5 Great British Inventors - #NationalInventorsMonth
Posted on 3rd April 2019 at 13:06
The month of April is filled with exciting events; Easter, The Grand National, the possible outcome of Brexit etc. These are all things to look forward to, but the constant theme for the month will be the celebration of national inventors with National Inventor’s Month. We’re going to pay homage to 5 inventors that Britain are proud to call our own!
Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Let’s open with what could be the most significant invention of the 20th century – The World Wide Web.
First, we need to differentiate “the internet” and Berners-Lee’s invention. The Internet can’t be credited completely to one person as it was an information sharing system developed in the 60s funded by the US Department of Defence. The invention of Internet Protocol (IP) came in the 70s and the 80s network connections, but then TBL himself changed the game and made the internet accessible to the public. This became known as the World Wide Web.
After graduating from The Queen’s College in Oxford, TBL went on to work as software engineer for Plessey, in Dorset. Later in his career he developed his skills and learnt a lot which inspired him to work as a contractor, he joined CERN in Switzerland and while he was there TBL proposed an idea…
Tim Berners-Lee created a prototype system named ENQUIRE. His manager said the proposal was ‘vague’ but exciting and he accepted the proposal which leads to the inception of the first Web browser and the first web server... with that, the first website was built, known as info.cern.ch. that was in 1990.
In modern day, TBL is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Oxford and added some more initials to his title, today he is Sir Tim Berners-Lee OM KBE FRS FREng FRSA FBCS.
The acceleration of the connected world has been quite amazing. The music, film and TV industries have completely transformed, and we all know how remote working and the industry we work in would barely exist if it wasn’t for the world wide web.
Interstingly, this is a TedTalk from TBL himself about the future of the web: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OM6XIICm_qo
Alexander Graham Bell
Born in Edinburgh in 1847, Alexander Graham Bell was born to a deaf mother and a father who worked in elocution. This lead Alexander down the path of working with the deaf and experimenting with hearing devices.
After the death of his younger brother, Bell travelled with his family to Canada, where he set up a workshop in a converted carriage place, named his “dreaming place”. His interest in human voices and how we receive sound continued and his experiments became more innovative.
In 1871, Bell’s father was invited to work with the instructors at a school for deaf-mutes in Boston, Massachusetts, he turned down the post and offered his son instead. Alexander travelled to Boston and successfully trained the school’s instructors and was asked to continue his work at two other schools. Bell stayed in Boston and worked as a teacher whilst continuing to develop his own personal projects.
Bell was working on his harmonic telegraph. A device which would be able to transfer sound through a wire. In 1874 a scientist by the name of Antonio Meucci sent his blueprints for a telephone model to the Western Union telegraph company. They refused to meet with Meucci and said that all of the correspondence had been “lost”. A mere two years later, Alexander Graham Bell, who had shared a lab with Meucci, had filed a patent for the worlds first telephone and gained celebrity status. Meucci tried to sue but unfortunately died before anything could have progressed.
Bell, teamed with two wealthy benefactors, Thomas Sanders and Gardiner Hubbard, he now had the financial support he was able to hire Thomas Watson as his assistant and they set to work on making the idea a reality.
The invention picked up a lot of steam and a lot of interest, Queen Victoria requested a private demonstration and Emperor Pedro II of Brazil had also visited an exhibition to see the new invention for himself, he became the first person to buy stock in Bell’s company “The Bell Telephone Company”. On October 9th 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson talked via telephone wire, for the first time, In January 1915 onlookers watched in amazement as Bell made the first transcontinental telephone call from AT&T’s head office in New York to Thomas Watson who was in San Francisco.
After reading Bell’s story you may feel a little disappointed in hearing that the idea wasn’t quite as original as we first thought. But without Bell’s innovations in sound and electricity then the concept for the telephone couldn’t exist. As well as this, Alexander Graham Bell brought us the Metal Detector, the Hydroplane and Aeronautics.
With 12 honorary degrees and a whole host of other honours, we can safely say that Alexander Graham Bell was one of the most significant British inventors in history.
Sir Frank Whittle
Frank Whittle was born in Coventry in 1907 to Sara Alice Garlick and Moses Whittle. Moses Whittle was a mechanic and practical engineer who had purchased a Leamington Valve and Piston Ring company in Leamington Spa.
Frank was always interested in his father's work and developed early signs of interest in engineering. At the age of 15, he applied to join the RAF.
After passing his exams with flying colours, he only lasted two days due to failing his medical due to only being 5ft tall with a small chest. He went and trained and despite adding to his height and chest size, he was rejected again. Finally, under an assumed identity, Frank got in! He was an aircraft mechanic apprentice.
A personal interest of Frank’s was to build model aircraft. He built working replicas that were so good it led to one of his commanders touting Frank as a “mathematical genius”. He was so impressed he recommended Whittle for officer training at RAF Cranwell. Finally, Frank had a chance to fly! He was a daring pilot, performing aerobatics and low flying techniques all with just 13.5 hours of instruction. Pilots aren’t often allowed to fly solo with such little training, but Frank was an anomaly.
Part of the course was for the students to write a thesis. Whittle’s thesis was all about aircraft design developments – “Future Developments of Aircraft Design” this is where the concept of the motorjet (a motor using a conventional piston engine to provide compressed air to a combustion chamber whose exhaust was used directly for thrust – essentially an afterburner attached to a propeller engine.).
