Inventors

The British have a long history of inventing dating back to the very early days of mechanisation right through to the 21st century with the Industrial Revolution probably being the busiest time for British inventors. Many of these inventions listed below are also covered on the page of British 'Firsts'.

Date Invention Or Discovery Inventor Or Discoverer
1250 Magnifying glass Roger Bacon
1668 Reflecting telescope Isaac Newton
1698 Steam pump Thomas Savery
1701 Seed drill Jethro Tull
1712 Steam engine Thomas Newcomen
1717 Diving bell Edmund Halley
1725 Stereotyping William Ged
1758 Achromatic lens John Dollond
1759 Marine chronometer John Harrison
1764 Spinning jenny James Hargreaves
1769 Spinning frame R. Arkwright
1769 Steam engine (with separate condenser) James Watt
1780 Steel pen Samuel Harrison
1784 Threshing machine Andrew Meikle
1785 Power loom Edmund Cartwright
1788 Flyball governor James Watt
1791 Gas turbine John Barber
1792 Illuminating gas William Murdock
1795 Hydraulic press Joseph Bramah
1796 Smallpox vaccination Edward Jenner
1804 Solid-fuel rocket William Congreve
1804 Steam locomotive Richard Trevithick
1814 Railroad locomotive George Stephenson
1815 Safety lamp Sir Humphry Davy
1820's Difference Engine (Computer) Charles Babbage
1820 Hygrometer J.F. Daniell
1821 Electric motor Michael Faraday
1823 Electromagnet William Sturgeon
1824 Portland cement Joseph Aspdin
1827 Friction match John Walker
1831 Dynamo Michael Faraday
1837 Telegraph Sir Charles Wheatstone
1839 Photography William Henry Fox Talbot
1839 Steam hammer James Nasmyth
1839 Bicycle (with pedals) Kirkpatrick MacMillan
1850 Mercerized cotton John Mercer
1855 Hypodermic syringe Alexander Wood
1856 Bessemer converter (steel) Sir Henry Bessemer
1861 Electric furnace Wilhelm Siemens
1865 Antiseptic surgery Joseph Lister
1876 Telephone Alexander Graham Bell
1878 Cathode ray tube Sir William Crookes
1879 Incandescent filament lamp Sir Joseph Wilson Swan
1884 Steam turbine Sir Charles Algernon Parsons
1884 Multiple-wheel steam turbine Sir Charles Algernon Parsons
1887 Air-inflated rubber tire J.B. Dunlop
1891 Motion picture camera (kinetograph) William K. L. Dickson
1891 Motion picture viewer (kinetoscope) William K. L. Dickson
1891 Synthetic rubber Sir William Augustus Tilden
1892 Rayon (viscose) Charles Frederick Cross
1892 Vacuum bottle (Dewar flask) Sir James Dewar
1895 Rayon (acetate) Charles Frederick Cross
1905 Diode rectifier tube (radio) Sir John Ambrose Fleming
1908 Two-color motion picture camera C. Albert Smith
1919 Mass spectrograph Sir Francis William Aston
1926 Television John Logie Baird
1928 Penicillin Sir Alexander Fleming
1930 Modern gas-turbine engine Sir Frank Whittle
1935 Radiolocator (radar) Sir Robert Watson-Watt
1941 Turbojet aircraft engine Sir Frank Whittle
1947 Holography Dennis Gabon
1956 Hovercraft Christopher Cockerell
1975 CAT (computerized axial tomography) scanner Godfrey N. Hounsfield
1996 Clockwork Radio Trevor Baylis
Ejector Seat Sir James Martin

Charles Babbage
1792-1871
Inventor of the Computer

British mathematician and inventor, who designed and built mechanical computing machines on principles that anticipated the modern electronic computer. Babbage was born in Teignmouth, Devonshire, and was educated at the University of Cambridge. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1816 and was active in the founding of the Analytical, the Royal Astronomical, and the Statistical societies.

In the 1820s Babbage began developing his Difference Engine, a mechanical device that can perform simple mathematical calculations. Babbage started to build his Difference Engine, but was unable to complete it because of a lack of funding. However, in 1991 British scientists, following Babbage's detailed drawings and specifications, constructed the Difference Engine. The machine works flawlessly, calculating up to a precision of 31 digits, proving that Babbage's design was sound. In the 1830s Babbage began developing his Analytical Engine, which was designed to carry out more complicated calculations, but this device was never built. Babbage's book Economy of Machines and Manufactures (1832) initiated the field of study known today as operational research.

