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Great British Inventions

A round up of the greatest british inventions, from cat's eyes(1935) to vertical take-off aircraft(1960), from the World Wide Web(1989) to the iPod(2001)

1935 ? CAT?S EYES

Anyone who?s a driver knows how valuable Cat?s Eyes are when driving at night. This device was invented by the Englishman Percy Shaw, born in Yorkshire in 1890. He invented it after he had been driving on a dark, winding road on a foggy night. He was saved from going off the side of the hill by a cat, whose eyes reflected his car?s lights.

Percy Shaw set about inventing something similar to cat?s eyes by inventing a small device with two marbles placed close together in a rubber casing. This would then be set in the road at intervals between the lanes of traffic. The device formed a small hump and would reflect the oncoming car headlights to show the way ahead. Percy was not a man to forget a detail and he realised that his new invention would quickly get dirty and stop reflecting the light, so he put a small depression where the marbles were which would fill with water every time it rained. Any car wheel passing over the device would press the marbles into the depression, forcing the water out and cleaning the marbles. In 1935 he formed his own company and named his invention after the inspiration that gave him the idea, Catseye®.

For his invention, Shaw was awarded the OBE in 1965 and died in September 1976.


Sidney Camm, Ralph Hooper, and Stanley Hooker invented a vertical take-off aircraft that can soar straight up into the sky. Rather than using rotors or a direct jet thrust, they built an innovative vectored-thrust turbofan engine. Their invention allows aircraft to take off from sites without runways. Harriers were used effectively in the Falklands War, and can be used for rescues in dangerous emergencies.

During the mid-1950s, the idea of vertical take-off fixedwing aircraft had begun to be investigated, principally in Germany and the US. In Britain, Rolls-Royce had been working on lift engine concepts which used up to eight engines to enable an aircraft to take-off vertically. Prototypes were ordered by the British government, and both Avro and Shorts were given contracts to prove the theory. Meanwhile, in France, aircraft designer Michel Wibault was designing a V/STOL aircraft that he envisioned would use four centrifugal blowers placed around the aircraft?s centre of gravity. During 1955 and 1956, Wibault approached both the French and US Governments with his ideas, but neither showed any interest. The Bristol Engine Company came to hear about Wibault?s ideas and following a meeting with Bristol?s Technical Director, Stanley Hooker, Bristol?s decided to begin a serious study into the concept. Hooker soon became convinced that the idea had potential and the engine could be developed.

In early 1957, Hawker Aircraft began working on its P.1121 project for a single-seat fighter-bomber aircraft, but in April of that year, Duncan Sandys, the British Minister of Defence, announced that most future fighter and bomber aircraft development would be cancelled in favour of guided missiles. This wasn?t a popular decision for the British aviation industry, and Hawker in particular.

However, undeterred, Sir Sydney Camm and Ralph Hooper began working with Stanley Hooker on a new V/STOL design using Bristol?s revolutionary new engine, the Pegasus. The new aircraft was known as the P.1127, and work began on building two prototypes at Kingston in 1959. The completed airframes were then moved to Hawker?s test facility at Dunsfold, where they were prepared for flight testing. Following the successes of the development programme a further four P.1127s were ordered in late 1960.

Development continued both at Hawker?s and at Bristol. On 16 January 1963, Britain, Germany and the US placed a contract for nine development P.1127s with costs being divided equally. The nine aircraft were delivered between March 1964 and March 1965 and formed the Tripartite squadron at RAF West Raynham in Norfolk. In November 1964, Hawker renamed the P.1127, the Kestrel FGA Mk.1. A production order was received from the Royal Air Force in 1966 and the Kestrel became the Harrier. The first production Harrier flew for the first time on 28 December 1967 and entered squadron service on 1 April 1969.


James Dyson is the definitive British technical innovator. His dual-cycle bagless vacuum cleaner took over 5,000 prototypes to perfect, but became the fastest-selling vacuum cleaner in British history and has taken his company from nowhere to a major player in the market. In the late 1970s, Dyson had the idea of using cyclonic separation to create a vacuum cleaner that wouldn?t lose suction as it picked up dirt. After five years and 5,127 prototypes, Dyson launched the ?G-Force? cleaner in 1983. Unfortunately, no manufacturer or distributor would launch his product in the UK as it would disturb the valuable cleaner-bag market, so Dyson launched it in Japan through catalogue sales.

Initially manufactured in bright pink, the G-Force had a selling price of £2,000 and won the 1991 International Design Fair prize in Japan. He obtained his first US patent on the idea in 1986. After failing to sell his invention to the major manufacturers, Dyson set up his own manufacturing company. In June 1993 he opened his research centre and factory in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. The product now outsells those of some of the companies that rejected his idea and has become one of the most popular brands in the UK. In early 2005, it was reported that Dyson cleaners had become the market leaders in the US by value, while the Dyson Dual Cyclone became the fastest-selling vacuum cleaner ever to be made in the UK. Dyson?s breakthrough in the UK market, more than 10 years after the initial idea, was through a TV advertising campaign that emphasised that, unlike its rivals, it did not require the continuing purchase of replacement bags. At that time, the UK market for disposable cleaner bags was £100m. The slogan of ?say goodbye to the bag? proved more attractive to the buying public than a previous emphasis on the suction efficiency that its technology delivers.

