On starting my research into the inventions that changed world history, I couldn’t believe so many indispensable things had British origins.
Apparently, we keep our achievements to ourselves. According to Japanese research, more than forty percent of inventions in the last 50 years have been British ones. That’s quite an astonishing boast for a small island with a (relatively) small population.
Some of the British inventions that follow are so integral to our daily lives that I can hardly choose which I rank as most important.
But I’ll do a countdown nonetheless to create an atmosphere of suspense.
10. The first automatic kettle
It’s unsurprising that we’d find an automatic kettle in a list of British inventions. Of course, the British would be first to come up with a faster method of getting a cup of tea. It takes a long time to boil a kettle of water on the stove and if you drink a few cups a day that can be a problem.
As everyone knows, the answer to all problems in Britain is a cup of tea. So, if you want a quick solution to your problems, you need an electric kettle.
9. World Wide Web
To avoid confusion, the British didn’t invent the internet. That happened in the 1960s, but it was only available to the military and to academic institutions to communicate with each other until the 90s. Tim Berners-Lee invented the web as we know it in 1989.
By 1991, he had made his invention open to the public. Berners-Lee chose not to patent his invention and insisted that it should be free for all to us. It’s him we have to thank that we’re now using this incredible resource without paying a penny.
Of course, other less philanthropic players have monopolized the web since then. The original idea, however, was the most benevolent of creations.
8. The first programmable computer
It’s not just the world wide web but the computer we use to access it that are originally British inventions. The inventor of the first programmable computer was Charles Babbage in the 1820s. As you can probably guess from the dates, he didn’t finish his invention.
Firstly, it lost funding from the British government because of the delays. Then Charles Babbage died before ever seeing his ‘Difference Engine’ and ‘Analytical Engine’, as he called them, completed. It just wasn’t the right time. They were both completed using Babbage’s original designs in the 20th century.
7. The steam locomotive and the passenger railway
These are two separate British inventions, but I will cover them together. The steam locomotive was invented by Richard Trevithick in 1802. The first passenger railway was invented by George Stephenson in 1825. Before railway travel, there had only been horse and cart.
Life would never be the same again. For me, as someone who doesn’t drive, this is still a really important mode of transport. I just wish it wasn’t so ridiculously expensive as it is nowadays in Britain.
6. The first Modern Sewage System
Next on my list of British inventions is one that I’m very grateful for. I can’t imagine what life would be like if everywhere it smelled like poop – horror of horrors! Thank goodness, somebody thought up a way to keeps poops at a good distance.
Good old Joseph Bazalgette, a London engineer, produced his plans for his sewer system in 1856. In the summer of 1858, London stank so much and so many people died of cholera that something had to be done. In 1865, Bazalgette’s sewer system was opened and it still serves 10 million Londoners to this very day! Quite amazing really.
5. The lightbulb
Have you ever experienced a blackout? Needless to say, even if you have candles, it’s not much fun if you have a job to do. You need a lot of candles to light up a room to near the standard of a light bulb. Also, you can really strain your eyes reading by candlelight.
Imagine going to the toilet in the night! You had to put your candles out before sleeping or they’d be a fire hazard. It can’t have been much fun to try to light a match in the pitch dark! So, let’s have a moment of appreciation for British chemist Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, who came up with the first incandescent light bulb.
The first vaccine was invented by Edward Jenner in response to the mass killer virus smallpox. A vaccine uses a virus in a small quantity to make the body produce antibodies to become immune to infection by that virus. In the 18th century, smallpox killed 400,000 Europeans per year.
Jenner realized that people who had been infected with less dangerous cowpox would be immune to smallpox. Thus, he invented a cowpox injection that successfully eradicated cases of smallpox.
In today’s confusing world, this is one of the more controversial British inventions. If you don’t believe in vaccines, it’s probably because you don’t know what life was like before them. I’m old enough to remember seeing people who were crippled by polio in their childhood.
They were conspicuous because of their terrible deformities. The vaccine for polio wasn’t invented until 1952. Thankfully, the vaccine is one of the British inventions discovered before I was born. We don’t realize how lucky we are.
3. The toothbrush
Next on the list of health and hygiene innovations is the simple toothbrush. You might think me crazy for ranking this simple invention so high, but I can explain. In the 1600s, the London Bills of Mortality continually listed “Teeth” as the cause of death.
It was around the 5th or 6th most common cause. Before antibiotics, gum infections and tooth decay would kill people. This is not to mention the suffering caused by not being able to eat, bad breath, and constant pain. Of course, it wasn’t until fluoride was added to the toothpaste that these problems were completely solved, but the toothbrush was a great start.
There are two types of infection, viral and bacterial. Bacterial infections are often more serious because a virus lives for a certain time in a body and then moves on. Bacteria continue proliferating forever if left unchecked. If you look up the damage that bacterial diseases can do to the human body, you’ll be horrified.
In the past, huge numbers of people died in excruciating pain and misery from bacterial infections. Thankfully, the Scottish biologist Sir Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin, the first antibiotic.
The top of my list of British inventions is the refrigerator. It was pretty difficult to decide, but there are a few reasons. The refrigerator is a piece of machinery that offers health and hygiene benefits, convenience, and prevents waste all in one.
It has improved our daily lives hugely and we take it so much for granted that we hardly recognize its ingenuity. Life would be so much harder without a refrigerator. Food would be so much more limited and food poisoning would be much more common. So, let’s raise a glass to Scottish professor William Cullen for inventing this great machine!
There are quite a few more British inventions that I didn’t have space for here. What’s your country’s greatest invention? Let us know in the comment section.