6 British Inventions that Changed the World
Britain has long been characterised as a nation of inventors.
Particularly in the nineteenth century, the country churned out invention after invention. Many of these did not change the world, but still feature in our daily lives all the same, such as the lawnmower (Edwin Beard Budding, 1827), chocolate bar (JS Fry & Sons, 1847), linoleum (Frederick Walton, 1860) and Thermos flask (Sir James Dewar, 1892). But there were still more that have had a lasting impact worldwide, without which it would be hard to imagine the world we live in today.
In this article, we take a look at six such influential inventions from the late eighteenth century onwards, how they came about, and why their impact was so significant.
1. Toothbrush (William Addis, 1780)
You might have seen one of the famous Bills of Mortality from the plague year of 1665, listing deaths from various causes in London. Plague is obviously the leading cause of death – killing over 7,000 people in one of the most-cited bills. Some of the other causes are almost comical, at least with the passage of time – one killed by a fall from the belfry at Alhallows the Great, 11 killed by the somewhat mysterious ‘rising of the lights’. But after plague, fever and consumption (tuberculosis), the leading cause of death, killing 121 people, is ‘teeth’.
It seems hard to believe in modern days of good dentistry and dental hygiene that bad teeth could lead to anything more dangerous than bad breath. But without that access to dentistry or reasonable methods for dental hygiene, people’s teeth were usually covered in layers of plaque and they suffered a variety of dental diseases. Before antibiotics, any bacterial infection was significantly more dangerous. It may be that the numbers who died of ‘teeth’ are too low, and some of those who died of fever in fact died of an uncontrolled infection from their poor dental hygiene. Good dental health may also reduce the likelihood of heart disease.
There have been methods for keeping teeth clean for a long time. Chew sticks – essentially twigs with a frayed end to help brush teeth – have been found dating back to 3,500 BC. Toothbrushes using hog bristles were created in China between 600 and 900 AD. William Addis’ innovation in 1780 was to create mass-produced toothbrushes, based on an idea he had while imprisoned for causing a riot: a bone drilled with horsehair bristles stuck through the holes, in essence like a modern toothbrush. Mass-produced toothbrushes took another century to make it to the USA, where brushing teeth did not become routine until the Second World War. It’s now normal to brush your teeth twice a day, and William Addis helped make it so.
2. Vaccines (Edward Jenner, 1796)
There were means of developing immunity to otherwise deadly diseases before Edward Jenner came along. In our article on unsung British heroes, we discussed the technique of variolation, brought to Britain from Turkey by Mary Wortley Montagu, which was a primitive form of vaccination. There was the simpler method, too, whereby people sought for their children to become infected by potentially deadly diseases that were safer to catch in childhood than adulthood. It’s hard to imagine how tough a decision faced parents who had to decide between risking their children’s lives by encouraging them to catch a disease at a young age, and knowing that the danger of catching it later in life would be vastly greater.
One such disease was smallpox, which killed 400,000 Europeans annually during the 18th century – that’s from a population of around 150 million in total. Approximately 30% of people who caught smallpox died. The death rates were higher in parts of the world where the disease had been more recently introduced – approximately 50% of Aboriginal populations on the east coast of Australia died of smallpox when colonial settlers first arrived there in the late 18th century.
It had been noted by several physicians by the time that Edward Jenner was practising that people who had caught cowpox – a disease with smallpox-like symptoms, but much less deadly – didn’t go on to catch smallpox. Other physicians had tried to vaccinate themselves, their family and friends with cowpox in order to avoid smallpox, with some success. In 1796, however, Jenner not only successful infected an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps – his gardener’s son – with a mild version of cowpox, he also tested the idea that this would protect him from smallpox by repeatedly exposing him to the disease. Phipps proved to be immune. Jenner went on to test his theory on another 23 people, published his findings, and in 1840, the British government began to provide cowpox vaccinations against smallpox free of charge.
Between 300 and 500 million people are estimated to have died of smallpox during the 20th century alone, but in considerable part thanks to the work of Edward Jenner – and the bravery of eight-year-old James Phipps – the disease was declared eradicated in 1979. There are now vaccines available for 25 different diseases, and some of those, such as polio, were once mass killers and are now virtually extinct.
3. Steam locomotive and passenger railway (Richard Trevithick, 1802, and George Stephenson, 1825)
In the early nineteenth century, if you wanted to travel a long distance, you had to go by stagecoach – an enclosed coach pulled by horses. They could travel at up to eight miles an hour. An elaborate system of staging posts enabled the coach to keep going with fresh horses so that long-distance express services were possible. The journey from London to York along the Great North Road in 1815 took 20 hours by stagecoach; a hundred and fifty years earlier, with poorer roads and less infrastructure, the journey would have taken four days.
