List of British innovations and discoveries

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Engineers during World War Two test a model of a Halifax bomber in a wind tunnel, an invention that dates back to 1871. Birth of a Bomber- Aircraft Production in Britain, 1942 D7080.jpg
Engineers during World War Two test a model of a Halifax bomber in a wind tunnel, an invention that dates back to 1871.

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.

Innovation in its modern meaning is "a new idea, creative thoughts, new imaginations in form of device or method". Innovation is often also viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs. Such innovation takes place through the provision of more-effective products, processes, services, technologies, or business models that are made available to markets, governments and society. An innovation is something original and more effective and, as a consequence, new, that "breaks into" the market or society. Innovation is related to, but not the same as, invention, as innovation is more apt to involve the practical implementation of an invention to make a meaningful impact in the market or society, and not all innovations require an invention. Innovation often manifests itself via the engineering process, when the problem being solved is of a technical or scientific nature. The opposite of innovation is exnovation.

Invention the act of inventing something

An invention is a unique or novel device, method, composition or process. The invention process is a process within an overall engineering and product development process. It may be an improvement upon a machine or product or a new process for creating an object or a result. An invention that achieves a completely unique function or result may be a radical breakthrough. Such works are novel and not obvious to others skilled in the same field. An inventor may be taking a big step toward success or failure.

Discovery is the act of detecting something new, or something previously unrecognized as meaningful. With reference to sciences and academic disciplines, discovery is the observation of new phenomena, new actions, or new events and providing new reasoning to explain the knowledge gathered through such observations with previously acquired knowledge from abstract thought and everyday experiences. A discovery may sometimes be based on earlier discoveries, collaborations, or ideas. Some discoveries represent a radical breakthrough in knowledge or technology.


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.[ according to whom? ] Nonetheless, science and technology in Britain continued to develop rapidly in absolute terms.

Royal Society National academy of science in the United Kingdom

The Royal Society, formally The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, is a learned society and the United Kingdom's national Academy of Sciences. Founded on 28 November 1660, it was granted a royal charter by King Charles II as "The Royal Society". It is the oldest national scientific institution in the world. The society fulfils a number of roles: promoting science and its benefits, recognising excellence in science, supporting outstanding science, providing scientific advice for policy, fostering international and global co-operation, education and public engagement. It also performs these roles for the smaller countries of the Commonwealth.

Patent Intellectual property conferring a monopoly on a new invention

A patent is a form of intellectual property that gives its owner the legal right to exclude others from making, using, selling, and importing an invention for a limited period of years, in exchange for publishing an enabling public disclosure of the invention. In most countries patent rights fall under civil law and the patent holder needs to sue someone infringing the patent in order to enforce his or her rights. In some industries patents are an essential form of competitive advantage; in others they are irrelevant.

Industrial Revolution Transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the United States, in the 18th-19th centuries

The Industrial Revolution, now also known as the First Industrial Revolution, was the transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the United States, in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power and water power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the mechanized factory system. The Industrial Revolution also led to an unprecedented rise in the rate of population growth.

17th century

The 1698 Savery Engine Savery-engine.jpg
The 1698 Savery Engine

Bacon's cipher or the Baconian cipher is a method of steganography devised by Francis Bacon in 1605. A message is concealed in the presentation of text, rather than its content.

Steganography is the practice of concealing a file, message, image, or video within another file, message, image, or video. The word steganography combines the Greek words steganos (στεγᾰνός), meaning "covered or concealed", and graphe (γραφή) meaning "writing".

Francis Bacon English philosopher and statesman

Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban, was an English philosopher and statesman who served as Attorney General and as Lord Chancellor of England. His works are credited with developing the scientific method and remained influential through the scientific revolution.

John Napier Scottish mathematician

John Napier of Merchiston ; also signed as Neper, Nepair; nicknamed Marvellous Merchiston) was a Scottish landowner known as a mathematician, physicist, and astronomer. He was the 8th Laird of Merchiston. His Latinized name was Ioannes Neper.

Logarithm Inverse function of exponentiation that also maps products to sums

In mathematics, the logarithm is the inverse function to exponentiation. That means the logarithm of a given number x is the exponent to which another fixed number, the base b, must be raised, to produce that number x. In the simplest case, the logarithm counts the number of occurrences of the same factor in repeated multiplication; e.g., since 1000 = 10 × 10 × 10 = 103, the "logarithm to base 10" of 1000 is 3. The logarithm of x to baseb is denoted as logb (x), or without parentheses, logbx, or even without the explicit base, log x—if no confusion is possible.

Submarine Watercraft capable of independent operation underwater

A submarine is a watercraft capable of independent operation underwater. It differs from a submersible, which has more limited underwater capability. It is also sometimes used historically or colloquially to refer to remotely operated vehicles and robots, as well as medium-sized or smaller vessels, such as the midget submarine and the wet sub. Submarines are referred to as "boats" rather than "ships" irrespective of their size.

William Bourne was an English mathematician, innkeeper and former Royal Navy gunner who presented the first design for a navigable submarine and wrote important navigational manuals. He is often called William Bourne of Gravesend.

Desalination Removal of salts and minerals from a substance

Desalination is a process that takes away mineral components from saline water. More generally, desalination refers to the removal of salts and minerals from a target substance, as in soil desalination, which is an issue for agriculture.


