James Dyson once told me that he believed part of the reason the British are so good at inventing things is because we are an island race. I’m not so sure I can point to any one particular British characteristic that has encouraged such a great inventing tradition, but our geography certainly has helped. It created its own pressures, separated us intellectually as well as physically from the rest of Europe. It made our relatively affluent, well educated nation turn to science at a time when the rest of the world did not. It gave us a head start.
The result is that we have an enormous amount of history we can draw on for inspiration. We led the Industrial Revolution, and I can look back with huge respect at all those steps in our engineering and inventive past that make my life today so easy.
That past – which the BBC is celebrating this year with a season of programmes under the umbrella title Genius of Invention – can also fuel the next generation of scientists and inventors. Our universities are world class with a great history of technology behind them. We turn out a phenomenal number of Nobel Prize winners, and our heritage has made us a very open place, ready to embrace talent from around the world.
But there is a downside. Perhaps because we are used to getting there first, we constantly fail to commercialise British invention. Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the internet, is rightly applauded for giving his invention to the world – yet on another level it would have been nice if he could have benefitted from his work in the way Google’s founders has done. Richard Trevithick, the inventor of the steam engine, is a great example of a man who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves because he failed to commercialise his invention.
Attitudes are changing, and I have absolutely no doubt that our economic future lies in tapping into British inventiveness. Programmes like Dragons Den and figures like Steve Jobs and James Dyson have certainly inspired my children. They want to make things, but they also want to sell things. They want to be entrepreneurs.
We need invention now to help pull us out of our current morass, and I’m very hopeful our next generation of inventors are going to do it. To do it we must reconnect with a culture of innovation that served this island so well in the past: where scientists and inventors are appreciated, and where people see things that inspire them and want to make them even better.
Which of the following 50 inventions, complied for Radio Times by a group of BBC science experts, is your favourite?