The steam locomotive was first designed by Richard Trevithick in 1802, and by 1804 it was being put to use hauling iron in Wales. In 1814, George Stephenson designed his first locomotive to haul coal. Locomotives used for this kind of haulage were powerful rather than fast; Stephenson’s first locomotive travelled at just 4 miles per hour.
But in 1825, Stephenson had got far enough to open the Stockton and Darlington Railway, on which his engine Locomotion achieved a maximum speed of 24 miles per hour. When he opened the much longer Liverpool and Manchester Railway, some people feared that the human body might not be able to survive the speeds at which the engines travelled; they believed that people might not be able to breathe, or that their eyes would be damaged from seeing the motion. But the railways caught on so quickly that by the 1840s most London-based stagecoaches had vanished, and by 1854 6,000 miles of railways served 100 million journeys annually. The railway changed how Victorians enjoyed holidays, what they ate, and even required a standardisation of keeping time across the country that had never existed before. They effectively ushered in the dawn of the modern age.
4. Programming (Ada Lovelace, 1842)
Ada Lovelace is known for two things: being the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, and her work as the world’s first computer programmer.
The two are connected. Ada Lovelace’s mother, Anne Milbanke, married Lord Byron with a determination to mend his character; she described him to her mother as “a very bad, very good man”, but over time it became clear that from her perspective, the badness in his character outweighed the goodness. She believed him to have gone mad, and was particularly horrified by rumours that he was having an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. She was determined to save Ada Lovelace from taking after her husband, and so educated her in science and mathematics in the hope that this would protect her from any Byronic inheritances.
Lovelace remained interested in her father’s life, but her unusual education served her well in a different way. From the 1830s, she worked with Charles Babbage, inventor of the first mechanical computer in the form of his Difference Engine and Analytical Engine. These machines were designed but not built during Babbage’s lifetime. Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer programme in the form of a programme for the Analytical Engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers, which appeared in her notes on her translation of an article explaining how the Analytical Engine worked.
Unlike her contemporaries, Lovelace realised that the Engine “might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations” – a remarkable understanding of what computers might do that wasn’t made reality for another century.
5. Sewage systems (Joseph Bazalgette, 1865)
London in the mid-19th century had an antiquated sewer system consisting of 200,000 cesspits and 360 sewers. Some leaked methane, which exploded. Most poured effluent directly into the Thames, at an ever-increasing rate as the city’s population grew rapidly. Outbreaks of cholera from sewage leaking into the water were frequent; over 10,000 people died in one cholera outbreak from 1853-4.
And in July and August 1858, the smell was so bad that it was termed ‘the Great Stink’. The City Press wrote that “gentility of speech is at an end—it stinks, and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.” £1,500 a week was spent pouring lime onto the Thames foreshore at low tide to counteract the smell – that’s over £160,000 in today’s money. It was clear that something had to be done, which is where Joseph Bazalgette came in.
In 1856, Bazalgette, in his role as Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works had produced plans for a complex system of sewers under London. The concept of a sewer system was by no means new, but Bazalgette’s ideas were remarkably innovative. Yet implementing his plans would have come at enormous expense – his maximum estimate of costs was £2.3 million, or the equivalent of £223 million today. The cholera outbreaks were only just beginning to be linked to polluted water, so it took the extreme of the Great Stink for Bazalgette’s plan to be put into action. His sewers were opened in 1865 and brought the cholera outbreaks to an end. Thousands of lives were saved, and Bazalgette’s sewer system is still in operation serving 10 million Londoners today.
6. World Wide Web (Tim Berners-Lee, 1989)
There are two key factors to Tim Berners-Lee’s incredible invention of the World Wide Web. First is that he invented it at all. Second is that he insisted that it should be free.
The internet had been developed from the 1960s onwards in order to connect military and academic computer networks together, enabling fast communication over wide distances. This enabled emails and other messages to be sent. But what we think of today when we think of the Internet – that whole online world that we gain access to mostly via web browsers – came about because of Tim Berners-Lee.
Berners-Lee’s idea was of a global, interconnected information system that could be accessed via the internet. He came up with the proposal in 1989 of “a large hypertext database with typed links” and over the course of the next year created everything that such a database would require to run, from HTML to the first web browser and editor. By 1991, Berners-Lee made this – now called the World Wide Web – publically available.
If you are reading this article, you know how the story went from there. In 2014, the billionth website was created, and approximately half of the population is now online. We use the World Wide Web to communicate with colleagues, friends and family, to access information, to go shopping and for countless other daily activities. And almost all of it is free, because Berners-Lee decided not to patent his invention, nor to use any technology that required royalties. Since the launch and rise in popularity of the internet, he has been a staunch defender of net neutrality and digital rights. The World Wide Web has been around for just a little over 25 years – so its long-term impact may not yet even have begun.
Image credits: steam locomotive; toothbrush; vaccine; train tracks; programming; thames; ipad.