It might seem like the Far East and the USA are where the biggest tech breakthroughs are being made these days, but it wasn’t always that way. From the Industrial Revolution to the computer, Britain has been a world leader in innovation for a sizeable portion of modern history. And we’ve scoured the archives to bring you 20 of the most important breakthroughs made by British brainboxes.
Developed by Cambridge-based Acorn in the early 80s and debuting in the BBC Micro, the Acorn RISC Machine processor – or more precisely its streamlined architecture – has revolutionised modern computing and mobile technology. ARM-based chips are used in the iPhone, iPad, Samsung Galaxy Note 3, Samsung Galaxy Gear and so much more: in 2010, ARM-based CPUs held a staggering 95 percent share of the smartphone market. And by 2015, ARM predicts that over half of all tablets, mini-notebooks and other mobile PCs sold will run on its architecture.
Doubtless Scotland’s most famous invention since haggis, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone is a controversial one – because many people maintain that he "stole" the idea from American inventor Elisha Gray, or at least came up with it later.
Whatever the truth, Bell succeeded in getting the patent in 1876, and the rest is history. And there's no denying he was a scientific genius, racking up patents for the photophone and wax phonograph, and creating an induction balance metal detector – in a bid to save the life of US President James Garfield from an assassin's bullet.
Bell's mind would've been well and truly boggled by modern smartphones, but his telephone was the starting point. Oh, and Gray is generally credited with inventing the music synthesiser, so don’t feel too bad for him and his legacy.
Another contentious one, the invention of television is generally credited to Scotsman John Logie Baird, and if we define “television” as the broadcast of moving images, he was the first to do so (privately, in 1925) – but only at a speed of 5fps. By January of 1926, he had upped the speed to 12.5fps and demonstrated it to the press and scientific community – and the rest, as they say, is history.
What, we wonder, would Logie Baird have made of HDTV, live 3D broadcasts and 4K movies showing on vast OLED screens? Without his initial breakthrough, we probably wouldn’t have any of those things today (on the flipside, neither would we have Keeping Up With The Kardashians).
While the concept of a steam engine goes all the way back to ancient Greece, James Watt’s 1871 developments to the existing Newcomen engine (used to pump water out of mines) made steam power quite literally the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution, and him one of the architects of the modern world. He also came up with the concept of horsepower as a measurement of energy, and his name has been immortalised in the word we use for a unit of power: the watt.
Image credit: Thomas Mues
The first example of what would today be considered a fax machine was invented by Scots engineer and clockmaker Alexander Bain, who was awarded a patent in 1843 for a machine able to make a copy of an image via transmission. While email and MMS have overtaken fax as methods of instantly sending documents and images, Bain’s basic idea remains in use today.