Great British Inventions


Recent claims suggest that it was an Englishman who invented this quintessentially French drink. Self-taught West Country scientist Christopher Merrett (born in 1614) used his knowledge of cider-making to devise two techniques fundamental to making Champagne more than 30 years before the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon, who was previously credited with the invention.

The first telephone call may have been made in Boston in 1876, but it was Edinburgh-born Alexander Bell who made the call. Largely self-taught, he began to investigate the idea of transmitting sounds by electricity at a young age. He filed for his patent in 1876, two hours before a rival claim from Ohio inventor Elisha Gray.

Prolific inventor Alexander Parkes took out 46 patents during his career, but he’s best remembered for his work with plastic. Although not the first to develop a plastic substance, he was the first to demonstrate its qualities outside of the scientific community. He displayed the material, which he called Parkesine, at the International Exhibition in London in 1862, and his company laid the foundations of the plastics industry.

Stainless steel
Many nationalities, including Germany, France, Poland, the US and Sweden, played their part in the development of this invention. The cogs were set in motion in 1821, but it wasn’t until 1913 that Sheffield’s Harry Brearley discovered that adding chromium to molten iron produced a metal that didn’t rust.

Recommended videos for you

The jet engine
Two men take equal glory for this world-changing invention: Germany’s Dr Hans Von Ohain and Britain’s very own Sir Frank Whittle. Whittle was the first to register a patent for the turbojet engine in 1930; Ohain’s was registered in 1936. The men came to the same conclusions with no knowledge of the other’s work. They met for the first time in 1978.

The lawnmower
British engineer Edwin Beard Budding from Stroud invented the first lawnmower in 1827, and patented it in 1930. He took his inspiration from a machine in a local cloth mill and deduced that a similar tool would be effective in trimming grass.

Scot John Logie Baird struggled financially during his early years, and his first television sets were made of biscuit tins and other bits and pieces. Although his mechanical method was rapidly eclipsed by the electronic version, he successfully transmitted the first picture of the head of a ventriloquist’s dummy in 1925.

The means of detecting aircraft by radio waves provided a vital service in the Second World War particularly in the Battle of Britain as it meant that the relatively small Air Force could be directed to the most strategic places. The Germans were attempting similar work, but Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, who was the Superintendent of the Radio Research Laboratory in Britain, filed for a patent in September 1935.

The pneumatic tyre
Veterinary surgeon John Boyd Dunlop’s invention of the pneumatic tyre is often called a re-invention, because the now-forgotten Robert William Thomson patented something similar 43 years before. In 1888, when Dunlop came upon the idea of strapping garden hose (originally filled with water) to the tyres of his young son’s tricycle, the world had caught up and motor cars had started to arrive. Dunlop founded the company that later became the Dunlop Rubber Company in 1889.

John Loudon McAdam introduced the method of adding crushed stone to roads and Edgar Hooley from Nottinghamshire introduced the use of tar. It came about when he noticed that a stretch of road in Derbyshire had no ruts in it. When he asked why, he was told that a barrel of tar had accidentally fallen onto the road and slag from a nearby iron works had been added on top. He patented his invention in 1902.

The guillotine
This macabre invention, prized for its quick action, is traditionally associated with the French; it takes the name of a Frenchman, Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, and is generally thought to have come about at the time of the French Revolution. In fact, guillotines originated in West Yorkshire, and were used regularly in Britain from the 13th to the 17th century.

Cat’s eyes
Yorkshireman Percy Shaw’s road reflectors have saved hundreds of lives and been adopted all over the world. Driving home one day, Mr Shaw had difficulty discerning the edges of the road. When his headlights picked out the reflection of a cat, Mr Shaw had the idea of designing something reflective that would light the road and show the motorist where to go. After attaining the patent in 1934, he set up his company Reflecting Road-studs Ltd, and success-
fully manufactured his product until his death in 1976.

Waterproof  fabric
Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh patented his method for making the eponymous garments, using rubber dissolved in coal-tar naphtha to cement two pieces of cloth together, in 1823. He made the discovery when looking for uses for the waste products of gasworks.

The World Wide Web
Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web, an internet-based system for sharing information, in 1989. Within five years, the number of Internet users jumped from 600,000 to 40 million.

The iPod
This device might be synonymous with American computer giant Apple, but the company has acknowledged the work of a British man, Kane Kramer. He came up with the technology that drives the digital music player in 1979, but, having registered the patent, he failed to raise the money required to renew it in 1988. His early sketches show remarkable similarities with the design that has sold 163 million worldwide.

Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 had an accidental quality that made it all the more incredible. The scientist happened to leave a dish of Staphylococcus bacteria uncovered for a few days. When he returned, he found the dish dotted with bacterial growth, apart from one area where a patch of mould was growing. This humble mould was later found to be effective against a huge range of harmful bacteria and deadly diseases, such as syphilis, gangrene and tuberculosis.

The electric lightbulb
Sunderland’s pioneering inventor Joseph Wilson Swan and America’s Thomas Edison were working along similar lines, at the same time, completely independently. Although Swan announced his invention in 1878 (and arguably thought of it before Edison), he delayed filing for a patent; Edison successfully filed for an American patent in 1880.