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The Best of British

Posted by Joe McNamara on 31st May 2012

Britain’s historical contribution to the world of technology provides some fascinating insights into how defining moments in history often hinge technological innovation. British breakthroughs have fundamentally led to some of the most decorated moments in our history. In just the same way that the Age of Discovery would not have happened without the compass, Britain has its technical sons of yesteryear to thank for periods of industrial dominance, victory in intercontinental wars, revolutionising entertainment, and changing communication forevermore.

Let’s start with the obvious ones – the telephone and the television.  The telephone has come a long way since 1875 when Alexander Bell invented the earliest device. Bell would have probably been shocked to learn back then that the television would arrive as soon as the 1920s thanks to John Logie Baird. However, even those tech grandfathers couldn’t have imagined that by the 21st century we would be using our smartphones to watch videos on the train.

Speaking of trains, British tech gurus pioneered the growth of the transport industry all the way back to the early 19th century, during the industrial revolution and birth of hardcore engineering, when the first steam trains arrived (probably late) on the scene. This takes us into the territory where other countries start to take British ideas and make them better. The tank is a classic example of this.

In 1916, the only people who were scared of tanks were the poor Tommies who had to drive the damned things. The secret ‘Water Carrier’ project was initially an epic failure, first showcased at the Somme during WW1. The revered W.C was going to win Britain the war. In reality, it provoked one of the most masochistic episodes of military carnage the world has ever seen. Thankfully, the Russians got it right during WW2 with their infamous T-34 destroyers.

There’s nothing like a good war to tear technical geniuses away from their stereos (another British invention). By the 1930s, with all this technology and transport lying around, somebody was always going to try and blow it up. When they did, it really annoyed Robert Watson Watt, so he invented radar in 1941 a few months into the Blitz. When the bad guys came to blow our cool things up with their own rather awesome fighter jets, we could see them coming.

As an aside, the jet engine is a disputed invention.  The idea was first patented by Frank Whittle, a Coventry born engineer, in 1930 (nine years before Britain declared war). However, it was Hans von Ohain who got the first jet engine working in 1935 (so Mr Goring and co. could try and vandalise Frank’s office with its successors a few years later).

With the air covered, the next problem was the sea, so Alan Turing stepped up later in the same year with his Enigma code breaking machine, deciphering German naval code and intercepting strategic operational messages. James Dyson wasn’t as good at predicting his enemy, so one day in the late 70s when his wife went ballistic because he hadn’t vacuumed properly, he began work on the Dyson. When it comes to British technology, our inventions might be a bit loud, violent and a bit snoopy, but at least we’re tidy.

Joe McNamara