5 Great British inventions – from the toothbrush to the wedding cake

Us Brits have never been short of good ideas – but who knew we came up with these?

Artificial hip


In the 1960s the hip-replacement operation was the brainchild of orthopaedic surgeon John Charnley, from Bury in Lancashire. Chris Faux, who worked with Charnley, says his colleague had a patient with arthritis and he noted that the hip was squeaking: “He thought, ‘There must be something wrong with the lubrications’.” He then needed to find two smooth surfaces that could move freely against each other. Eventually he came across a durable, hard-wearing plastic that allowed him to create an artificial hip that would last for years.

Flying bike

Two friends, John Foden and Yannick Read, have come up with the bike that can fly. Foden says, “The dream really was to bring together our passions, which are mainly cycling and flying, to create the Paravelo, which is the world’s first flying bicycle. The beauty of what we’ve done is bring together three proven concepts: a bicycle, a parachute and a very powerful fan…” The fan propels it forward and the parachute lifts it into the air very quickly, so you can take off from any piece of open land — no need for long runways.

Wedding cake

The tiered wedding cake was created in London 300 years ago, says cake-maker Dawn Blunden. “An apprentice baker called Thomas Rich fell in love with the baker’s daughter and wanted to make a cake to impress.” He was inspired by the tiered steeple of St Bride’s church, and he stacked one cake on top of the other. Not only did he win the love of his bride, he gained the respect of his boss.

Traffic lights

Victorian London had no road signs, markings or crossings — nothing to control traffic. John Peake Knight was in charge of South Eastern Railway, and his big idea was to take the semaphore signaling system from the railways and use it to control traffic. The colours we now have for traffic lights originate from the signaling flags used by the early railway.


In 1780, William Addis, a rag-trader, was thrown into London’s Newgate Prison, which was described as hell on earth. But for William it became a place of inspiration. Desperate to clean the meat from between his decaying teeth, William had a eureka moment. Spying an old broom in the corner of his cell, he wondered if he could mix the bristle from the prison pig with a leftover bone to create a tool with which to clean his teeth… and the toothbrush was born.

I Never Knew That About Britain is on Monday at 8:00pm on ITV.