The first time Eric Monkman and Bobby Seagull met was at a quiz. Naturally. The duo shot to fame on University Challenge last year, when both captained their respective Cambridge colleges to the final stages.
But Cambridge University prepares its University Challenge teams with highbrow quiz nights, so the pair met and became friends at that quiz, long before the TV show went out. Since then they have become the darlings of social media, book publishers – and television producers in search of new ideas.
They make their TV hosting debut this week in Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Guide to Britain, setting out on a road trip to hunt down the nation’s most remarkable inventions.
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It was, for both, an education. “My interests are quite broad – I’ll watch University Challenge but I’ll also watch Love Island,” says Bobby Seagull, the East Ender from a London comprehensive who won a scholarship to Eton. “That’s what my family has always been like – but Eric is more focused and academic.”
“A lot of the conversations that you see on camera we didn’t even know would make it into the show,” adds Eric Monkman, with his trademark insistent delivery and Canadian accent. “How you see us on screen is how we always are – sharing facts and the things we think about. Seeing an aqueduct in Wales, I was fascinated by the economics, Bobby more interested in the engineering – but we taught each other.”
Such is the way with restless, enquiring minds. But RT couldn’t let this pair of brainboxes embark on the latest instalment in their unlikely rise to fame without quizzing them afresh. So, what works of genius do the pair wish they’d thought of?
Eric Monkman’s best inventions
Britain’s only prime-ministerial library is in Hawarden, Wales. Gladstone had more than 30,000 books and he moved them by wheelbarrow from his home to the library. Anywhere else, if you had a book with Gladstone’s name and notes on, it would be the pride of the collection, on display under glass. Here, that’s every book, just stacked on to shelves! It’s a connection with British history and what a well-educated man in 19th-century Britain was reading.
The cup anemometer
John Thomas Romney Robinson invented the cup anemometer in Armagh Observatory in 1845. It’s made of four horizontal arms, each ending in a hemispherical cup, on a vertical shaft. By measuring how fast it rotates you can measure how fast the wind is blowing. They use a version of it today, and the Observatory has records going back over 150 years.
The Pontcysyllte aqueduct
This is a 300-metre-long cast-iron aqueduct above the River Dee. Romans had aqueducts, so it wasn’t new, but the idea of using canals to connect industrial towns in the centre of the country with raw materials from north Wales was visionary. Previous generations would make palaces or temples, but here was a glorious feat of engineering built for commerce.
Bobby Seagull’s best inventions
James Clerk Maxwell’s equations
In Edinburgh, we visited the former home of physicist James Clerk Maxwell. In 1865, Maxwell published four equations that brought together electricity, magnetism and light as version of the same phenomenon and described electromagnetism for the first time. He created the groundwork for power generation, electric motors, wireless communication, lenses, radar, radio waves… The internet wouldn’t have existed without these equations. He was a man ahead of his time.
The penalty kick
Milford in Armagh, Northern Ireland, is where William McCrum invented the penalty kick in 1890. Before then football was an amateur gentleman’s game, and it was assumed players would never cheat. When you think about the thrills and heartaches the penalty kick has given us since… I would love to have invented that.
The Jodrell Bank telescope
Jodrell Bank was the largest radio telescope in the world when it was built in 1957. All the bodies in the universe emit radiation, which is energy travelling in waves. The Jodrell dish collects and concentrates those waves in order to build a picture of the universe. Listening to the stars is fundamentally human — other species don’t try to understand the world beyond their immediate parameters.
The ejector seat
The ejector seat was invented by Sir James Martin in the late 1940s at Langford Lodge in Belfast, when planes were getting faster and aviation was becoming increasingly important. It’s basically a controlled explosion underneath the chair that pushes you out and away from a doomed plane. It’s also one of the first signs of people thinking about health and safety. By most estimates it has saved around 7,000 lives.
Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Guide to Britain airs on Mondays at 8pm on BBC2