15 best British tech inventions ever

26th Feb 2009 | 13:00

15 best British tech inventions ever

...and five of the all-time absolute worst

15 best British tech inventions ever

As the UK slips into its worst recession for 100 years, we think it's time we took stock of the technologies that have advanced our everyday lives and to sing the praises of the inventors who truly put the great into Great Britain.

So fire up your American-designed, Chinese-made MP3 player, crack open another can of East European lager and join us on our journey through 15 of the very, very best British inventions.

And for the cynics among you (whisper it) we're also owning up to some of the worst. Ready?

The 15 best British tech inventions ever

15. The television
The Idiot's Lantern is actually a British invention, dreamed up by Scotsman John Logie Baird in February 1924. The first public demonstration of his semi-mechanical televisor was held at Selfridges a year later, but it wasn't until 1928 that Baird showed off a proper working version. The same year, Baird also began experimenting with colour TV and in 1932 made the first TV broadcast between London and Glasgow.

14. The telephone
Taking existing telegraph tech as his cue, Brit Alexander Graham Bell used his experience working with mute children to come up with the harmonic telegraph - a system that could transmit different tones across wire using multiple reeds. His 'germ of a great invention' was boosted with help from engineer Thomas A. Watson, the pair finally patenting their ideas in the US and the UK in 1875. Bell's telephone patent beat that of American Elisha Gray, whose own device worked on similar principles.

13. The World Wide Web
Where would we be without Tim Berners-Lee? The Oxford University graduate is credited with coming up with the notion of the World Wide Web - "a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information". It's largely thanks to Tim that we have protocols like http:// and, of course, all that wonderfully useful content from Facebook to dodgy porn. It should be obvious, of course, that Tim didn't invent the actual internet, which has been variously attributed to Vincent Cerf and, erm, Al Gore.

12. The train
"In Italy no-one grows up wanting to be a train driver," says car maker Fiat. Well that's only because the Italians didn't invent it. Arguably as British as tea, cricket and binge drinking, the first steam trains appeared in the early 19th Century, but it wasn't until George Stephenson's Rocket arrived in 1829 that the age of the train truly arrived. Evolutionary rather than revolutionary, the Rocket took various experimental pieces of train technology - the multi-tube boiler, the blast pipe and angled cylinders - and stuck them in a design that really worked. The Rocket won its place in British history by becoming the only steam train to complete a 50-mile round trip as part of the Rainhill trials. The Rocket was also responsible for killing Liverpool MP William Huskisson, who was struck by it at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830.

11. The cat's eye
This British invention was dreamed up by Halifax resident Percy Shaw in 1933 as a way to mark out lanes and pavements to traffic travelling at night. The original cat's eye works by holding a pair of glass 'eyes' in a white rubber housing that's laid into the fabric of road - the eyes reflecting light coming from a car's headlamps back at the driver so he can see the road ahead. The original cat's eye is famously robust, the housing dipping down into the road when a car runs over it. A built-in rubber wiper then cleans the glass eyes, help them to shine on into the night.

10. Stereo
So your iPod has two earpieces you say? Well here's why. British scientist and engineering pioneer Alan Blumenlein invented stereo, because he thought the monophonic music of his day lacked realism, patenting the idea in 1933. A lack of interest from his employer EMI forced to him to work on other ideas, which included pioneering work on HDTV broadcasting (1953). Blumenlein also played a major role of in the development of radar during WWII - ironic given his part-German ancestry.

9. Photography
The French would have you believe that they invented photography, thank to a certain Louis Daguerre (1834). However British snappers actually predate him with one, Thomas Wedgewood, creating pictures of insect wings using silver nitrate on leather in 1802. Daguerre was also in competition with William Henry Fox Talbot - the man who invented the Calotype, a negative/positive development process that became the basis for modern photography.

8. The jet engine
There's nothing like a good war to stoke the fires of invention and WWII was brilliant at it. Alongside the bouncing bombs, ballistic missiles and corner shot rifles, the jet engine stands tall. Developed independently (for obvious reasons) by both the British and the Germans, it was arguably Coventry-born Frank Whittle who pioneered the idea first - patenting a practical turbojet in 1930. However it was German Hans von Ohain who got the first jet engine working in 1935, with Whittle following two years later. While both Britain and Germany succeeded in putting jets in test aircraft in the early years of the WWII, it wasn't until 1944 that they first entered production - the Germans with the Messerschmitt Me262 and the British with the Gloster Meteor.

7. The electric motor
You can find electric motors in everything from vacuum cleaners (another British invention) to eco-friendly cars these days, but they owe it all to Michael Faraday, who first came up with the idea in 1821. It was Faraday who first proved the principle of electromagnetism by dipping a magnet into a pool of mercury and then feeding it with electrical current, something that led to electromagnetic rotation motors. Capitalising on his ideas, inventors from Hungary to the US then came up with a variety of practical versions, including Nikola Tesla, who first came up with the AC motor in 1888; and Brit William Sturgeon who invented a DC power plant in 1832. None of these would have been possible if it hadn't been for Faraday. Faraday also pioneered several other inventions including the electric dynamo.

6. The computer
We know what you're thinking: it has to be American, surely? In fact the idea for the first programmable machine was dreamed up in 1812 by London-born boffin Charles Babbage, who dedicated his life to actually building the thing. Thanks to a unfortunate series of personal and financial problems, Babbage never got around to completing his Difference Engine - a feat finally accomplished in 1991, 120 years after his death. The British are also credited with the invention of Colossus, the first electronic mechanical computer. It saw duty at Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes where it helped to crack secret messages sent on Lorenz coding machines used by Nazi high command during WWII.

