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Daniel Wallis on British Ingenuity

This week saw the announcement that James Dyson, the British engineer, is to found a new academy of design and innovation in order to encourage the development of the creative engineering minds of tomorrow. It is hoped that the academy will help future designers and innovators to better develop their talents and bring Britain back onto the skills map, once again leading the way in scientific and engineering advancement.

It is easy to forget these days that once Britain really was the most advanced country on the planet, with more new inventions and scientific innovations than any other state. The state of the nation’s engineering achievements has since been muted by the input of other nations, and seems to have become rather left behind the exponentially-increasing talents of South East Asia, particularly in fields such as electronics and computing.

Whereas although British inventions do still appear, they are usually only in the first stage of a line of metamorphoses the product takes before hitting the shelves, namely: The British invent it, the US claims the credit, China makes it and Japan makes it smaller. After marketing the crucial British link has been lost and the country loses out on another innovation’s-worth of kudos. So here, as a reminder are some of Britain’s best innovations and inventions, food for thought for anyone unsure about Dyson’s new academy!

A Tinny Sound”¦

The Tin Can. Admit it, you”d overlooked this one! The humble tin can, taken for granted now but of crucial importance in the 19th century, when it allowed longer journeys by ships to be made and opened up the way for countries such as Australia to export their meat. Now probably most associated with another equally humble product, the baked bean. Invented by Peter Durand in 1810 (although it has to be admitted that it wasn”t until 56 years later that an American invented the can-opener).

The Lightbulb. The lightbulb? But surely that was American hero Thomas Edison? Sadly not, as usual the brains were from Britain but history favours the yank. Bulb technology was developed in the late 18th century in Britain, and was the bulb itself was first patented in 1875 by Brits Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans; that sneak Edison bought the patent from Woodward and Evans and gave it the finishing touches, and has been adamantly remembered with pride by Americans ever since.

Rubber Bands. A brilliant combination of utilitarian design and materials science. The mighty rubber band, more memorable for being flicked from the back row of the classroom onto the back of the head of the swots in the front row. Thus was born the appeal of the rubber band, that is the slight, nagging feeling of temptation you feel, on looking at a rubber band, to quickly stretch it between thumb and fingers and send it flying into the neck of your colleague. The effect fades over time, but never completely disappears. Invented by Brit Stephen Perry.

No Dust on This!

The Vacuum-Cleaner. The British seem to have a particular knack for cleaning innovations, and this is also a fitting nod of the head to Dyson himself, who is of course most famous for his spinning hoover thingy. The first vacuum cleaner, designed by Hubert Booth in 1901 was a horse-drawn, petrol-driven monster that parked outside your house with hoses fed through the windows of the house-victim. Again, it was the Americans who had the knack of making great-but-monstrous british inventions marketable, when an Ohio janitor made the machine portable and electric-powered, and called his new invention the Hoover after his cousin’s wealthier husband and vacuum-cleaner financier, William Hoover. A little more thought on Booth’s part, and every home could have a Hubert in their closet.

The Mousetrap. Animal rights aside, this is a design classic. In 1897 James Henry Atkinson invented the timeless cheese-laden snap-trap immortalized for generations by Tom and Jerry cartoons, eventually evoking a kind of paranoia that every dark corner, pocket or shelf has a mousetrap on it. Back in the day however, vermin were a real problem; in pre-trap times your best hope was to swat the invaders with a broom or a shoe, or keep an eye out for the Pied Piper. Thanks to Atkinson, the wretched rodents could be dispatched easily and quickly, and with a satisfying “snap!” sound some time in the night, telling you that justice has been done. Even now, with diy-store shelves filled with dozens of dubious maze-traps and poisons, the classic cheese-snapper is still the most reliable, and the most ironic design; poetic justice, that the mouse’s greed should also be its downfall.

The Lawn Mower. This one makes sense. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, then his lawn is…well, his lawn. Meticulously cropped each summer, hosed illegally with precious summer-time water, and spoken of with the same love and pride that your children expect. Once perfectly mown, what do we do with the lawn? Nothing. The purpose of a perfect lawn is to exist, and be looked at, but not touched. The best part of a lawnsman’s day is the final tap on the head of the little white victory sign reading “Please Keep Off the Grass”. Truly British, and invented by Edwin Beard Budding in 1830.

There are many more, including the submarine and the periscope, the fax machine, the electric motor, corkscrews, polyester and even Viagra (co-invented by one Albert Wood, no really!!). Some have become universally famous, such as the steam locomotive, and others have changed the modern world completely, like the world-wide web, but the best British designs have always been the humble, unseen, uncelebrated but absolutely indispensable ones, and crucially, the ones that last.

May many a rubber band fling out of Dyson’s academy”¦

Daniel Wallis

Stay here for the monkey’s madness in From the FE Trenches!

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