The Genius and Ingenuity of the British People

The Britain people are a nation of genius, inventiveness and brilliance.

We could go into the vast contribution Britons have made to the world of art, literature and the social sciences, but here we will outline the real practical things, the everyday items, which have shaped the very world in which we live.

And in this regard, Britain has not only played a major role, but in fact the dominating role.

The British mathematician and inventor, Charles Babbage, laid the basis for all modern computers with his Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine.

The precursor to the modern digital computer came in 1936, when the British mathematician Alan Turing developed the Turing Machine - a device looking like a typewriter that could process equations without human direction.

From this machine the idea of buttons and keyboard for a computer was developed.

The British scientist Tim Berners-Lee developed the hyperlink technology which laid the basis of the World Wide Web which is so all-permeating throughout the world today.

The Scot John Napier (above) invented the first system of logarithms and also invented mechanical systems for performing arithmetical computations.

Sir Christopher Wren was not only an architect, but also designed and invented a weather clock, the forerunner of the barometer, and undertook pioneering work in the development of blood transfusion.

Sir Isaac Newton was the one who worked out an all-encompassing mechanical explanation of the universe resting upon the law of universal gravitation.

His work was so far reaching that it was still used in the 20th century when space exploration was planned.

Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule, a machine that was able to spin cotton into thread finer and faster than was possible with hand spinning.

John Kay invented the Flying Shuttle, which increased the speed of weaving and permitted picking to be performed by one person.

He also invented an improved combing, or carding, device.

Richard Arkwright designed a spinning frame in which cotton fibre was spun into thread.

Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom, a wool-combing machine and a steam engine fuelled by alcohol.

The power loom was the one single invention which made the (largely British) Industrial Revolution possible.

James Hargreaves invented the Spinning Jenny (named after his daughter) which made possible the automatic production of cotton thread.

The Scot James Watt (above) developed the first viable steam engine, a device which had originally been invented by the English engineers Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen.

Watt also invented the rotary engine, the centrifugal or flyball governor which automatically regulated the speed of an engine and an attachment that adapted telescopes for use as land surveying equipment - a device still in use today.

The electrical unit, the watt, was named in his honour.

Edward Jenner pioneered the use of vaccines, most notably against smallpox, while Michael Faraday developed the gas burner used in scientific laboratories which later became known as the Bunsen burner.

His other great inventions include: Benzene; electromagnetic induction (which gave the world one of its greatest developments, the electric motor) and the laws of electrolysis which bear his name.

Henry Bessemer invented the process by which modern steel is manufactured, and Richard Trevithick is regarded as the father of railway travel.

Alexander Graham Bell (above) was the Scottish-born American inventor who won fame for inventing the telephone.

His other great invention which was just as important but for which he is not widely known, is the aileron, used in every aircraft.

The first written reference to gunpowder - and how to make it - appears in the writings of the 13th Century English monk Roger Bacon, belying the oft held theory that it was developed in China and exported to Europe.

In fact, the Chinese had what they called ‘fire powder’ - an inflammable chemical which they used in bamboo tubes to make clay pellet firing ‘rockets’.
Modern tarred roads were the result of the work of two British engineers, Thomas Telford and John Loudon McAdam.

Telford designed the system of raising the foundation of the road in the centre to act as a drain for water. Eventually this design became the norm for all roads everywhere.

William Gilbert (above) coined the word ‘electricity’ in 1600, when he used the Greek word for ‘amber’ to describe the phenomena in a book on the subject and James Prescott Joule demonstrated that electric circuits obey the law of the conservation of energy and that electricity is a form of energy.

The unit of energy, the Joule, is named after him. 

Television was pioneered by the Scotsman, James Clerk Maxwell, who in 1873, predicted the existence of the electromagnetic waves that would enable pictures and sound to be sent by air instead of along wire as was then the case.

Willoughby Smith, and his assistant, Joseph May, discovered photoconductivity after observing that the electrical conductivity of the element selenium changes when light falls on it.