5. The tank
It was British writer H.G. Wells who heralded the invention of the tank, with his story The Land Ironclads, published in 1903: "It might have been from eighty to a hundred feet long... its vertical side was ten feet high or so, smooth for that height, and then with a complex patterning under the eaves of its flattish turtle cover. This patterning was a close interlacing of port-holes, rifle barrels, and telescope tubes... indistinguishable one from the other." The first real tanks appeared on the Somme in 1916 - monsters invented by the Royal Navy at Sir Winston Churchill's behest - and which took their inspiration from the caterpillar tractors then being used by the US.

4. Radar
Credited with helping to end The Blitz in 1941, Radar was developed by Scotsman Robert Watson-Watt, who proposed that enemy aircraft could be detected by radio waves. The first successful radar test took place near Daventry in 1935 and later that year Watson-Watt was awarded a patent for his discovery. By 1940, 19 Radio Direction Finder (RDF) stations were in place across the UK, with data fed back to a central mapping room - another Watson-Watt idea. This enabled the RAF to scramble fighters in response to incoming enemy planes at the Battle of Britain.

3. The iPod
Facing a lawsuit over the origins of the iPod, iTunes and QuickTime in 2006, Apple turned to British inventor Kane Kramer for part of its defence. Kramer, it turns out, had actually come up with the idea for a portable digital music player - dubbed the IXI - in 1979, and even managed to patent it. Unfortunately Kramer was unable to find funding for his idea, and his patent lapsed in 1988. Commenting on Apple's iPod and the end of the court case, Kramer told the Daily Mail: "I can't even bring myself to buy an iPod... Apple did give me one but it broke down after eight months."

2. The lightbulb
The invention of the lightbulb is normally credited to US inventor Thomas Alva Edison, who patented his discovery in 1879. The problem is he was beaten by a year by British whizz Joseph Swann, who even came up with the idea of a carbon filament bulb some 10 years previously. Swann successfully sued Edison over patent infringement in a British Court; and then in 1883 Edison was stripped of his US patent, because his work was based on that of the prior art of inventor William Sawyer.

1. The industrial revolution
Every school kid knows that it was the British that kick-started the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th Century, without which few of the breakthroughs above would have been possible. The Industrial Revolution effectively turned manufacturing from a labour-intensive process carried out by skilled artisans to a machine-centred process driven by the power of steam. The British, of course, invented the steam engine too.

Five worst British tech inventions ever

And now for 5 of the very, very worst

Every silver lining has its cloud. These are ours...

1. The Advanced Passenger Train (APT)
We might have invented the first one (The Rocket), but we've been making up for it ever since, partly by coming up with the worst rail infrastructure in world and then gifting the British people with the Advanced Passenger Train. The APT itself was pretty clever - thanks to a tilting mechanism and some innovative water turbine brakes. Unfortunately early high profile failures ensured that the project was stillborn at launch as the media feasted on stories of brakes freezing in cold weather, and of complaints of motion sickness. The APT - or Accident Prone Train, as it became known - never entered full service.

2. Digital Audio Broadcasting
DAB was supposed to have wrested us away from our love of analogue radio by boasting numerous advantages - not least of which was the promise of a wider choice of stations and better sound quality. Unfortunately, since it launched in the late 1990s, a huge number of compromises and failures have become apparent: sound quality has been progressively scaled back - even on 'quality' radio stations - to the extent that much of it now sounds worse than analogue; DAB radio still hasn't replaced analogue versions in cars and we've back the wrong horse technologically - we're stuck with vanilla DAB, while the rest of the world is adopting the much better DAB+ standard.

3. The unsinkable ship (Titanic)
OK, so it's a little unfair to include a specific product, but you try telling that to the descendants of the 1,500 people that died on the boat. Conceived and built in Northern Ireland, the unsinkable ship RMS Titanic proved, of course, to be anything but - its sinking in 1912 brought on by a catastrophic combination of complacency, arrogance, bad design and a ruddy great iceberg. Not our finest hour.

4. The Sinclair C5
OK, so here's another one. Sir Clive Sinclair may have arguably brought the world the first pocket calculator (the Executive) and the first mass-market computer (the ZX81), but he was also responsible for 1985's C5 - a disastrous attempt at producing a mass-market electric car. The C5's biggest problems were obvious from the get-go - it was simply too small, too slow, too low and too unreliable to actively use on Britain's roads - something not helped by a complete inability to withstand the British climate. The whole project was heaped with ridicule and, facing commercial disaster, production was abandoned in October 1985.

5. The surveillance society
In February, the House of Lords Constitution Committee argued that Britain was fast becoming a surveillance society - with its citizens under constant threat of having their privacy compromised by the widespread use of CCTV cameras, national ID cards, the national DNA database, as well as on several databases about children. The Committee's conclusion is nothing new: civil liberties and other groups have been banging on about it for years. However the government's actions in the defence of our freedom has now scaled new heights, from plans to use BT to spy on people's email and web traffic to the sharing of information across governmental and non-governmental websites. The British Computer Society said last week that proposals in several new piece of legislation "would permit the restriction - and ultimately the destruction - of the right to personal and corporate data privacy" in this country. That's something none of us should be proud of.


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