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John Logie Baird
1888 - 1946
Scottish Inventor

John Logie Baird is remembered as the inventor of mechanical television, radar and fiber optics. Born in 1888 in Helensburgh, Scotland, Baird learned a Calvinist work ethic from his father, a Presbyterian minister. He successfully tested in a laboratory in late 1925 and unveiled with much fanfare in London in early 1926, mechanical television technology was quickly usurped by electronic television, the basis of modern video technology. Nonetheless, Baird's achievements, including making the first trans-Atlantic television transmission, were singular and critical scientific accomplishments. Baird created a host of television technologies. Among them, phonovision, a forerunner of the video recorder, noctovision, an infra-red spotting system for "seeing" in the dark; open-air television, a theater-projection system; stereoscopic color TV; and the first high definition color TV.

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Trevor Baylis O.B.E.
1937 -
English Inventor
Trevor Baylis was born in Kilburn, London, in 1937. He was always an avid swimmer and by the age of 15 Baylis was swimming competitively for Britain. At 16 he joined the Soil Mechanics Laboratory in Southall and began studying mechanical and structural engineering at the local technical college. At 20 years of age he began his National Service as a physical training instructor, and he swam competitively for the Army and Imperial Services. Upon leaving the army in 1961, he joined Purley Pools as a salesman. He quickly advanced in this firm and was soon involved in research and development. He went on to start his own successful swimming pool company. His love of swimming led led Baylis to work as a stuntman on various television shows performing escape feats underwater. His other passion has been inventing, especially inventing products that might help the physically handicapped.

In 1993, he watched a program about the spread of AIDS in Africa, which observed that in many regions radio was the only available media, but the need for batteries or electricity made them too expensive or too difficult to access. There was a need for an educational tool that did not rely on electricity. By 1996 Trevor Baylis was receiving numerous awards for his 'Clockwork Radio' which was powered by the occasional turn of a handle.

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Sir Christopher Sydney Cockerell CBE FRS

Inventor of the Hovercraft

Christopher Sydney Cockerell was born in 1910 at Cherry Hinton near Cambridge, the son of Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, sometime private secretary to Sir William Morris and from 1908 to 1937 Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The Cockerells were a talented family. The sons of Sydney John Cockerell, a London coal merchant, and Alice nee Bennett, the daughter of a City Watchmaker, Sir Sydney’s elder brother, Theodore, was a biologist, his younger brother, Douglas, and eminent bookbinder; while Douglas’s son Sydney Maurice, two years Christopher’s senior and also a bookbinder, was a celebrated and innovative designer of marbled papers.

The theory behind one of the most successful inventions of the 20th century, the Hovercraft, was originally tested in 1955 using an empty KiteKat cat food tin inside a coffee tin, an industrial air blower and a pair of kitchen scales.

Christopher Cockerell was initially testing out the idea that it was possible to produce a cushion of air between the bottom of the tins and the surface of the scales. Once he had established that this was possible he decided to experiment with more sophisticated models. Although his first tests were carried out on dry land his main aim was to prove that drag or friction between boats and water could be substantially reduced if the ‘craft’ floated on an air cushion. And so the ‘hovercraft’ came in to being. Indeed Cockerell came up with the word too.
Despite an interest in the arts, Cockerell read Engineering at Peterhouse, Cambridge. After Cambridge he worked for the Radio Research Company until 1935 and then for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company from 1935 until 1951.

During the war years Cockerell worked with an elite team at Marconi to develop radar, a development which Churchill believed had a significant effect on the outcome of the Second World War, and Cockerell believed to be one of his greatest achievements. Whilst at Marconi Cockerell patented 36 of his ideas.

In these early days Cockerell’s idea was patented and immediately put on the secret list. Nothing happened and Cockerell became increasingly agitated. Eventually, in 1958, after declassification, the National Research Development Council (NRDC) funded the design and construction of SR.N1, the world’s first man-carrying amphibious hovercraft.

On 25th July 1959, she made a crossing of the English Channel, from Calais to Dover, with Cockerell aboard as human ballast, on the 50th anniversary of the first aeroplane crossing of the Channel. Cockerell’s dream had become a reality. Since then hovercraft have carried over 80 million people and 12 million cars across the Channel and have been in continuous service for over 30 years.

Besides hovercraft he is attributed with the invention of wave power in the late 1970s, hovertrains and sidewall hovercraft (catamarans).

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Sir Humphry Davy
1778-1829

Renowned British chemist, best known for his experiments in electrochemistry and for his invention of a miner's safety lamp.

Davy was born on December 17, 1778, in Penzance, Cornwall, England. In 1798 he began experiments on the medicinal properties of gases, during which he discovered the anesthetic effects of nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Davy was appointed assistant lecturer in chemistry at the newly founded Royal Institution in London in 1801 and the following year became professor of chemistry there.