This characteristic was used in the vidicon television camera tube.

John Logie Baird developed the technology to the point where he is credited with the development of modern television.

The first electronic method of scanning an image for use in conjunction with Baird's development was developed by A. A. Campbell-Swinton.

Cathode rays were first noted by the British chemist and physicist, Sir William Crookes.

Campbell-Swinton was the first to suggest that a cathode-ray tube (CRT) be used to reproduce the television picture on a phosphor-coated screen.

Sir George Cayley (above) developed the concept of the modern airplane, and is considered to be the founder of the science of aerodynamics.

The essential form of the modern airplane, a rigid-wing structure driven by a then yet to be invented engine, was designed by Cayley in 1799.

In 1808, Cayley had persuaded his coachman to man a glider he had built which was then launched.

It carried the protesting employee some 900 feet, before crashing, the first recorded flight by any person in an aircraft.

Cayley then published his findings in a paper, ‘On Aerial Navigation’ (1810) which earned him the title of the Father of Aviation.

In this paper he laid out the basic ground rules for aviation which are still in use to this day: Inclined rigid wings, rudder steering control and streamlining.

The first jet engine was designed and built by Sir Frank Whittle in 1937.

The British chemist John Dalton (above) is regarded as the father of atomic theory.

He wrote that the particles or atoms of different elements were distinguished from one another by their weights, and in 1803, published the first table of comparative atomic weights, inaugurating the quantitative atomic theory.

Ernest Rutherford, discovered the alpha, beta and gamma rays of radiation given off by uranium, allowing scientists to penetrate further the secrets of the atom.

Rutherford established that the mass of the atom is concentrated in its nucleus and that electrons circle the nucleus, each with different electrical charges.

In 1932, Sir John D. Cockcroft and Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, were the first to use artificially accelerated particles to successfully disintegrate the nucleus of an atom.

They produced a beam of protons (positive particles) which were boosted to high speed by means of a high-voltage device called a voltage multiplier.

These particles were then used to bombard a lithium target to produce the desired result.

Rowland Hill (above), a schoolmaster, invented the postage stamp in 1837, an act for which he was knighted.

Through his efforts the first stamp in the world was issued in England in 1840.

To this day, Britain remains the only country in the world not to put its country name on its stamps because it was the first and all other stamps are just imitators.

Charles Hanson Greville first identified the chemical properties in natural rubber, opening the way for others to start working on the development of synthetic rubbers.

Robert W. Thompson developed the first pneumatic tyre.

William Murdock invented practical industrial-scale gas lighting - later extended to streets.

Percy Gilchrist and Sidney Thomas jointly extracted the first phosphorus from iron, while Frederick Hopkins (above) discovered the existence of vitamins in 1912.  

Other inventions which came from Britain include:

The anemometer and the universal joint, invented by Robert Hooke; disc brakes, invented by Frederick William Lanchester; the tin can, invented by Peter Durand; road cats’ eyes, invented by Percy Shaw; cordite, invented by James Dewar and Frederick Abel; the electromagnet, invented by William Sturgeon; the fax machine, invented by Alexander Bain; the dew-point hygrometer, invented by John Frederic Daniell; holography, invented by Dennis Gábor; the metal lathe, invented by Henry Maudslay; the lawn mower, invented by Edwin Beard Budding; the Periodic Table, invented by John Newlands; the periscope, invented by Howard Grubb; polyester, invented by John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson; rubber bands, invented by Stephen Perry; the seismometer, invented by James Forbes; the seismograph, invented by John Milne, James Alfred Ewing, and Thomas Gray; the vacuum cleaner, invented by Hubert Cecil Booth; and waterproof fabric, invented by Charles Macintosh.

It is truly no exaggeration to say that the genius which has come out of the people of Britain has quite literally shaped the very earth itself.

It is a heritage we can be very proud of.

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