List of British innovations and discoveries

The following is a list and timeline of innovations as well as inventions and discoveries that involved British people or the United Kingdom including predecessor states in the history of the formation of the United Kingdom. This list covers innovation and invention in the mechanical, electronic, and industrial fields, as well as medicine, military devices and theory, artistic and scientific discovery and innovation, and ideas in religion and ethics.

The scientific revolution in 17th century Europe stimulated innovation and discovery in Britain.[1] Experimentation was considered central to innovation by groups such as the Royal Society, which was founded in 1660. The English patent system evolved from its medieval origins into a system that recognised intellectual property; this encouraged invention and spurred on the Industrial Revolution from the late 18th century.[2] During the 19th century, innovation in Britain led to revolutionary changes in manufacturing, the development of factory systems, and growth of transportation by railway and steam ship that spread around the world.[3] In the 20th century, Britain's rate of innovation, measured by patents registered,[4] slowed in comparison to other leading economies. Nonetheless, science and technology in Britain continued to develop rapidly in absolute terms.

17th century

  • John Napier publishes his work Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio introducing the concept of logarithms which simplifies mathematical calculations.[6][7]

18th century

  • An improved seed drill is designed by Jethro Tull.[13] It is used to spread seeds around a field with a rotating handle which makes seed planting a lot easier.
  • The Rotherham plough, the first plough to be widely built in factories and commercially successful, is patented by Joseph Foljambe.[17]
  • Andrew Rodger invents the winnowing machine.
  • The earliest known reference to baseball is made in a publication, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, by John Newbery. It contains a rhymed description of "base-ball" and a woodcut that shows a field set-up somewhat similar to the modern game—though in a triangular rather than diamond configuration, and with posts instead of ground-level bases.[19]
  • Invention of hollow-pipe drainage is credited to Sir Hugh Dalrymple who died in 1753.[20]
  • Scottish economist Adam Smith, often known as 'The father of modern economics',[23] publishes his seminal text The Wealth of Nations.[24][25]
  • The Watt steam engine, conceived in 1765, goes into production. It is the first type of steam engine to make use of steam at a pressure just above atmospheric.

19th century

  • A design for a chemical telegraph is patented by Alexander Bain. Bain's telegraph is installed on the wires of the Electric Telegraph Company on one line. Later, in 1850, it was used in America by Henry O'Reilly.[44]
  • English physician Alexander Wood develops a medical hypodermic syringe with a needle fine enough to pierce the skin.[48]
  • The first commercially successful safety bicycle, called the Rover, is designed by John Kemp Starley. The following year Dan Albone produces a derivative of this called the Ivel Safety cycle.

20th century

  • The first wireless signal across the Atlantic is sent from Cornwall in England and received in Newfoundland in Canada (a distance of 2,100 miles) by Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi.[57]
  • The first commercially successful light farm tractor is patented by Dan Albone.[58][59]
  • In Sorbonne, France, Englishman Edwin Belin demonstrates a mechanical scanning device, an early precursor to modern television.
  • The Anglepoise lamp is patented by George Carwardine, a design consultant specialising in vehicle suspension systems.
  • The concept of microprogramming is developed by Maurice Wilkes from the realisation that the Central Processing Unit (CPU) of a computer could be controlled by a miniature, highly specialised computer program in high-speed ROM.
  • LEO is the first business application (a payroll system) on an electronic computer.
  • Autocode, regarded as the first compiled programming language, is developed for the Manchester Mark 1 by Alick Glennie.
  • Englishman Francis Crick and American James Watson of Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, analysed X-ray crystallography data taken by Rosalind Franklin of King's College, to decipher the double helical structure of DNA. They share the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work.[69]
  • The first accurate atomic clock, a caesium standard based on a certain transition of the caesium-133 atom, is built by Louis Essen at the National Physical Laboratory. This clock enabled further development of general relativity, and started a basis for an enhanced SI unit system.[70]
  • A pioneer of the development of dairy farming systems, Rex Paterson, set out his principles for labour management.[74]
  • The Touchscreen was invented by E.A.Johnson working at the Radar Research Establishment, Malvern, Worcestershire. [75]
  • The first SMS message in the world is sent over the UK's GSM network.
  • Animal cloning, a female domestic sheep became the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell, by scientists at the Roslin institute.[87]
  • Scottish scientists at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, produce the first mammal cloned from an adult cell.[88]
  • The ThrustSSC jet-propelled car, designed and built in England, sets the land speed record.

21st century

  • Beagle 2, a British landing spacecraft that forms part of the European Space Agency's 2003 Mars Express mission lands on the surface of Mars but fails to communicate. It is located twelve years later in a series of images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that suggest two of Beagle's four solar panels failed to deploy, blocking the spacecraft's communications antenna.
  • Raspberry Pi, a single-board computer, is launched and quickly becomes popular for education in programming and computer science.[93]
  • The European Space Agency's Philae lander leaves the Rosetta spacecraft and makes the first ever landing on a comet. The Philae lander was built with significant British expertise and technology, alongside that of several other countries.[94][95]


Clock making

Clothing manufacturing




Household appliances

Ideas, Religion and Ethics

Industrial processes




Musical instruments


Publishing firsts









Other railway developments



Scientific innovations


See also


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