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10 British Inventions We Couldn't Live Without

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by Bryony Harrison (subscribe)
Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from
Published January 13th 2013
Which one do you consider most important?
wallace and gromit, inventions
Britain's favourite inventors.

As a species, humans are constantly striving to achieve, to discover, and to better ourselves. From the time when we were apes up in trees we have been searching for new and better ways to do things, whether is be opening a nut with a stone, or building rockets to the moon. We are a race of inventors. Looking at Britain in particular, we have made some fantastic gadgets. Some make our lives pleasurable, some make our lives convenient, and some go as far as to save lives. Whatever their function, here is a list of ten British inventions that we'd be lost without today.

1. The World Wide Web

The web gives us access to a world of information right at our fingertips. Within seconds (as long as you have a good server) you can read the latest news, find the answers to your science homework, or just share photos with friends. It has connected us in ways never thought possible, and is a vital part of most people's lives. While it may be an inconvenience to us on a personal level if our internet connection goes down (I know what a state I get in if I can't go online), society has grown to dependent on it that our economy would completely collapse without it.

What is hard to believe is that the world wide web has only been around for a little over twenty years. We've had the internet longer, but it was not until 1989 when British computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee showed how hypertext could be linked to the internet to share data. He created the first server in 1990, and the web went live in 1991.

2. Chocolate Bar

My personal favourite (and probably a lot of others too) on the list is the chocolate bar. From a Kit-Kat to a Snickers, we all love chocolate bars. Lindor asks 'do you dream in chocolate?' My definite answer is yes, and I could be more pleased that the world's favourite sweet was invented by a Brit.

Until the 19th century, chocolate had only ever been consumed as a drink, but in 1847, Bristol's JS Fry & Sons came up with a breakthrough idea. By mixing cocoa powder with sugar and cocoa butter, the were able to produce solid chocolate moulded into bars.

3. Light Bulb

I know what you're going to say, but believe it or not, Thomas Edison was not the first person to invent the light bulb. That honour goes to Joseph Swan. He manufactured the first bulb in 1880 after developing a filament that used specially treated cotton. He put it in an oxygen-free environment so that it would not catch fire when it reached white hot.

4. Fire Extinguisher

Fire is a killer, and without the fire extinguishers we have today, many lives would have been lost. The first fire extinguisher on record is from 1723 and was invented by a London chemist called Ambrose Godfrey. But as it used gunpowder to make the device work, you can imagine that it was not very popular - or successful. The modern extinguisher that were are familiar with was actually invented in 1818 by a naval captain called George William Manby. The design was inspired by the need for portability when trying to put out fires in high rise buildings.

5. Steam Engine

Trains are the mother of all public transport today. Although we may grumble about the ever increasing ticket fares, and crowded carriages, without trains, getting around would be much more difficult. But if it was not for the steam engine, which was invented in 1801, trains would never have been possible. The steam engine was a key factor in the Industrial Revolution, and without it, our world today would be very different indeed.

People had been trying to power a piston with high-pressure steam for centuries, but the result was always an explosion, killing whoever was nearby. On Christmas Eve 1801, however, Richard Trevithick achieved the impossible, running a car called the 'Puffing Devil'. Twenty-four years later, George Stephenson invented the first passenger railway.

6. Toothbrush

Up until the 18th century dental hygiene was appalling: tartar, cavities, tooth decay, rotting gums, it is no wonder so many skeletal remains comprise of toothless skulls. William Addis went some way to changing this during the 1770s with his invention of the toothbrush, which was made with pig or badger hair (badger hair was just for the rich), threaded through a small animal bone. He made the device while in prison, thinking that there must be a better way to clean your teeth than with a sooty rag. He was right.

7. Telephone

I hate telephones, and I loathe mobile phones. I must be the 1% of the population that does not have one, and people look at me with shock when I tell them. They do not understand how it is possible to live without one. I get along just fine, but there is no way of denying that they are an essential part of most people's daily life, whether it be for business calls or inane conversations on the train.

The reason we all know Edinburgh-born Alexander Bell as the inventor of the telephone is all down to timing. He patented his design just hours before his competitor.

8. Television

Today there are hundreds of TV channels and not a thing to watch, but when television first came into the home, there were only a few, and no matter what was on, everyone in the family flocked to see it.

In 1925, John Baird was the first person to transmit a moving image on screen. It was a greyscale ventriloquist act using a dummy called Stookey Bill. Later in 1928, he made the first transatlantic transmission between London and New York. Unfortunately his design was faulty and a new system was later brought in.

9. Automatic Kettle

My grandpa still has a kettle that you heat on the hob, but as far as I know, they are not made anymore and most of us use an electric kettle, which turns off automatically when it reaches boiling point. It was invented by Peter Hobbs in 1955. A perfect and highly necessary invention for a nation of tea drinkers.

10. Sewage System

I saved the most important till last. Without a sewage system we would all still be dying of cholera from contaminated water. It used to be that sewage pipes deposited all London's waste into the River Thames. This led to the Great Stink of 1858, when the government finally decided something had to be done. Joseph Bazalgette engineered a new waste system that diverted sewage out to sea, the construction of which, was mainly completed by 1865.

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Why? These inventions have become an integral part of our lives.
Where: Used globally
Your Comment
The silly thing about the sewage system in London was that the Romans had built as full sewage system there already and after they left it was not used. Parts of the old Roman system are now used in the current London sewage network. Smart people those Romans!!.
by gkdco (score: 0|5) 1889 days ago
Hello, I bought a kettle for my mother for Xmas and there were lots to choose from that weren't electric. She has it going on her kichen wood burner in the winter. Also I thought James Watt invented the steam engine.
Cheers, Jennie
by jenni (score: 1|41) 1890 days ago
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