak and wannabe rockstar mentality of the startup set.

The show focuses on a group of software engineers who form a company based on a revolutionary data compression algorithm, following their trials and tribulations as they fall in and out of favor with the fickle VCs and entrepreneurs of the Valley.

All I can say is, check out the show’s TechCrunch Disrupt parody and then go watch it for yourself (Warning: the show contains some very salty language).

This is The Big Bang Theory with way more dirty jokes and much better writing.

2. How It’s Made (2001-)

Bizarre and weirdly soothing, this Canadian series focuses on manufacturing processes, ranging from pork products and Remington rifles to military maps and gasoline (and a whole lot more.)

Each 22-minute episode is complete with a pleasant-sounding narrator, easy listening soundtrack and muted color palette. This series offers an unintentionally stylish and deliberately informative look at manufacturing and process engineering.

1. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)

Inevitably, we come to the number 1 spot, and inevitably it’s Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek has probably inspired more people to become engineers than all the other shows on this list combined.

Aside from being gifted a certain amount of gravitas by the presence of Patrick Stewart alone, Star Trek: TNG gave much more importance to the role of engineers than The Original Series. There were also more memorable engineer characters in TNG: La Forge, Barclay and O’Brien each got their own character-centric episodes (many times).

Another thing TNG has over TOS is that many of the problems encountered by the crew were solved with engineering, rather than by Kirk kicking somebody in the head. Sure, it’s laden with technobabble, but never enough to bog the script down.

Best episode? “The Inner Light” (obviously).

[Editor’s Note: It’s clearly “Chain of Command, Part II”]

Best episode for engineers? “Relics.” 

It’s got La Forge, Scotty and a Dyson Sphere. What more could you ask for?

What are your favorite engineering TV shows? Comment below.

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