9 Amazing Things Invented in Cambridge
Cambridge has long been a hub of invention.
From the creations of Isaac Newton, Cambridge’s Lucasian Professor in the 1600s, to the modern-day innovation coming out of the technological hub of the Silicon Fen in the 21st century, a remarkable number of inventions have been produced here. In many cases, the inventors have been among the staff and students of the University of Cambridge, but in others, they have simply been drawn to the opportunities available in the city and its surroundings.
Computing technologies make up a lot of the inventions on this list, but there is some variety here, including inventions that improve our lives every day and ones that helped to create the modern world.
1. Reflecting telescope (1688)
Probably Cambridge’s best-known inventor was Sir Isaac Newton, a remarkable scientist, mathematician and alchemist who lived from 1642 to 1726 and whose creations appear more than once on this list.
He was a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, but also found time to formulate the laws of universal motion and gravitation, to develop calculus, to advance the field of optics, to experiment with alchemy – which had grave consequences for his own health – and, by the by, to save Britain’s coinage and pull the economy back from potential disaster during his final years, away from Cambridge, as Warden and Master of the Royal Mint.
Newton’s experiments in optics, including doing dangerous things with his own eyes, led him to the correct belief that white light was composed of a spectrum of colours. From this, he drew the conclusion that this was what caused the colour distortion in the refracting telescopes that were already available to him. Reflecting telescopes would avoid this problem by using mirrors rather than lenses. When Newton built one, he was proven right, seeing astronomical features without colour distortion, although more dimly than through refracting telescopes. All the same, the telescope was impressive enough that the Royal Society demonstrated it to Charles II in 1672, leading Newton to be admitted to the society in the same year.
2. The rules of football (1848)
Humans have been playing games along the lines of football for pretty much as long as balls have been invented. The essential game is straightforward: kick a ball through some manner of opening, and a bit of common sense then adds a net to ensure the ball can be retrieved. Similar games have been played across the ancient world, in Greece, China and Australia.
Modern football – or association football, or soccer, depending on your preferred name – dates back to English medieval games of football. The ball was a pig’s bladder, and the games were usually played between opposing towns or villages, over huge areas – such as an entire town, or the distance between two villages – and involving any number of players. There were no real rules beyond keeping vaguely to the rules of law, and some depictions of medieval football in poems and illustrations describe players with bruises and broken limbs. Bearing in mind the limitations of medieval medicine, it’s not impossible that some medieval games of football would have resulted in fatalities.
The 1835 Highway Act brought an end to these games, as it banned the playing of football on public highways at a maximum penalty of forty shillings – approximately £550 in today’s money. Football became a game that was played at schools and universities on designated pitches, instead of out on the streets. Each school played according to different rules, which caused chaos when schools met. Finally, in 1848, representatives of Eton, Harrow, Shrewsbury, Rugby and Winchester schools met at Trinity College, Cambridge to create the Cambridge Rules – which were widely adopted, and form the basis of the rules of football today.
3. Webcams (1991)
The story behind the invention of the webcam is the story of how laziness can lead to great things. It was invented in 1991, which you might note predates the ability of web browsers to display images, something which did not become possible until 1993.
Researchers working in the Computer Laboratory of the University of Cambridge were in 1991 the proud owners of a filter coffee machine, which provided them with a necessary pick-me-up every so often. However, the coffee machine sat in the Trojan Room, which for many researchers was something of a trek from their desks. They were understandably less than happy to be walking to the coffee pot only to find it empty.
A group of researchers therefore had the bright idea of setting up a camera next to the coffee machine that took a greyscale 128x128px photo of the coffee pot at regular intervals, and provided it to all the computers on the local network through a programme they wrote called XCoffee.
Once browsers were equipped with the ability to display pictures, this was rapidly moved onto the fledgling World Wide Web, where it became a popular site until the Computer Laboratory moved premises in 2001, and it had to be shut down. The shutdown itself received global media attention. The laziness of some computer scientists had created possibly the most famous coffee pot in history.
4. IVF (1968-78)
Perhaps one of the most positive contributions Cambridge has ever given to the world is the work of Robert Edwards, the physiologist who pioneered in-vitro fertilisation, or IVF, a technique that can allow infertile couples to have children.
In essence, it’s the process of removing eggs from a woman’s ovaries, fertilising them in liquid in a laboratory, growing the resulting zygote for a few days and then implanting the zygote into either the same woman’s uterus or another woman’s uterus, hopefully resulting in a successful pregnancy. It’s a technique that has by now resulted in over four million children being born worldwide.
Robert Edwards developed the technique over a ten-year period, working in Cambridge. In 1968, he first fertilised an egg in the laboratory, and alongside Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologic surgeon, developed the culture media to allow the zygote to grow in the lab in advance of implantation. Ten years after Edwards fertilised that first egg outside of the womb, the first IVF baby was born. She was called Louise Brown, and her parents had been trying to conceive for nine years with no success until her birth. In 2010, Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work. In his absence, the award was collected by his wife Ruth Fowler Edwards, herself a noted scientist.
5. The ARM processor (1983-1985)
Acorn Computers was founded in Cambridge in 1978, and became known for a number of popular computers in the UK, particularly the BBC Micro model B. While Acorn Computers itself no longer exists, one of its subsidiaries, ARM Holdings, has recently been bought for £23.6 billion, and around 95% of smartphones in 2010 had ARM-based CPUs.
