The 50 greatest British inventions

We're a nation of inventors, from the worldwide web to the electric vacuum cleaner - here's a rundown of our most influential innovations

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The 50 greatest British inventions
Written By
Radio Times Staff

Click here to vote on the greatest British invention

THERMOS FLASK

Invented: 1892
Inventor: Sir James Dewar

This humble invention was the brainchild of Sir James Dewar, an eminent professor of chemistry at Cambridge and leading light of the Royal Institution. Dewar didn’t invent it to keep tea hot on picnics (that was a happy by-product), but to help his experiments on cooling gases, like air and oxygen, to such low temperatures that they would liquefy.

LAWNMOWER

Invented: 1827
Inventor: Edwin Beard Budding

What could be more quintessentially British than a perfectly mown lawn in summer? Until Budding developed his first 19in mower in 1827 this was the preserve of the very rich. As the lawnmower’s popularity spread and made lawns more affordable, sports that were played on grass, such as cricket, rugby and football, were given an important boost.

FLOAT GLASS

Invented: 1959
Inventor: Alastair Pilkington

When we think of inventions, it’s machines and gadgets that usually come to mind. But what about the processes needed to create the materials our modern world is made of? Almost all the glass we use today is made using Pilkington’s “float” process, which made it far easier and cheaper to make high-quality glass.

LightbulbLIGHT BULB

Invented: 1880
Inventor: Joseph Swan

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: 1847
Inventor: JS Fry & Sons

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…

ELECTRIC TELEGRAPH

Invented: 1837
Inventors: Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke

The electric telegraph was a world-shrinking technology like no other. The first fully operational telegraph ran from 1839 between Paddington and West Drayton railway stations, but at first it was slow to catch on. That is, until New Year’s Day 1845 when the telegraph system helped catch murderer John Tawell. It was a sensation and telegraph cables were soon everywhere.

PNEUMATIC TYRE

Invented: 1887
Inventor: John Boyd Dunlop

In 1845, railway engineer Robert William Thomson patented the world’s first pneumatic tyres but there was no real market for them. Forty years later, Dunlop came up with pneumatic tyres to stop his son getting headaches from riding his bumpy tricycle. This time around, the invention handily coincided with the new bicycle craze.

Fire ExtinguisherMODERN FIRE EXTINGUISHER

Invented: 1818
Inventor: George William Manby

The first modern extinguisher, the Extincteur, was invented after Manby saw firemen struggling to put out a blaze on the top floors of a house fire in Edinburgh. His solution was a portable copper cask containing three to four gallons of potassium carbonate, which dispersed by compressed air via a stopcock.

CATSEYE

Invented: 1933
Inventor: Percy Shaw

Percy Shaw was a Yorkshire road contractor who devised the Catseye in 1933. He liked to claim that inspiration struck when he was driving home from the pub on a foggy night and saw the reflection of his headlights in the eyes of a cat, sitting by the road. Shaw’s Catseye was voted the greatest invention of the 20th century.

CARBON FIBRE

Invented: 1963
Inventors: Royal Aircraft Establishment Engineers

This marvelous material is one of many inventions developed by the military that are incredibly useful. Today carbon fibre has thousands of applications in boats, cars, motorbikes, sports equipment, and even in the fuselages of jumbo jets.

STEAM ENGINE (nominated by Michael Mosley)

Invented: 1801
Inventor: Richard Trevithick

Trevithick’s invention would become the father of the steam train and the father of portable steam power. On Christmas Eve 1801 he tested a steam car, known as the Puffing Devil, which successfully climbed the Camborne Hill in Cornwall. Trevithick became the first person to power a piston using high-pressure steam – and in doing so he transformed the world.

Tim Berners-LeeWORLDWIDE WEB

Invented: 1989
Inventor: Tim Berners-Lee

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 (left). 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: 1772
Inventor: Joseph Priestley

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.