18th century

The Watt steam engine was conceived in 1765. James Watt transformed the steam engine from a reciprocating motion that was used for pumping to a rotating motion suited to industrial applications. Watt and others significantly improved the efficiency of the steam engine. Maquina vapor Watt ETSIIM.jpg
The Watt steam engine was conceived in 1765. James Watt transformed the steam engine from a reciprocating motion that was used for pumping to a rotating motion suited to industrial applications. Watt and others significantly improved the efficiency of the steam engine.

19th century

A trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine, first described by Charles Babbage in 1837 AnalyticalMachine Babbage London.jpg
A trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine, first described by Charles Babbage in 1837

20th century

A Colossus computer, developed by British codebreakers in 1943-1945 Colossus.jpg
A Colossus computer, developed by British codebreakers in 1943–1945

21st century



Clock making

Clothing manufacturing




Household appliances

Ideas, Religion and Ethics

Industrial processes




Musical instruments


Publishing firsts









Other railway developments



Scientific innovations


See also

Related Research Articles

Bell Labs Research and scientific development company

Nokia Bell Labs is an industrial research and scientific development company owned by Finnish company Nokia. With headquarters located in Murray Hill, New Jersey, the company operates several laboratories in the United States and around the world. Bell Labs has its origins in the complex past of the Bell System.

Robert Hooke English natural philosopher, architect and polymath

Robert Hooke FRS was an English natural philosopher, architect and polymath. As a young adult, he was a financially impoverished scientific inquirer, but came into wealth and good reputation following his actions as Surveyor to the City of London after the great fire of 1666 . At that time, he was also the curator of experiments of the Royal Society, and a member of its council, Gresham Professor of Geometry. He was also an important architect of his time—though few of his buildings now survive and some of those are generally misattributed—and was instrumental in devising a set of planning controls for London, the influence of which remains today. Allan Chapman has characterised him as "England's Leonardo".

Timeline of microscope technology timeline

Timeline of microscope technology

The timeline of historic inventions is a chronological list of particularly important or significant technological inventions and the people who created the inventions.

Local Heroes is an award-winning science and history television programme in the United Kingdom, presented by Adam Hart-Davis.

100 Greatest Britons is a television series that was broadcast by the BBC in 2002. It was based on a television poll conducted to determine who the British people at that time considered the greatest Britons in history. The series included individual programmes featuring the top ten, with viewers having further opportunity to vote after each programme. It concluded with a debate and final determination of the ranking of the top ten. Although many living people were included among the top 100, all of the top ten were deceased.

Royal Institution scientific education and research organisation based in London

The Royal Institution of Great Britain is an organisation devoted to scientific education and research, based in London. It was founded in 1799 by the leading British scientists of the age, including Henry Cavendish and its first president, George Finch, the 9th Earl of Winchilsea. Its foundational principles were diffusing the knowledge of, and facilitating the general introduction of, useful mechanical inventions and improvements, as well as enhancing the application of science to the common purposes of life.

Birmingham is one of England's principal industrial centres and has a history of industrial and scientific innovation. It was once known as 'city of a thousand trades' and in 1791, Arthur Young described Birmingham as "the first manufacturing town in the world". Right up until the mid-19th century Birmingham was regarded as the prime industrial urban town in Britain and perhaps the world, the town's rivals were more specific in their trade bases. Mills and foundries across the world were helped along by the advances in steam power and engineering that were taking place in the city. The town offered a vast array of industries and was the world's leading manufacturer of metal ware, although this was by no means the only trade flourishing in the town.

Scottish inventions and discoveries

Scottish inventions and discoveries are objects, processes or techniques either partially or entirely invented, innovated, or discovered by a person born in or descended from Scotland. In some cases, an invention's Scottishness is determined by the fact that it came into existence in Scotland, by non-Scots working in the country. Often, things that are discovered for the first time are also called "inventions" and in many cases there is no clear line between the two.

Irish inventions and discoveries are objects, processes or techniques which owe their existence either partially or entirely to an Irish person. Often, things which are discovered for the first time, are also called "inventions", and in many cases, there is no clear line between the two. Below is a list of such inventions.

Timeline of United States inventions (before 1890)

A timeline of United States inventions encompasses the ingenuity and innovative advancements of the United States within a historical context, dating from the Colonial Period to the Gilded Age, which have been achieved by inventors who are either native-born or naturalized citizens of the United States. Copyright protection secures a person's right to his or her first-to-invent claim of the original invention in question, highlighted in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution, which gives the following enumerated power to the United States Congress:

Science and technology in the United Kingdom

Science and technology in the United Kingdom has a long history, producing many important figures and developments in the field. Major theorists from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland include Isaac Newton whose laws of motion and illumination of gravity have been seen as a keystone of modern science and Charles Darwin whose theory of evolution by natural selection was fundamental to the development of modern biology. Major scientific discoveries include hydrogen by Henry Cavendish, penicillin by Alexander Fleming, and the structure of DNA, by Francis Crick and others. Major engineering projects and applications pursued by people from the United Kingdom include the steam locomotive developed by Richard Trevithick and Andrew Vivian, the jet engine by Frank Whittle and the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee. The United Kingdom continues to play a major role in the development of science and technology and major technological sectors include the aerospace, motor and pharmaceutical industries.

John Dixon Gibbs (1834–1912) was a British engineer and financier who, together with Lucien Gaulard, is often credited as the co-inventor of the AC step-down transformer. The transformer was first demonstrated in 1883 at London's Royal Aquarium. At the time the term "transformer" had not yet been invented, so instead it was referred to as a "secondary generator". Although he is usually credited equally with Gaulard, Gibb's role in the invention appears to have been more that of a financial backer and businessman.


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