The Top 10 British Inventions

As part of our manufacturing series of blogs, we would like to commemorate the key role that Britain played in creating significant inventions, such as the telephone, the TV and the jet engine. Magma Digital feel this is important, as tellingly, little over half of UK consumers know that the jet engine is a British invention (consumer research conducted on behalf of EEF by YouGov in April 2014; total sample size: 2284 adults).

This is a key indicator for the disappointing lack of awareness of what British manufacturing prowess has contributed to the world. Only half of consumers think that Britain is good at both inventing and manufacturing. If this is the prevailing discourse in the media then it shouldn’t be surprising that few youngsters in this day and age are aspiring towards a career in the industry. We hope this top 10 feature can in some small way help spread the good word!

Top 10 British Inventions, as voted for by the British public

Top Ten “Best” British Inventions (EEF survey, Yougov, 2014)

1. Communication technology changed forever when Scottish born Alexander Graham Bell made the first ever telephone call in 1876.

2. It’s difficult to pinpoint the invention of the television to just one person, but it’s indisputable that John Logie Baird was the first to transmit moving pictures and he is regarded as a television pioneer. In October 1925, he transmitted a greyscale image and in 1928, he broadcast the first transatlantic television signal, between London and New York.

3. The invention of the jet engine in the 1930s revolutionised air travel. Coventry born Frank Whittle’s innovative jet engine design triggered the step forward from propellor-powered planes, facilitating flying at higher altitudes and increased velocity.

4. Thomas Savery, from Devon, patented the first steam engine in 1698 and is famous for inventing the first commercially used steam powered engine.

5. British inventor Joseph Wilson Swan demonstrated a light bulb at a lecture in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1878. Swan was awarded a light bulb patent in 1880, the year in which his house in Gateshead, England became the first house in the world lit by a light bulb.

6. Michael Faraday of the Royal Institute invented the world’s first electric motor in 1821.

7. Cat’s eyes were conceived by Percy Shaw one gloomy night in 1933. While struggling to drive, he noticed two points of light. The headlights had caught the eyes of a cat. Percy saw great potential in improving road safety if he could create a reflecting device that could be fitted to roads to mimic cat’s eyes. After many trials Percy took out patents on his invention in April 1934.

8. Kirkpatrick Macmillan was a Scottish blacksmith who is credited with the invention of the pedal bicycle.

9. John Shepherd-Barron was soaking in a bath one night in 1965 pondering how one could obtain money outside of banking hours. The idea of a cash dispenser system formed and after a productive meeting with Barclays, the first ATM machine was installed outside a branch in North London in 1967. (Fun fact: apparently we all use 4 digit PINs as Barron claimed that his wife could only remember a maximum of 4 digits!)

10. Alexander Wood was a Scottish doctor who co-invented the first hypodermic syringe with the French veterinary surgeon, Charles Gabriel Pravaz, in 1853. Inspired by the sting of a honeybee, Wood’s innovation was to combine a syringe and a hollow needle, allowing a means of penetrating the skin without having to cut the skin first.

British writer Aldous Huxley said “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” If there is to be a new era of British-led innovation then understanding and learning from our history is a key step in the process. As the prominent philosopher Confucius once said “Study the past if you would define the future.”

Stay tuned for the next blog in the series on British manufacturing, which will be looking at current trends in the industry.

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