HYPODERMIC SYRINGE

Invented: 1853
Inventor: Alexander Wood

While the syringe itself has been known since ancient times, Wood’s innovation was to design a syringe that would allow drugs to be administered intravenously without the patients skin having to be cut first. It is said he found inspiration in the sting of a honeybee. The hypodermic syringe was a breakthrough in anesthetics.

REFLECTING TELESCOPE

Invented: 1668
Inventor: Isaac Newton

As a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, Sir Isaac Newton took the idea of a reflecting telescope and turned it into reality. This huge leap forward in telescope technology made astronomical observation much more accurate.

Alexander Graham-BellTELEPHONE

Patented: 1876
Inventor: Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell (right) 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.

COLLAPSIBLE BABY BUGGY

Invented: 1965
Inventor: Owen Maclaren

Maclaren, the man who during WW2 helped design the Spitfire’s folding undercarriage, solved the pram problem after seeing his daughter struggle with an unwieldy pushchair. Today, a modern version of his light-weight, foldable buggy is sold in more than 50 countries.

STEAM TURBINE

Invented: 1884
Inventor: Charles Parsons

After the invention of the electrical motor – which transforms rotation into electrical power – the next step was to find a device to drive it. Piston engines vibrated too violently, so the steam turbine was the answer. Three quarters of the world’s power stations still use steam – and whether steam-powered or not, every station uses the theory behind Parsons’ innovation.

MARINE CHRONOMETER

Invented: 1761
Inventor: John Harrison

Accurate navigation at sea has always been critically important but, until the invention of the marine chronometer, it was extremely difficult, if not impossible. In 1714 the British government announced a £20,000 prize – worth almost £3m today – for anyone who could solve the problem. John Harrison devoted his life to the task and finally got his reward in 1773. 

TelevisionTELEVISION

Invented: 1925
Inventor: John Logie Baird

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”.

SYNTHETIC DYE

Invented: 1856
Inventor: William Perkin

William Perkin was studying Chemistry when he discovered how to make synthetic dye – mauveine.  He was using alcohol to clean up some chemical residue when he suddenly saw an intense purple colour appear. At that time, purple dye was one of the priciest. Perkin worked out how to produce his new colour, patented it and set up a company to produce it.

HIP REPLACEMENT

Invented: 1962
Inventor: John Charnley

British surgeon John Charnley designed the first hip joint and, in 1962, performed the first successful hip-replacement operation. His design used a femoral stem and ball made of steel and a hip socket made of Teflon, glued together using acrylic bone cement. Many improvements have been made since but Charnley set the standard and today 80,000 hip replacements are performed in Britain each year.

PASSENGER RAILWAY (recommended by Dan Snow)

Invented: 1825
Inventor: George Stephenson

While working as a miner, George Stephenson established an aptitude as a mechanic and was allowed to build machines at his colliery. At the time, carts pulled by horses were used to take coal to the ship yards. Stephenson used steam engines to replace horse power and this lead to a series of world firsts – including the passenger railway.

TankMILITARY TANK

Invented: 1914
Inventor: Ernest Swinton

The idea of the “tank” was first thought up by Britain’s official war correspondent, Ernest Swinton, who suggested the crawler tractors used to pull artillery on the Western Front could be used as offensive weapons with the capability to climb a five-foot obstacle, span a five-foot trench, resist small arms fire and travel at 4mph.

TOOTHBRUSH

Invented: c. 1770
Inventor: William Addis

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.

LINOLEUM

Invented: 1860
Inventor: Frederick Walton

When he noticed that a rubbery, flexible skin of solidified linseed oil had formed on a can of oil-based paint, it gave Frederick Walton an idea. He realized linseed oil could be made into a waterproof material and that if he applied the varnish to a backing, he could sell it as a ready-made floor - cue linoleum. 

AUTOMATIC KETTLE

Invented: 1955
Inventor: Peter Hobbs

The automatic kettle – one that switches itself off when the water reaches boiling point – was the brainchild of Peter Hobbs, one of the two founders of appliance company Russell Hobbs. At its heart was a simple piece of technology: the bimetallic strip which bent as the water boiled, breaking a circuit and switching off the kettle.

