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ICONS the BBC series


Who is the greatest icon of them all? BBC viewers vote for their ultimate icon of the 20th Century.

About the programme

ICONS explores the achievements of the greatest figures of the 20th Century, from scientists whose discoveries changed the life of billions and redefined what we know about our world, to the sports stars and explorers who pushed the boundaries of what humankind thought possible. The public will vote for their favourites, ultimately deciding which is the greatest icon of them all.

Icons first broadcasts at 9pm on Tuesday 8th January on BBC Two. Read more about the series and find out about fame, reputation and icons below. Head to the BBC's programme page .

ICONS BBC Episode Still - Lily Cole

Copyright: Anthony Dalton - 72 Films

More icons of sport and engineering

Find out more about some truly iconic and trail-blazing athletes and engineers. 

Jesse Owens sprinting

Three reasons why sports people are worthy icons

Simon Rea outlines three reasons why sports people are important and iconic figures throughout our history. 

Sport has been described by Clare Balding as ‘this great triviality’1, so how can people who run fast, jump high or kick a ball around compare to people who have found a cure for a medical illness, invented the internet or led their country in wartime?

Well, sport has the ability to bring people together in shared experiences unlike few other events. In America eleven of the twenty most watched programmes were sports events (ten of which were Super Bowls), in the UK the 1966 World Cup final is the most watched programme ever and in Germany ten of the eleven most watched programmes are football matches2. Sporting metaphors are everywhere with Prime Minister Theresa May recently comparing her style of leadership as being like Geoff Boycott’s style of batting saying, ‘he got stuck in there and got on with the job’.

There are three main reasons why sports people are worthy icons:

1. Sporting icons have the power to produce political and social change

Jesse Owens jumps to victory

Jesse Owens jumps to victory at the 1936 Olympics, Creative Commons

I got letters from women saying they were afraid to challenge their male bosses at work but when I beat Bobby that day, their lives changed. They demanded raises and better working conditions.4

Let's turn to a true political icon, Nelson Mandela, who said:

"Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair."

Jesse Owens showed this when winning four gold medals in six days, including two world record performances, at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Jesse Owens, a black athlete, ruined Hitler’s attempt to maximise Nazi propaganda and his success was an affront to idea of the superiority of the Aryan race. While Hitler was embarrassed by Owens’ success it did not deviate him from his racial ideology or path towards World War 2. But Owens’ achievements echo throughout history and provide inspiration for many athletes, not least Carl Lewis who repeated his feats at the 1984 Olympic Games.

Another example is Billie Jean-King who, as well as winning thirty-nine Grand Slam titles, campaigned energetically for equal pay for female tennis players. In 1973 King spearheaded the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association after a meeting of 63 female players in London and achieved equality of prize money at the US Open. The other Grand Slam events followed suit even though it took until 2007 for Wimbledon to offer equal prize money for equal achievements. King also was involved in ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match against Bobby Riggs which was watched by 100m viewers and she said that after the victory:

2. Sporting icons are symbolic of the struggle of life and overcoming setbacks

Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph wins the 100 m sprint at the 1960 Olympics. Creative Commons.

Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.5

It is an inconvenient truth that in sport, as in life, there are many more losers than winners. However, sometimes the underdog does win, and people can rise up from the humblest of backgrounds to achieve iconic status. Take the example of Wilma Rudolph. She was an African-American born the 20th of 22 children into poverty in the deep South, she suffered from polio as a child and wore leg irons between the ages of four and nine. In addition she experienced racial intolerance from her fellow Americans. Yet at the age of 20 she won three gold medals in sprint events at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. She also had to fight off the advances of one Cassius Clay in the Olympic Village. She later summed up her philosophy of life saying:

3. Sporting icons represent the peaks of physical achievement

Photograph by Jonathan Bowen, Creative Commons 

Photograph by Jonathan Bowen, Creative Commons 

One of the iconic moments of the 20th Century was Roger Bannister becoming the first athlete to run a sub-four minute mile. This was a great physical and psychological achievement. Scientists were concerned that it was not physically possible and that the body would collapse under the pressure. Bannister’s chance came on May 6th, 1954 when having spent the morning working at a hospital, he raced in the evening just as the wind fell at the Iffley Road track in Oxford. When Bannister’s time of 3:59:4 was announced news quickly spread across Britain and the world of this phenomenal achievement.