After graduation, at the age of 21, he won the Andy Fellowes Memorial Prize for Aeronautical Science. He was described as an “exceptional to above average” pilot, despite being a bit of a show-off.
After many developments and attempts at bringing his thoughts to life, he abandoned his project when he proved to himself that the motorjet would weigh as much as a conventional engine, so little improvement would be evident. Then came a breakthrough. Frank realised he could use a turbine engine instead of a piston engine.
After showing his idea around the base, it caught the eye of Flying Officer Pat Johnson who used to a patent examiner. In 1929 Whittle was encouraged to share his idea with the Air Ministry. They were interested but believed it to be “impractical”. Pat Johnson stood by his man and had Whittle patent the idea in 1930.
After the RAF rejected the idea, industrial company British Thomson-Houston was intrigued but didn’t want to pay the £60,000 to get production off the ground.
1935 came around and Whittle was studying at Cambridge. He was unable to afford the £5 to renew his patent for the jet engine and it looked it was all going to go to waste until two former associates offered to meet with Whittle and offered to gather public funding to finally get this project closer to becoming a reality. This lead to the inception of “PowerJets Ltd.”.
It wasn’t always plain sailing (or flying) for PowerJets Ltd. They struggled for cash but kept going. To the point where Frank got quite unwell from the stress.
Eventually, the Air Ministry was convinced that the project would take-off (if you’ll pardon the pun) and issued contracts for production lines that could produce up to 3,000 engines a month. By April 1941 the engine was ready for testing and the first flight was made in May 1941.
Sir Frank received many honours for his contribution; a knighthood, as well as OM, KBE, CB, FRS and FRAes. He has several memorials built across the country in his honour, Frank died in 1966.
John Logie Baird
Born in Dunbartonshire, Scotland, John Logie Baird was a talented inventor. Like most inventors and original thinkers, some of his ideas weren’t great… For instance, the idea for a glass razor, it was rust resistant – but shattered. He tried to make diamonds by heating graphite – that shortened out Glasgow’s entire power supply. John also invented a pneumatic shoe with inflatable balloons which didn’t exactly “blow up” but was perfected by Dr Marten’s. Perhaps we can live without these failed inventions, but the one that most of us can’t live without was his greatest success.. the television.
John Logie Baid had his fair share of health problems in his younger life. So much so that he was rejected from the Army and deemed unfit for service. Baird went on to work for an electrical company in Clyde where he first started to learn more about the power of electricity. After the end of the war, John went on to set up his own business.
The invention of the television can’t be fully attributed to Baird, although it is widely known that he was the most important pioneer when it came to the development of the television.
In his lab, in a cold October in 1925, John Logie Baird transmitted the first television picture; a greyscale image of a creepy looking mannequin doll called “Stooky Bill”.
Below is "Stooky Bill" & John.
Baird was excited and went looking for publicity, he went to the “Daily Express” newspaper, it is reported that the staff at the newspaper we scared of Baird. They thought he was a crazy man. Who in their right mind believes that they have a machine for seeing things by wireless?! Perhaps they knew that this was the beginning of the end for the news in paper form!
January 1926 came around and Baird demonstrated his machine to the Royal Institution by this time the image quality was improving and they, of course, were very impressed. By 1928 colour images were being used.
After this, we saw the invention develop into nationwide broadcasts and fully electronic TVs were invented in the 1930s.
John Logie Baird died of a stroke in 1946 at the age of 57. He has been honoured in a number of ways, his former home has been built into apartments known as “Baird Court”, the “Logie Awards” is the name for the television awards in Australia and he was the only deceased subject to be featured on “This is Your Life”.
Hubert Cecil Booth
When we think of vacuum cleaners, we think of Dyson. James Dyson is credited with the invention of the bagless vacuum cleaner. Hubert Cecil Booth was born in Gloucester in 1871. In 1889 He made his way to London to study at the Central Technical College where he studied civil engineering and mechanical engineering.
Hubert was a designing extraordinaire, he worked for a civil engineering company where he designed Ferris wheels, bridges, and engines for Royal Navy battleships.
Vacuum cleaners already existed, but they were used to blow dirt away and no suck it up. Booth travelled to the Empire Music Hall in London to watch a demonstration of a vacuum cleaner. As he watched the device blow the dirt away, he thought that if you could add a filter between the suction apparatus and the outside air, the dust could be retained and be a lot more hygienic.
Hubert went about to test his theory, how? Well, he put a handkerchief on a chair, sucked it up to his mouth and then tried to suck up as much dust as he could into the handkerchief. This confirmed that his idea could work!
“Puffing Billy” was the name of Hubert’s first device. It featured an internal combustion engine. His second device was powered by electricity. Both designs were huge and had to be transported via horse-drawn carriage.
Originally, Booth didn’t plan to sell his invention. He sold cleaning services, going around to homes and feeding the big machine’s nozzle through the windows to reach the rooms inside the house. The size and the deafening sound of the device lead to many complaints from the locals, despite them being happy with the results!
Booth’s cleaner was then used to clean the carpets of Westminster before the coronation of Edward VII in 1901 and it was also used by the Navy to improve the hygiene of the barracks.
In 1901, Booth patented his machine and founded “Goblin”, his own company that would sell cleaning services and improve upon his inventions for decades to come. Although the company was never as well known or successful as Hoover or Dyson, the company still exists today (as a subsidiary of Quirepace).
Hubert Cecil Booth was offered a knighthood, but subsequently turned it down and died in 1955 at the age of 83.
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