A few weeks ago Marty Jopson found himself at Elvington Airfield, mastering the art of staying upright on a skateboard propelled by compressed air. “I was trying to demonstrate the principles of the jet engine,” says the science presenter by way of explanation. “Amazingly I survived unscathed.”
Jopson’s efforts will be seen later this week as part of the BBC’s Invented England season. In all there will be 11 regional documentaries celebrating the country’s spirit of invention and in Yorkshire, Jopson’s mission was to showcase the county’s contribution to aviation history.
“Ask people who were the early pioneers of aviation and they will struggle to name anyone apart from the Wright Brothers,” he says. “But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that this region has contributed a fairly chunk chapter to the early history of flight. The first jet engine tests took place in 1941 just across the border in Lincolnshire and 150 years earlier men like Sir George Cayley were taking the very first steps into manned flights.”
Cayley is often credited with being one of the first to understand the underlying principles of flight and many of his early experiments took place in the hallway of his home, the grand Brompton Hall estate, near Scarborough.
“He was one of those members of the landed gentry who wanted to use his money to advance science,” says Jopson. “Needing some height he used the staircase in the hallway to discover how force and resistance affected how the wings of planes and gliders. His old pile is now a school, but the staircase is still there and a few weeks ago we went back and rebuilt the winding arm he used and it still did the job.
“By 1853, Cayley’s prototype glider was ready and again he tested it close to his home. He was 79 years old by then and funnily enough he didn’t fancy piloting it himself. Instead he persuaded his groom and while the two things may or may not be connected, after a pretty sore crash landed, the groom handed in his notice shortly afterwards.”
From those early days, Yorkshire has continued to play a part in the development of aviation with companies like Rotherham-based Martek Marine now at the forefront of drone technology.
“We went from unmanned to manned flights and now with drones we have almost gone full circle,” says Jopson. “Martek has recently won a big contract to monitor the water pollution caused by giant supertankers and it’s fascinating stuff.
“They are supposed to use fuel which is low in sulphur. However, while it might be better for the environment, it’s also more expensive than traditional fuel and the authorities know that some commercial ships swap to cheaper versions when they are in the middle of the ocean and harder to monitor. Martek’s drones can be flown into middle of the ocean and sample the fumes being emitted from these vessels remotely.”
Leeds-based Jopson is a prop-designer by trade and says his curiosity was sparked as a child by his grandfather. “He gave me a set of Reader’s Digest encyclopaedias and I spent hours reading those lovely glossy pages. Even as a kid I wanted to know how things worked.”
As well as his TV work, Jopson has also created a number of live shows aimed at switching children onto science.
“I actually think science is taught pretty well in schools, but teachers are often time poor and I guess that’s where my shows fit in. The age of invention where enthusiastic amateurs were responsible for major leaps forward may have gone, but it’s still true that if you want youngsters to grow up wanting to be engineers and scientists you need to catch them young.”
Invented in the North, BBC1, Friday, 7.30pm.