Britain's lack of awareness over the nation’s role in introducing cutting-edge products to the world could damage our ability to innovate in the future, a manufacturing group’s survey has warned.
Pioneering Great British Products – a new report published today by EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, and Siemens – has disappointingly revealed that consumers are unaware how much British inventiveness has contributed to the world.
The report claims that by failing to celebrate the brains behind the UK’s life-changing inventions, we are failing to provide our next generation with heroes, and leaving young people with little reason to want to follow in their footsteps.
According to consumers, Britain’s best inventions are the telephone, television and the jet engine.
But despite these now being a common part of everyday life, 39% are unaware that a Brit invented the phone, while little over half, 54%, realise that UK brains were behind the jet engine.
Even the TV, ever-present in most homes, is only recognised by 57% as a British invention.
More worryingly, many seem to see British inventiveness as something in the past – almost seven in ten (69%) are aware that we invented the steam engine – let alone that it was North East pioneer George Stephenson – while just over two in ten, 22%, are aware we gave the world modern-day carbon fibre too.
The report – due to be launched by Business Secretary Vince Cable at Liverpool’s Life Sciences University Technology College later today – marks the start of Manufacturing, Science and Technology Week, sponsored by EEF, at the International Festival for Business in Liverpool.
Business Secretary Vince Cable said: “This report serves as a very good reminder of the UK’s considerable strengths in manufacturing, and the current revival that we’re seeing in the sector is highly encouraging. The Government is working closely with manufacturing businesses to give them the confidence to invest, securing highly-skilled jobs, a stronger economy, and more world-shaping inventions in the future.”
Andrew Tuscher, EEF North East region director, says: “Inventiveness and resourcefulness are written into our collective DNA. Unfortunately, our strengths appear to be flying under the radar and this could damage our ability to innovate in the future.
“If we want to Make it Britain then we have to wake up Britain to the innovation, creativity and design going on within our shores today.
“Our success didn’t end with the steam engine – it carries on from strength to strength with carbon fibre, bionic limbs and now the hypersonic engine too. We should be proud of what our inventiveness contributes to the world.
“If Britain is to continue to innovate then we need to start shouting about our achievements. We have to ensure that everyone is aware that success lies before us and not just in the past."
“Above all, we must give greater recognition to our inventors and innovators, so as to encourage more young people to want to learn the right skills to follow in their footsteps.”
Here in the North East innovation is encouraged and supported through several organisations, including Newcastle-based North East Business and Innovation Centre.
And a look back in time provides a virtually unending procession of men of vision and talent, often largely self-taught.
Back in 1929 Newcastle staged The North East Exhibition of 1929, where eminent professor A.M. Low claimed that the region was responsible for 25% of the world’s major inventions.
Here are some of the more memorable inventions consumers should be aware of.
Sir Charles Parsons designed and built the Turbinia which revolutionised marine engineering and made the British navy the world’s fastest. Sir Charles, a president of the IOP Institute of Physics in the 1920s, created a range of innovative designs from telescopes to turbines. Modern scientists believe he is the ideal role model for the inventors of tomorrow as he worked in physics when there were few people interested in a career in science.
The turbine transformed the steam engine into a machine capable of producing power into the 20th century.
Mauretania, the first steam turbine Atlantic liner and holder of the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic for 22 years was also engineered here, as well as SS Gluckauf 1886, the world’s first oil tanker. When the Gluckauf sailed from the Tyne on 10 July 1886 she was the first ocean going tanker with oil to her skin.
By the time he died at the age of 86 in 1914 Joseph Swan had taken out as many as 70 patents and was responsible for putting Newcastle firmly on the map with discoveries including perfecting photographic printing techniques. His early attempts at creating the light bulb failed and the Geordie genius packed in his experiments following a series of personal tragedies. He went back to work after marrying his wife’s sister and in 1878 completed his famous invention single-handed, in the face of intense competition from a 120-strong team of American scientists. Swan should have reaped the benefit of his work but he forgot to patent his lamp and American Thomas Edison, who with his team was hotly pursuing Swan, was granted a British patent for a similar lamp, which he had developed after Swan’s. A legal battle broke out when Swan opened his own factory to make commercial lamps in South Benwell and Edison complained it was a breach of patent rights. Swan denied this and after a lengthy wrangle the two men joined forces under the name of the Edison and Swan Electric Light Company in 1883.
The first windscreen wiper patented in Newcastle in 1911 by Gladstone Adams, In April 1908, he drove to Crystal Palace Park to see Newcastle United play against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup final. On the way home, snow kept getting on the windscreen and Gladstone had to keep getting out of the car to clear it. As a result, he created the windscreen wiper and patented the design with agents Sloan & Lloyd Barnes.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of George Stephenson’s first locomotive, Blucher, and Stephenson can be claimed to be the inventor of the steam passenger railway – the Stockton and Darlington railway which he surveyed and built assisted by his son, Robert opened in 1825 and it was the first railway to make official provision to carry passengers.
The world’s first ‘slippery’ anti-fouling paint came onto the market in 1996. Ships’ bottoms need to be coated with special ‘anti-fouling’ paint to stop the build up of marine growth. For more than 100 years anti-fouling paints worked by poisoning the creatures that would otherwise cling to a ship’s bottom. In 1996 International Paint of Felling launched Intersleek, an innovative silicone anti-fouling paint. It was the first non-poisonous anti-fouling paint but it worked because its surface was too slippery for marine creatures to cling to. Intersleek 1100SR is the latest in the range.
Around 1906 the firm of George & Jobling established one of the region’s earliest agencies for the motor car at 18 and 20 South Street, part of the old Stephenson works. Pioneer aviator Arthur George constructed an aeroplane at the above premises in 1909. His patented control column, on display at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum, which he fitted to a car to act as a simulator to teach himself flying skills, led to the familiar joystick. George flew his biplane in the company of most of the early British aviation pioneers.
The Friction Match 1827
John Walker, who lived in Stockton-on-Tees, was an apothecary who often experimented with chemicals. In 1826, when preparing a combustible paste, he dragged his mixing stick along the hearth, where it “spluttered and caught fire”. Seeing the potential in this, he created ‘friction lights’ by dipping the ends of 3-inch splints of wood in the paste. In 1827, he began selling these in tins of 100 for a halfpenny. They were an immediate success, one of his early customers being the Stockton & Darlington Railway.
The world’s first hydraulic crane: W.G. Armstrong & Co. 1846
One of the names which keeps popping up in North east innovation is William Armstrong – explosives, guns, hydraulics, hydro-electricity and many other areas of innovation benefitted from his involvement. The invention of the hydraulic crane (in an era when electric power was not available) was intended to help load coal into barges on the River Tyne. Erected on the Quay in 1846 the Hydraulic Crane was a world first – even having a pub named after it.
And the one that didn’t pass muster....the death ray
Airship raids by German Zeppelins, including those on the North East coast, brought home the message that fighting and death were no longer confined to the battlefield.
One man determined to do something about it was George Middleton, a South Shields man who joined the scramble to find the answer to the Zeppelin threat.
He invented what he called his “death ray” which, he claimed, could bring down the airborne menace by advanced electronics. He briefly made the headlines with his contraption, telling reporters he had been using wireless electric rays since 1912 and claimed that he could now harness them to and stop any internal combustion engine and set fire to any flammable material. The invention was, however, shelved by the War Office when he took his idea to London in 1916, during the bleak days of the Somme Offensive . . .