10 British inventions that changed the world

There have been some great inventors over the course of UK history. That’s why we want to review 10 gadgets that changed the world in some way. All are still being used today and almost no one knows their origin.

1. The sewing machine

gato cosiendo

Thomas Saint invented and patented the first sewing machine in 1790. Although he never commercialized or publicized it, it remained a prototype for the patent. It had no needle and was designed to sew leather. All the sewing machines that came later were based on his design.


2. The thermos


Very practical today, and invented by a Scottish scientist called James Dewar. He studied cryogenics, with one flask inside another, and in 1892, because of a happy accident… he invented the thermos, which we used to hold coffee and other hot drinks.


3. Disk brakes


Considered one of the “three great” English automobile engineers (the other two are Harry Ricardo and Henry Royce), Frederick W. Lanchester created the Lanchester Motor Company in 1899 in order to sell cars to the public. The car he introduced had a brake system that united the clutch and brakes. This device was the precursor to modern disk brakes in cars, an invention we’re grateful for whenever we have to make a sudden stop.


4. Chocolates


Joseph Fry began to make chocolate in 1759, but it wasn’t until 1847 that his grandsons invented the modern age’s greatest addition to the candy store. He made the first chocolate bar for general consumption at his factory in Bristol. In 1866, he called it the Fry Chocolate Dream Bar. JS Fry & Sons also developed the first chocolate Easter egg in 1873 and later merged with the chocolate giant Cadbury in 1919.


5. Christmas cards

Christmas Card

Among the things that might surprise you when you’re living in the United Kingdom is the number of greeting card shops… with nothing but cards. Well, this started when Sir Henry Cole commissioned the illustrator John Calcott Horsley to make the first Christmas cards in 1843. The first illustration showed three generations of family drinking a toast to the recipient of the card, with scenes of people offering food and clothes to those in need. Cole had two batches printed for a total of 2050 cards, and sold each card for a shilling, and this was the beginning of mass-produced commercial greeting cards.


6. The telephone


Quite a few people think Alexander Graham Bell was from North America, but no – he was born in Scotland. We could have a debate about whether he was the real inventor or not… but what remains clear is that he was British and that he managed to get the first telephone patent in the US.


7. The computer


The invention no one could have lived without over the last 20 years… the computer, which everyone uses. Sir Charles Babbage was the man behind “Analytical computation”, and his studies led to the development of a theoretical “machine” that could do arithmetic automatically using perforated cards. Although he never saw it during his lifetime, the calculation machine became a reality in the forties, just the way he designed it.


8. The Internet (World Wide Web)


After computers, the other great invention involved connecting all of them. What we know as “the Internet” was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, also British.  In March of 1989, Sir Berners-Lee introduced a proposal for a more efficient communication system for CERN, but soon he realized that it had bigger implications. In 1990, a NeXT computer was used for the first World Wide Web server, and to create the first web navigator.


9. The mousetrap

mouse trap

Not as interesting as inventing the Internet, but just as useful as the other inventions. People had been trying to invent a better way to trap mice for a while, but it was James Henry Atkinson who invented the first. In 1898, he patented a mousetrap with a spring called the “Little Nipper”. Atkinson’s design, where the trap is activated once a mouse steps on the pedal, is the one that became most popular.


10. The lightswitch


A device used by anyone who walks into a dark room. John Henry Holmes invented the first safe, rapid switch in 1884 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In switches from before then, the design of the electrical current could cause shocks or sparks upon contact, in addition to damaging the mechanism and weakening its operation over time. Holmes’s switch ensured that the contacts separated rapidly, making it last longer. This is still used in the majority of light switches today.


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