During his early years at the Royal Institution, Davy started his investigations of the effects of electricity on chemical compounds. In 1807 he received the Napoleon Prize from the Institut de France for the theoretical and practical work begun the year before. He then constructed the largest battery ever built, with over 250 cells, and passed a strong electric current through solutions of various compounds suspected of containing undiscovered elements. Davy quickly isolated the elements, potassium and sodium by this electrolytic method. He also prepared calcium by the same method. In later, unrelated experiments, he discovered boron and proved that the diamond is composed of carbon. Davy also showed that the so-called rare earths are oxides of metals rather than elements. His experiments with acids indicated that hydrogen, not oxygen, causes the characteristics of acids. Davy also made notable discoveries in heat.

In the field of applied science, Davy invented a safety lamp for miners in 1815. For this and for related research, he received the gold and the silver Rumford medals from the Royal Society. In 1823 he suggested a method of preventing the corrosion of the copper bottoms of ships by means of zinc and iron sheathing. He was knighted in 1812 and raised to a baronetcy in 1818. In 1820 he became president of the Royal Society. Davy died on May 29, 1829, in Geneva.

Among his writings are Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812) and Elements of Agricultural Chemistry (1813).

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John Harrison
1693-1776
English horologist and instrumentmaker

Harrison made the first chronometers that were accurate enough to allow the precise determination of longitude at sea, and so permit reliable (and safe) navigation over long distances.

Harrison was born in Foulky, Yorkshire, and learned his father's trades of carpentry and mechanics. In 1726, he made a compensated clock pendulum, which remained the same length at any temperature, making use of the different coefficients of expansion of two different metals.
In 1714, the British government's Board of Longitude announced a prize of up to 20,000 for anyone who could make an instrument to determine longitude at sea to an accuracy of 30 minutes (half a degree). Between 1735 and 1760, Harrison submitted four instruments for the award. When his fourth marine chronometer was tested at sea, it kept accurate time to within 5 seconds over the duration of two voyages to the West Indies, equivalent to just over one minute of longitude. Harrison was eventually awarded the prize money.

A unique feature that contributed to the chronometer's accuracy was a device that enabled it to be rewound without temporarily stopping the mechanism. This was subsequently incorporated into other chronometers. His marine instruments are now exhibited at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

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Sir James Martin CBE
1893 - 1981

James Martin was born on 11th September 1893 in Crossgar, County Down, Ireland. He grew up on a farm among people of sturdy independence. He was a man of strong personality, upright principles, with deep religious convictions, though he was not a church-goer. From a very early age, James Martin displayed exceptional powers of inventiveness and, while still in his teens, had designed, made and sold a wide variety of machines. He had a great desire to invent and make things with his own hands, and, scorning conventional education, by dint of hard work and continuous study, he was an accomplished engineer long before the age of 21. His farmer father had died whilst Sir James was still an infant and his mother, wishing him to have a university education, took him to see a professor of engineering at Belfast University.

Whilst in his early twenties, feeling the confines of Ulster too restrictive on his ambitious outlook, Martin moved to Acton in London. In the early days at Acton, his remarkable gifts of design and engineering ingenuity were put to the task of developing and putting on the market a wide variety of useful and saleable machines ranging from small oil engines to specialised vehicles of all kinds.

In his newly formed company, James Martin was inventor, draughtsman, experimental engineer, toolmaker, fitter, assemblyman, salesman and finally, delivery driver.
After many others had tried and failed James Martin developed the first successful ejector seat which became the standard ejector seat for most fighter aircraft and which by the turn of the 21st Century had saved nearly 7,000 lives. Sir James Martin died on the 5th January 1981.

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Sir Frank Whittle
1907-1996

Inventor of the Jet Engine

British aeronautical engineer, aviator, and inventor of the jet engine. Whittle was born in Earlsdon, Coventry, England, at a time when powered flight was still in it's infancy. He was educated at Leamington College and the University of Cambridge. In 1926 he entered the Royal Air Force College in Cranwell as a flight cadet. While attending the college, Whittle became interested in jet propulsion for aircraft; by 1930 he had developed the concept of a turbojet engine and filed his first patent. In 1936 he organized a privately financed company, Power Jets, Ltd., for the development of his engine.
In April 1937 the first engine was tested. According to Whittle himself it, "Made a noise like an air raid siren" Subsequently, the Gloster Aircraft Company was asked to build an experimental aircraft. The result was the Gloster E.28/39, which, powered by the Whittle jet engine, took off from Cranwell on 15 May 1941.
By now it had become clear that Great Britain needed a jet fighter, and by the time of the Battle of Britain in 1940, work had already begun on a jet that would fly 200mph faster than the RAF's Spitfires and Hurricanes. Known as the Gloster Meteor, this became the RAF's first jet fighter, entering squadron services towards the end of the Second World War.
Knighted in 1948, Whittle received many other honors, including the U.S. Legion of Merit in 1946 and the Churchill Gold Medal of the Society of Engineers in 1952.

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