Modern TorpedoMODERN TORPEDO

Invented: 1866
Inventor: Robert Whitehead

It was British engineer Richard Whitehead who first designed a torpedo launched from a ship in an underwater tube, powered by compressed air and with an internal mechanism that adjusted itself to stay at a constant depth. The first ship to be sunk by his invention was the Turkish steamer Intibah in 1878, after being hit by a torpedo launched from a Russian warship.

GLIDER

Invented: 1804
Inventor: George Cayley

One of the greatest inventors in the field of aviation was Yorkshireman George Cayley. He was the first man to move away from the idea that a man-made flying machine must have wings that flapped like a bird’s, and the first-ever sustained manned glider flight was made in a craft of his design at Brompton Dale in 1853.

JET ENGINE

Invented: 1937
Inventor: Frank Whittle

24-year-old RAF fighter pilot Frank Whittle first patented a new kind of aircraft - the turbojet - in 1930, but his new design was so radical that the military wouldn’t fund it, nor would any manufacturers, until in 1937 he found a few private backers and in 1941 a 17-minute test flight took place at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire.

WIND-UP RADIO

Invented: 1991
Inventor: Trevor Baylis

In 1991, Trevor Baylis saw a television programme about Aids in Africa that said one way to stop its spread was for people to hear educational information on the radio. So Baylis desined one that needed no batteries, running off an internal generator powered by a mainspring wound by a hand crank. He was able to demonstrate it to Nelson Mandela and since then it’s been distributed all over Africa.

BicycleSAFETY BICYCLE

Invented: 1885
Inventor: John Kemp Starley

The bicycle as we know it today was originally developed as the “safety bicycle”, because other bikes at the time – including the penny-farthing – were extremely dangerous. The key to the new bicycle was the chain drive, which meant you could still go fast even though both wheels were the same size. For most people it was arguably the most liberating invention of all time.

CEMENT

Invented: 1824
Inventor: Joseph Aspdin

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.

TENSION-SPOKED WHEEL

Invented: 1808
Inventor: George Cayley

George Caley wanted wheeled landing gear for the glider’s he’d already invented but wheels with solid or wooden spokes were too heavy. His innovation was to shift the balance of forces in the wheel from compression to tension – an extraordinary breakthrough that really took off much later when tension-spoked wheels using wire spokes were adopted for bicycle wheels.

SEED DRILL

Invented: 1701
Inventor: Jethro Tull

Pulled by a horse, Oxfordshire farmer Jethro Tull’s seed drill dug a straight groove into the soil at the right depth and dropped into it seeds that were regularly spaced. It made planting crops more efficient by avoiding wastage and helped both population and life expectancy into a steady upward climb for the first time in history.

CutlerySTAINLESS STEEL

Invented: 1913
Inventor: Harry Brearley

In 1912 steelworker and researcher Harry Brearley was tasked by a small-arms manufacturer to find a material that could prolong the life of their gun barrels. He found corrosion-resistant steel instead. The story goes that he threw out some experimental steel and a few weeks later found it in the yard still shiny as new. Stainless steel is now used in everything from surgical instruments and turbine blades to cutlery and architectural cladding.

SPINNING FRAME

Invented: 1768
Inventor: Richard Arkwright

Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame – more than James Hargreaves’s better-known spinning jenny – was the cornerstone invention of the industrial revolution in textiles. By spinning thread that had a tighter weave and was therefore considerably stronger, it transformed northern England and lay behind Britain being named the “workshop of the world”.

BESSEMER PROCESS

Invented: 1856
Inventor: Henry Bessemer

Sheffield steelmaker Henry Bessemer didn’t invent steel production but his method for simplifying it and greatly reducing the costs ranks as one of the most important breakthroughs of the industrial era. He developed a process of extracting carbon from pig iron effectively, to create a hotter and purer product that was easier to convert to steel – saving manufacturers both time and fuel.

