Britain vs the US: Who is the real tech titan?

1st Nov 2009 | 12:00

Britain vs the US: Who is the real tech titan?

Much of the technology we assume is American really isn't

The computer and personal computer

The Americans are sometimes quick to take credit for other people's work. For example, if you believe what you see in Hollywood films, the US invented the Enigma machine that changed the course of World War II.

The truth is that much of the technology we assume is American really isn't, and many US inventions wouldn't have been possible without foreign innovation.

But who is the real titan? Is the US the land of the future, or does Britannia rule the microwaves? There's only one way to find out: fight!

The computer

Had Charles Babbage ever built his Analytical Engine, the UK would be the clear winner in this field. He designed the forerunner of today's machines, the first programmable computer, back in 1837.

However, it wasn't until the 1930s that his work turned into real machines when Harvard's Howard Aiken took inspiration from Babbage and developed the Harvard Mark I.

Harvard mki

MIT had created the Differential Analyzer – an analogue calculator – a few years earlier, but as it wasn't a general-purpose machine – its skills started and ended with arithmetic – we'd give the Harvard Mark I the credit for being the first general purpose computer.

Then again, if it weren't for us Brits we'd still be using computers to do pretty simple things. Alan Turing, a Cambridge academic, wrote a seminal paper in 1936 ('On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem') that set out the concepts of a universal computing machine.

On balance, then, we'll call this one a draw: the Americans may have done the building work, but the British were the architects. The digital computer was definitely a British invention, though: Colossus, the code-breaking computer at Bletchley Park, went into service in 1943, and it would be another three years before the US equivalent – ENIAC – was powered up.

Bletchley park

The personal computer

This field is a USA victory all the way. William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, started Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories in 1956. A year later, his top people jumped ship to form Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation.

Fairchild and Texas Instruments were the Intel and AMD of their day – indeed, Intel was headed by former Fairchild inventor Robert Noyce. Intel invented the microprocessor and started selling it to all comers in 1971, and by the early 1970s hobbyists were happily banging together computers in their garages.

America didn't invent the microcomputer – French firm R2E developed the Micral, the first off-the-shelf model in 1972 – but US firm Micro Instrumentation Telemetry System (MITS) popularised it with the Altair.

The Altair led to a hobby group called the Homebrew Computer Club that boasted members including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. These two Steves went on to form Apple, the company that created the consumer computing market.

This sector would eventually be dominated by copies and descendents of IBM's 1981 PC. Operating systems and software Programming languages to control computers were largely US inventions (FORTRAN came from IBM, COBOL from the team headed by US mathematician Grace Hopper and ALGOL – the forerunner to Pascal – was a transatlantic effort).

The first widely used operating system, OS/360, was another IBM effort. The first desktop operating system was also American: CP/M, which ran on early Intel based machines, was the creation of Gary Kildall from Digital Research. The operating system that would eventually supplant it – MS-DOS – was created in Seattle by Tim Paterson.

America can claim the graphical user interface too. The Apple Lisa (1982) took the work of Xerox PARC and brought it to the mass market. Users controlled their Lisas using another US invention: the mouse (which was invented in 1968 by Doug Englebart of Stanford Research Institute).

Many of the applications we take for granted are also American ideas. The first word processor, Electric Pencil, was the creation of American software developer Michael Shrayer; the first PC spreadsheet, VisiCalc, was created by Philadelphia's Dan Bricklin; and the first commercial web browser, Mosaic, came from the US National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA).

Even though the US didn't invent the web that Mosaic ended up browsing, it did invent the technologies that made it accessible.

The internet, smartphones and iPods

Networks and the internet

The computer network is an American invention: George Stiblitz at Bell Laboratories spent the period from 1940 to 1946 developing the first machines to support multiple users and work remotely via telephone lines.

The ultimate network – the internet – was largely a US creation too, driven by the US Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The first ARPANET link was between the University of California and the Stanford Research Institute, and this tech became the core of the internet.

The protocol for internet communication, TCP/IP, came from Robert Kahn of DARPA and Vint Cerf of Stanford University, and the move from closed, separate networks to connected inter-networks was driven by the US military and government agencies.

However, without the World Wide Web, the internet would almost certainly have remained a tool for boffins and geeks, so Briton Tim Berners-Lee is almost entirely responsible for the internet becoming an everyday technology.

He came up with Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML), Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) and Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP).

The British can't claim credit for the internet's other killer app, however: email was invented by New Yorker Ray Tomlinson on the ARPANET system.

Smartphones, iPods and peripherals

The British invented the telephone – sort of – but the mobile phone was a US invention. Mobile phone cells were proposed by Bell Labs engineers in 1947, while AT&T Labs researchers Richard H Frenkiel and Joel S Engel developed the technology to build such cells in the '60s.

Britain can take credit for the iPhone, though: Jonathan Ive, who designs many of Apple's products, originally hails from Chingford – and that means we can claim the iPod too. In fact, the UK can claim all digital music players: British inventor Kane Kramer filed patents for his digital audio player in 1979 and was showing it off at exhibitions in 1986.

Digital music player design

However, while the British invented TV (John Logie Baird created the first working television system in 1924) the Americans can justifiably claim to have invented both the computer monitor (Allen B Du Mont's work at the De Forest Radio Company in New Jersey led to the first commercial CRT tubes) and the flatscreen display (George Heilmeier, who developed the first practical LCD display).

As Vice President of Texas Instruments in the 1980s, Heilmeier also played a part in the invention of the Digital Signal Processor (DSP), which you'll find in music players, mobile phones, home entertainment kit and medical equipment.

And the winner is…

Who is the real tech titan? By any reasonable judgement, it has to be the US. From the computer to the iPod the British may have come up with some bright ideas, but it was the inspiration and perspiration of American engineers that made those ideas into the products we actually use every day.

But before our transatlantic cousins jump up and down to do that 'USA! USA!' thing that they're so fond of, it's worth mentioning one other thing Britain came up with: America.

We didn't build it, but if it weren't for the arrogant and unreasonable behaviour of the British when we ran the place, there would have been no Declaration of Independence, no US Constitution (which was inspired in part by the Mayflower Compact, a set of rules drawn up in 1620 by British settlers) and no Bill of Rights, the documents that inform the can-do attitude that typifies the USA.

Let's face it: without the British to kick against, there would be no United States of America, and we very much doubt that the US would be the technology giant it is today.

So while it wasn't exactly deliberate, that means that every single high-tech innovation is traceable back to us. Don't believe us? Just look at some other parts of the world.

The Americans kicked us out, became the United States and invented almost everything. The Belgians didn't. And what have they come up with lately?


First published in PC Plus Issue 287

Liked this? Then check out Why computers suck at maths

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