List of British innovations and discoveries

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Engineers during World War Two test a model of a model of a Halifax bomber in a wind tunnel, an invention that dates back to 1871

The following is a list and timeline of innovations as well as inventions and discoveries that involved British people or the United Kingdom including predecessor states in the history of the formation of the United Kingdom. This list covers innovation and invention in the mechanical, electronic, and industrial fields, as well as medicine, military devices and theory, artistic and scientific discovery and innovation, and ideas in religion and ethics.

The scientific revolution in 17th century Europe stimulated innovation and discovery in Britain.[1] Experimentation was considered central to innovation by groups such as the Royal Society. The English patent system evolved from its medieval origins into a system that recognised intellectual property; this encouraged invention and spurred on the Industrial Revolution from the late 18th century.[2] During the 19th century, innovation in Britain led to revolutionary changes in manufacturing, the development of factory systems, and growth of transportation by railway and steam ship that spread around the world.[3] In the 20th century, Britain's rate of innovation, measured by patents registered,[4] slowed in comparison to other leading economies, although science and technology continued to develop rapidly in absolute terms.

17th century


18th century

  • The Rotherham plough, the first plough to be widely built in factories and commercially successful, is patented by Joseph Foljambe.[12]
  • Invention of hollow-pipe drainage is credited to Sir Hugh Dalrymple who died in 1753.[14]
  • Scottish economist Adam Smith, often known as 'The father of modern economics',[17] publishes his seminal text The Wealth of Nations.[18][19]
  • The Watt steam engine, conceived in 1765, goes into production. It is the first type of steam engine to make use of steam at a pressure just above atmospheric.

19th century

  • SS Great Britain, the world's first steam-powered, screw propeller-driven passenger liner with an iron hull is launched. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it was at the time the largest ship afloat.
  • English physician Alexander Wood develops a medical hypodermic syringe with a needle fine enough to pierce the skin.[38]
  • The first commercially successful safety bicycle, called the Rover, is designed by John Kemp Starley. The following year Dan Albone produces a derivative of this called the Ivel Safety cycle.

20th century

  • In Sorbonne, France, Englishman Edwin Belin demonstrates a mechanical scanning device, an early precursor to modern television.
  • The Anglepoise lamp is patented by George Carwardine, a design consultant specialising in vehicle suspension systems.
  • The concept of microprogramming is developed by Maurice Wilkes from the realisation that the Central Processing Unit (CPU) of a computer could be controlled by a miniature, highly specialised computer program in high-speed ROM.
  • LEO is the first business application (a payroll system) on an electronic computer.
  • Autocode, regarded as the first compiled programming language, is developed for the Manchester Mark 1 by Alick Glennie.
  • The first accurate atomic clock, a caesium standard based on a certain transition of the caesium-133 atom, is built by Louis Essen at the National Physical Laboratory. This clock enabled further development of general relativity, and started a basis for an enhanced SI unit system.[54]
  • The first SMS message in the world is sent over the UK's GSM network.

21st century

  • Beagle 2, a British landing spacecraft that forms part of the European Space Agency's 2003 Mars Express mission lands on the surface of Mars but fails to communicate. It is located twelve years later in a series of images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that suggest two of Beagle's four solar panels failed to deploy, blocking the spacecraft's communications antenna.
  • Raspberry Pi, a single-board computer, is launched and quickly becomes popular for education in programming and computer science.[68]
  • The European Space Agency's Philae lander leaves the Rosetta spacecraft and makes the first ever landing on a comet. The Philae lander was built with significant British expertise and technology, alongside that of several other countries.[69][70]

Clock making

Clothing manufacturing




Household appliances

Ideas, Religion and Ethics

Industrial processes




Musical instruments


Publishing firsts









Other railway developments



Scientific innovations


See also


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Further reading

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