In 1997 Dyson was awarded the Prince Phillip Designers Prize. In 2005 he was elected as a Fellow at The Royal Academy of Engineering. He was appointed a Knight Bachelor in the New Year?s Honours, December 2006.


The World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, with the first working system deployed in 1990, while he was working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. He went on to found the World Wide Web Consortium, which seeks to standardise and improve World Wide Web-related things such as the HTML mark-up language in which web pages are written and he coined the phrase ?World Wide Web?. He started out on his road to success while he was at Queen?s College, Oxford in 1976. While he was there, he built his first computer with a soldering iron, TTL gates, an M6800 processor and an old television.

After he graduated, he spent two years with Plessey Telecommunications Ltd, a major UK telecoms equipment manufacturer, working on distributed transaction systems, message relays and barcode technology. In 1978, Berners-Lee left Plessey to join D G Nash Ltd, where he wrote typesetting software for intelligent printers and a multitasking operating system. Eighteen months spent as an independent consultant included a six-month stint as consultant software engineer at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland. While he was there he wrote his first programme for storing information, including using random associations. This programme formed the conceptual basis for the future development of the World Wide Web.

In 1989, Berners-Lee proposed a global hypertext project, to be known as the World Wide Web. It was designed to allow people to work together by combining their knowledge in a web of hypertext documents. He wrote the first World Wide Web server, ?httpd? and the first client, ?WorldWideWeb? a what-you-see-is-what-you-get hypertext browser/editor.

This work was started in October 1990 and the programme ?WorldWideWeb? was first made available within CERN two months later, and on the Internet in the summer of 1991. Throughout 1991 and 1993, Berners-Lee continued working on the design of the Web, coordinating feedback from users across the Internet. His initial specifications of URSs, HTTP and HTML were refined as the web technology spread. Berners-Lee was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) for his work on the web in 2003.


Another in the long line of ?great British inventors?, Trevor Baylis?s personal focus is on using technology in innovative ways to address social problems ? such as the wind up radio, his ?signature? product which is intended to allow people living in remote areas without access to electricity to stay in touch with the world. Baylis?s work as a stunt man made him feel kinship with disabled people through friends whose injuries had ended their performing careers. In 1985, this involvement led him to invent and develop a range of products for the disabled called Orange Aids.

In 1989, he saw a TV programme about the spread of AIDS in Africa and how a way to halt the spread of the disease would be by education and information using radio broadcasts. Inspired by the programme, Trevor assembled the first prototype of his most well-known invention, the wind-up radio. The original prototype included a small transistor radio, an electric motor from a toy car, and the clockwork mechanism from a music box. He patented the idea and then tried to get it into production, but was met with rejection from everyone he approached.

The turning point came when his prototype was featured on the BBC TV programme Tomorrow?s World. With money from investors, he formed a company, Freeplay, and in 1996 the Freeplay radio was awarded the BBC Design Award for Best Product and Best Design. In the same year Baylis met Queen Elizabeth II and Nelson Mandela at a state banquet, and also travelled to Africa with the Dutch Television Service to produce a documentary about his life. He was awarded the 1996 World Vision Award for Development Initiative that year.

1997 saw the production in South Africa of the new generation Freeplay radio, a smaller lighter model designed for the Western consumer market with a running time of up to an hour on 20 seconds of winding. This radio has since been updated to include a solar panel so that it runs in sunshine without winding. In October 1997, Baylis was awarded the Order of the British Empire by the Princess Royal at Buckingham Palace. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate by Leeds Metropolitan University in June 2005. He now runs Trevor Baylis Brands plc, a company dedicated to helping inventors to develop and protect their ideas and to find a route to market.

2001 ?iPod

Jonathan Ive, CBE, is a British designer and the Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple Inc. He is internationally renowned as the principal designer of the iMac, aluminum and titanium PowerBook G4, MacBook, unibody MacBook Pro, iPod and iPhone. After attending school in the south of England, Jonathan moved North to study art and design at Newcastle Polytechnic in 1985. He graduated with first-class honours having created a pebble-shaped concept for a product to replace cash and credit cards as his final-year project. In 1990 Jonathan moved to London and co-founded his own design studio, Tangerine, with Martin Darbyshire. Apple was a client of Tangerine and in 1992 Jonathan moved to Cupertino, California to join Apple?s design team full-time.

In 1998, he revolutionised computer design by creating the iMac, an Apple computer whose successive incarnations inside coloured and translucent ?televisions? seized the imagination of designers and consumers. Later, he started to explore how Apple can engineer a computer hard drive that will play thousands of songs in a box that fits inside a back pocket or purse. Collaborating with manufacturing, software, hardware and electronic teams, he did just that, creating the iconic, bestselling iPod. In 2005, he designed Apple?s iPod nano, and in 2007, the iPhone.

Added the 03 October 2009 in category Innovation UK Vol5-2

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