This success derives considerably from the development by computer scientist and software engineer Sophie Wilson of the RISC processor, Acorn RISC Machine – or ARM – in the early 1980s. RISC processors use a small and highly optimised set of instructions and are highly efficient when combined with a microprocessor that uses fewer cycles per instruction.
Practically speaking, this means that Wilson’s ARM processor used very little electricity and produced very little heat in comparison with competing methods. That reduces the need for a fan and helps extend battery life – which helps to explain why ARM processors have become so integral to smartphone technology. They are also used in mobile computers, digital TVs and set-top boxes. Around 50 billion chips with ARM cores have been produced. To put it another way, you’re probably within a few metres of several examples of this magnificent Cambridge invention right now.
6. A algorithm for iris recognition (1991)
Everyone knows that a person’s fingerprints are unique. But fingerprints are also easily smudged, concealed by gloves or temporarily marred by cuts and scrapes, and fingerprint matching can be inexact. Another unique feature of our bodies that is harder to mark or conceal is the iris. The patterns of the iris are unique and stable just as fingerprints are, and so irises are used for identification of more than a billion people by the biometric systems of governments worldwide. But this was only made possible by the work of Cambridge professor of computer vision, John Daugman.
Daugman’s algorithm encodes the random patterns that can be seen in the iris, and then compares this to a stored template. Because it is so unlikely that two patterns would match by chance, this allows identification to be made based on the iris pattern. It’s a technique that sounds simple, but has enabled rapid security screening that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible – and he developed it less than ten years after it had been confirmed that the iris could be used as a human identifier.
7. Thermos flask (1892)
While the webcam was invented because scientists used advanced technology to do a mundane thing, the thermos flask was developed for highly technical laboratory use – and now we use it to make sure that our coffee doesn’t go cold on the way to work.
In the late nineteenth century, Sir James Dewar was working as Jacksonian professor of natural experimental philosophy in the University of Cambridge, carrying out experiments in what we would term Chemistry today. He was working on the process of turning elements and compounds that were gaseous at room temperature into liquids, which involved carrying out research at temperatures approaching absolute zero.
But storing the liquid gases for long enough to investigate them properly was an enduring challenge. Dewar hit upon the idea of using vacuum-jacketed flasks in order to preserve their low temperature, which worked remarkably well. Dewar decided not to patent his invention, which was then adapted for commercial use by what became the Thermos company – giving Dewar’s flask its name and making it a household item.
8. The first graphical computer game (1952)
The game of noughts and crosses, or tic-tac-toe, has been played for thousands of years – perhaps in some variation, as long ago as ancient Egypt. It was certainly popular in the Roman Empire around the first century BC. It’s a straightforward game with only 765 different possible positions, which makes it a natural choice for basic computer games.
Computer games were very basic indeed at the point when Sandy Douglas at the University of Cambridge created OXO – a graphical noughts and crosses computer game that is arguably the first such game ever to have been invented. It was run on Cambridge’s vast early computer, called EDSAC, which at the time could run programs of no more than 800 words. The game output its graphics to a VCR, and players indicated their moves using the controls of an old-fashioned rotary telephone. The game could only be played for academic research purposes, as computing time was limited and hugely expensive – but from these humble origins, all modern computer games followed.
9. The cat flap (late 1600s)
Unfortunately, this story of a Cambridge invention is almost certainly not true, but it’s too charming not to include all the same. It has been claimed by several biographers that Sir Isaac Newton – mentioned above, of the reflecting telescope, calculus and the salvation of the British economy – was also irritated by his pet cat, the unfortunately named Spithead, and her kittens scratching at the door to be admitted to his workroom.
He invented a straightforward solution: one cat-sized cat flap and one kitten-sized cat flap – although, the story goes, the ‘kitten flap’ remained unused as all the kittens just followed their mother through the larger door. ‘Cat holes’ were already in use, but Newton allegedly provided the flap part so that the hole didn’t cause a draft.
As one biographer wrote, “Whether this account be true or false, indisputably true is that there are in the door to this day two plugged holes of proper dimensions for the respective egresses of cat and kitten.” So while Newton himself might not have been responsible, it seems likely that someone at Trinity College, Cambridge, was the cat lover who was.
Image credits: impatient cat; telescope; king’s college chapel; rainbow; football; webcam; IVF; smartphone; eye; thermos; giant noughts and crosses
Related Blog Posts
9 Engineering Marvels From History
We are so used to living in a world of incredible engineering feats that sometimes we forget how much effort it took to get here.…
May 17, 2017
8 Things That Are Extraordinary About Oxford
Oxford is remarkable in a wide variety of different ways. Here are some of the things that are extraordinary about this city and university.
March 6, 2019
11 Amazing Oxford Traditions
Oxford University surely has more quaint traditions per square mile than any other university. You should also read… 17 of the Best Attractions You Must…
October 31, 2014
10 Great Turning Points in Medical History
What do you think is the greatest achievement of humanity? You might also enjoy… 9 Engineering Marvels From History 6 British Inventions that Changed the…
May 22, 2017