Sports people are often to referred to as artists, as sport offers us majestical possibilities of physical style, beauty and grandeur. Bannister had a wonderful flowing style to his running, maybe not stylish to the same extent as Carl Lewis or Florence Griffith-Joyner, but still graceful. In the 1970s the world was mesmerised by the physical perfection in movement as shown by gymnasts Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci as they achieved perfect scores. Equally in watching the flair of Brazilian football teams of 1970 and 1982, the floating style of boxer Muhammed Ali and the breath-taking elegance of Jane Torville and Christopher Dean we see artistry to match that of other 20th Century icons, such as James Joyce, Andy Warhol or Michael Jackson.

When we look back on the 20th Century, sports events and the achievements of sporting icons will be at the forefront of many people’s memories. This is because sport offers so many possibilities for self-expression, achievement, emotional experiences and social change.  While watching and playing sport may not necessarily save lives, it certainly enriches lives by entertaining us and bringing us together to share joyful, dramatic experiences.

Beatrice Shilling

Beatrice Shilling (1909-1990)

Who was Beatrice 'Tilly' Shilling? Professor Carol Morris delves into the life of the gifted engineer. 

As a child I played with Meccano. I spent my pocket money on penknives, an adjustable spanner, a glue pot and other simple hand tools.

It’s quite likely that you are unfamiliar with the name of Beatrice ‘Tilly’ Shilling. Yet she was a remarkable woman who deserves much wider recognition for her achievements, both in her working life and for her love of fast motorbikes and cars.

Beatrice was born in 1909 in Hampshire, UK, the daughter of a butcher. As a child she developed an aptitude for mechanical activities and by the age of 14 had purchased her first motorbike, which she maintained. In an interview with the Woman Engineer magazine she recalled:

Beatrice Shilling on a Norton motorcycle

Beatrice Shilling, RAF Creative Commons

She had decided that she wanted to be an engineer – an extremely unusual occupation for a young woman at that time – and on leaving school in 1926 she worked as an apprentice in an electrical engineering company run by Margaret Partridge. Margaret was a founder member of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and she was eager to encourage more women into engineering roles. Beatrice showed great promise as an electrical engineer and Margaret persuaded her to apply to study at Manchester’s Victoria University. WES also helped Beatrice get her maths knowledge up to the required standard and gave her an interest-free loan for her tuition fees.

Beatrice was one of only two women engineering undergraduates at the University and her student record card referred to her as Mr. Beatrice Shilling! She graduated with an honours degree in Electrical Engineering in 1932 and then studied for another year to gain a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering.  She had made such an impression on the staff when studying for her Master’s that she was taken on as a research assistant for G F Mucklow’s work on single cylinder, supercharged engines.

Engineers working on a Merlin engine

"RAF Merlin engine maintenance" by Adelaide Archivist is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

She then went on to join the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough – initially as a technical writer and later as in an experimental engineering role, before becoming a Senior Technical Officer and a leading specialist in aircraft carburettors. It was in this role that Beatrice solved a problem which had been affecting the Rolls-Royce ‘Merlin’ engines which powered Spitfire and Hurricane fighter aircraft. There was a tendency for the engines to cut out, or stall, when the aircraft was in a dive – putting both the plane and crew in danger. This problem was caused by fuel flooding the carburettor when the plane dived and was experiencing negative gravity. Beatrice’s solution was to insert a diaphragm into the fuel inlet which prevented fuel from surging into the carburettor under temporary negative ‘g’ conditions as the plane dived. The device became known, rather unfortunately, as ‘Miss Shilling’s orifice.’ Her ingenuity undoubtedly helped the Royal Airforce win aerial battles with the Luftwaffe, but she was never promoted to a higher grade at the RAE, perhaps reflecting the attitudes of the time.

Her idea of relaxation was to drive a fast car at full throttle, and if the car was not fast enough, her workbench was there in the back room to machine new parts to make them faster.

