Britain is a nation of inventors, from the worlwide web to the electric vacuum cleaner. Here is a rundown of the most influential innovations:
LIGHT BULB (invented by Joseph Swan in 1880)
Cheap and reliable electric lighting was a holy grail for 19th-century inventors. But didn’t Thomas Edison get there first? No! He was beaten by to it by Britain’s very own Joseph Swan. Swan got his patent – and started manufacturing and selling his bulbs – in 1880. The first bulbs lasted little more than 12 hours but, unlike gas lamps, there was no flame or dirty smoke and they soon caught on.
CHOCOLATE BAR (invented by JS Fry & Sons in 1847)
The first chocolate bar was created by JS Fry & Sons of Bristol in 1847. It was sold to the public as chocolate delicieux a manger – delicious to eat – because, until this point, chocolate had been exclusively consumed as a drink. Fry’s mixed cocoa powder with sugar and cocoa butter, making a product which stays solid at room temperature but melts in the mouth… yum!
WORLDWIDE WEB (invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989)
Not to be confused with the internet, which is a system of linked computer networks, the worldwide web was invented by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee. He created the first server in late 1990 and, on 6 August 1991, the web went live, with the first page explaining how to search and how to set up a site. Berners-Lee gave his invention to the world for free.
SODA WATER (invented by Joseph Priestley in 1772)
18th century clergyman and scientist Priestley invented carbonated water when he suspended a bowl of water above a beer vat at a brewery near his home in Leeds. In 1772 he published a description of how to make carbonated water and just a few years later Johann Schweppe set up Schweppes and began manufacturing fizzy drinks using Priestley’s method.
TELEPHONE (invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876)
Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone model just hours before a rival inventor. The telephone came about thanks to a discovery that a thin metal sheet vibrating in an electromagnetic field produces an electrical waveform that corresponds to the vibration. The invention was first publically demonstrated in 1876 at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.
TELEVISION (invented by John Logie Baird by 1925)
It’s hard to credit just one person with the invention of television, but it’s indisputable that John Logie Baird was the first to transmit moving pictures in October 1925. But his mechanical system ultimately failed – with a rival being developed at the same time able to produce a visibly superior picture. Baird, it was said at the time, was “doomed to be the man who sows the seed but does not reap the harvest”.
TOOTHBRUSH (invented by William Addis by 1770)
William Addis was a rag trader who was sent to prison in 1770. While there, he decided that the way people were brushing their teeth (rubbing soot and salt over them with a rag), could be improved. He saved a small animal bone from a meal, made a hole and tied some bristles through it. After his release, Addis set up a business to mass-produce toothbrushes. His company, Wisdom Toothbrushes, still exists.
CEMENT (invented by Joseph Aspdin by 1824)
In 1824, Leeds bricklayer Joseph Aspdin invented and patented a method of making what he called Portland Cement – the type that’s most widely used today. The process involved burning limestone, mixing it with clay and burning it again; the burning produced a much stronger cement than just mixing limestone and clay. Aspdin called it “Portland” as he claimed the set mortar resembled the best limestone quarried from Portland in Dorset.
PHOTOGRAPHY (invented by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1835)
It’s hard to say who was the inventor of photography – the first fixed image was made by Joseph Niépce in 1826 but took eight hours to expose. In 1835, Fox Talbot (right) made another breakthrough by using silver iodide on paper and found a way to produce a translucent negative that could be used to make any number of positives by contact printing – a system used until the advent of digital cameras.
ATM (invented by John Sheperd-Barron in 1967)
John Shepherd-Barron first hit on the idea of a cash dispenser in the bath and secured a meeting with Barclays who signed up, installing the first ATM outside their Enfield branch in 1967. It gave out a maximum of £10 after customers inserted special cheques that the machine could recognise alongside a four-digit PIN number that’s still in use today.
ELECTRIC VACUUM CLEANER (invented by Hubert Cecil Booth in 1901)
Hubert Cecil Booth was watching a railway carriage being cleaned by a machine that blew the dust away when he had the idea for a machine that sucked the dust up instead. To test his theory, he placed a handkerchief on a chair and sucked through it, finding that dust collected on either side. He set up a cleaning service using hoses from vans on the street going through the windows of buildings.