ELECTRIC MOTOR

Invented: 1821

Inventer: Michael Faraday

Michael Faraday was working at the Royal Institution when he demonstrated electromagnetic rotation for the first time. A free-hanging wire was dipped into a pool of mercury that had a fixed magnet in it. When an electric current was passed through the wire, it rotated around the magnet – the electricity produced a magnetic field around the wire, which interacted with the magnet in the mercury. This was the world’s first electric motor.

William Henry Fox TalbotPHOTOGRAPHY

Invented: 1835
Inventor: William Henry Fox Talbot

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.

HYDRAULIC PRESS

Invented: 1795
Inventor: Joseph Bramah

Locksmith Joseph Bramah made famously unpickable locks and was also a keen inventor. Of all his developments, the one that has had the most impact was the hydraulic press – two piston cylinders with different cross-sectional areas, connected with a tube and filled with fluid so moving one piston causes the other to move, too. Today it’s still one of the most useful and widespread machine tools.

SEWAGE SYSTEM (recommended by Dick and Dom)

Invented: 1865
Inventor: Joseph Bazalgette

The creator of the London sewers, Joseph Bazalgette, may be remembered as more of an engineer than an inventor, but developing the largest sewage system the world had ever seen in London changed life in the city completely. The previous system – an open sewer – tipped waste into the Thames but this new invention pumped it eastwards out to sea. Bazalgette estimated the population increase of the next 100 years so the system is still in use today.

ELECTRONIC PROGRAMMABLE COMPUTER

Invented: 1943
Inventor: Tommy Flowers

Built and designed by brilliant Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers, the Colossus arrived at Bletchley Park to crack the German Lorenz cipher, which was even more complex than Enigma. Constructed using 1,500 vacuum tubes, the Colossus was the first truly electronic, digital and programmable computer. Sadly for Flowers, the technology was reserved for military intelligence and remained top secret – with every Colossus machine dismantled after the war.

HovercraftHOVERCRAFT

Invented: 1953
Inventor: Christopher Cockerell

Cockerell wanted to work out how to make the boats go faster, and was captivated by the idea of lifting them out of the water altogether. His breakthrough came when he blasted air down a narrow channel around the outside of the craft that trapped high-pressure air underneath and stopped it escaping, forming a “momentum curtain. Producing four times the lift for the same amount of power, the first hovercraft crossed the channel on 1 June 1959.

TIN CAN

Invented: 1810
Inventor: Peter Durand

It was Frenchman Nicholas Appert who first preserved food by packing it into glass jars and cooking it for hours to sterilise it but British merchant Peter Durand adopted the same method with the tin can. Initially a hammer and chisel were required to open the cans as the tin opener wasn’t patented until 1855!

STERI-SPRAY (recommended by Deborah Meaden)

Invented: 2008
Inventor: Ian Helmore

Plumber Ian Helmore sterilized water tanks to prevent lagionella breeding in them. Bacteria can live in the last two inches of pipework so he decided that putting a UV lamp into a tap or showerhead would deal with the problem. It’s now out there in NHS hospitals, hopefully saving lives.

WATERPROOF MATERIAL

Invented: 1823
Inventor: Charles Macintosh

Charles Macintosh, an amateur chemist, was experimenting with coal-tar napthan, a chemical waste product, and realized that it could make a solution from rubber. He coated a thin fabric with the sticky solution and sandwiched it between two layers of fabric to make waterproof material. His family started selling the coats as the “Macintosh”.

ATMATM

Invented: 1967
Inventor: John Shepherd-Barron

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: 1901
Inventor: Hubert Cecil Booth

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. 

DISC BRAKES

Invented: 1902
Inventor: Frederick William Lanchester

Disc brakes employ brake pads that squeeze each side of the rotor turning a wheel. They were quicker to cool down and to dry out than the drum brakes used in most cars at the time. Sadly, they didn’t catch on until the 1950s, after Lanchester’s death - but nowadays almost all cars use his invention.

Click here to vote on the greatest British invention

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