But it wasn’t all work for Beatrice - at university she had joined the motorcycle club and taken up racing. After graduation she started racing at the Brooklands circuit in Surrey, which was the world’s first motor-racing circuit. Beatrice owned a Norton motorcycle which she had modified, no doubt using knowledge from her earlier work on supercharged engines! In August 1934 she became the second woman to be awarded a Brookland’s Gold Star for lapping the track at 100 miles per hour. She later became the fastest female racer ever at Brookland’s with a lap speed of 106 mph. It’s rumoured that she refused to marry George Naylor, a mathematician she’d met at the RAE, until he too had achieved a Brookland’s Gold Star!

Beatrice’s work was recognised by the award of an OBE in 1947 and she continued to work at the RAE until her retirement in the 1969. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Surrey in 1970.

In her retirement she continued to race cars with George and according to her biographer, Matthew Freudenberg1.

There’s no doubt that Beatrice Shilling was an incredible woman and a gifted engineer who provides inspiration today.

Meet the OU experts

Dr Richard JonesLecturer in English LiteratureVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Richard JonesLecturer in English Literature

Richard's research background is in English Literature – in particular, the print culture of the eighteenth century and the work of the Scottish writer Tobias Smollett. He is particularly interested in the relationship between critical and creative writing, including the writing of history. His interests in philosophy and theory sometimes take shape as a blog, aimed at a general reader – and he has also published a couple of short stories for children. Richard is currently chairing the production of a new, introductory module in the study of the arts and humanities: A111 Discovering the arts and humanities. The module will present for the first time in October 2019 and will become the starting point for all undergraduate qualifications in the arts and humanities at the OU.

Dr Luc-Andre BrunetLecturer in Twentieth Century European History - School of Arts & Humanities HistoryVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Luc-Andre BrunetLecturer in Twentieth Century European History - School of Arts & Humanities History

Luc-André's research deals with the international history of the twentieth century. He has published especially on the Second World War, the Cold War, and European integration, with a focus on Western Europe and North America. His current research project deals with Vichy France’s relations with the British Commonwealth during the Second World War, which has involved research in South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as Europe. Luc-André chairs the OU's third-year history course on Europe from 1914-1989. He also contributed material to a second-year OU course on the UK from 1789-1914, particularly on Britain in the early twentieth century, focusing on the women’s suffrage movement, Irish home rule, and the rise of the Labour Party. 

Simon Rea, Senior Lecturer on the Sport and Fitness
Simon Reasenior Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, Open Media FellowVIEW FULL PROFILE
Simon Rea, Senior Lecturer on the Sport and Fitness
Simon Reasenior Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, Open Media Fellow

Simon's research interests lie within applied sports science. His specialist areas are strength and conditioning and nutrition for sports performance. He is currently researching methods of assessment and how to provide effective feedback to students that actually improves their learning. Simon is author of 14 Sports Science text books across 17 years and he has been involved in the development of all modules in the sport and fitness award at the OU.  

Professor Carol MorrisProfessor of Engineering Education - School of Engineering & InnovationVIEW FULL PROFILE
Professor Carol MorrisProfessor of Engineering Education - School of Engineering & Innovation

Carol's scholarship interests are in three key areas; assessment for learning, inclusive engineering education and Women in Engineering. She is particularly interested in how women perceive engineering as a career and much of her research and scholarship revolves around gender. She is also an Associate Editor of the International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology. Carol is actively involved in teaching engineering to first year students and is currently a member of several module teams. ​

Dr Neil Smith, Senior Lecturer in Computing
Dr Neil SmithSenior Lecturer in Computing - School of Computing & CommunicationsVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Neil Smith, Senior Lecturer in Computing
Dr Neil SmithSenior Lecturer in Computing - School of Computing & Communications

Neil has two strands of research: artificial intelligence and computing education. He has applied AI techniques to areas such as getting computers to automatically make better models of the physical world, the evolution of large software systems, and whether the Beatles are better than the Rolling Stones. He is currently investigating ways of teaching computing more effectively, in schools, in universities, and teaching teachers to teach computing. Neil has been involved in the production of several online courses aimed at teachers, to innovate their practice, and recently introduced initiatives with OU undergraduates to develop their programming skills.

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