Digital audio players, skyscrapers and telephones were invented by Americans, right? Wrong. A Brit was behind them all. Everyone thinks the light bulb went off in Edison’s head first, when more than one Brit hit the switch first.
While the French have been credited with the invention of photography and the infamous guillotine, Brits were ahead of the game here too.
The digital audio player
Kane Kramer, 1979
Kane Kramer, a British serial inventor, debuted his idea for the IXI digital music player back in 1979. In the pre-internet era, Kramer proposed that consumers would use vending machines to load their IXI devices and pay via micro-billing, with tracks locked to their accounts. Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like a primitive version of the Google Play or iTunes stores?
His engineering partner, James Campbell, even built a working model that was on sale at an exhibition at Earl’s Court in 1986. Unfortunately, such was memory technology at the time, the device could only hold a single track.
Kramer held patents for the tech, which lapsed, leading Apple to cite his “prior art” in court. (via Wired).
Photo credit: Rex
Halifax, England, 1286
Despite being named after Frenchman Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the infamous lopper off of heads actually originated in England around 500 years prior to the French Revolution.
The Halifax Gibbet, a similar device, was being used in Yorkshire in the 13th century. The first execution was recorded in 1286 and over a hundred followed until Oliver Cromwell outlawed it in 1650.
Unlike in France, those condemned to death in Halifax were given the chance to escape once the blade was released. If they somehow made it, they were spared, but ostracised.
The only known escapee was John Lacy, nicknamed the Running Man, in 1623. However, his folly was to return to Halifax, where he was promptly subjected to the same device - this time there would be no escape.
The light bulb
Sir Humphrey Davy, 1802. Joseph Swan, 1879.
Thomas Edison gets absolute credit for all kinds of things. History books will tell you he invented moving pictures, recorded audio, X-ray and the light bulb. The latter, perhaps the invention most associated with Edison, was actually prefaced by a Brit some 75 years previously.
In 1802, at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Cornish scientist Sir Humphrey Davy (above) created the first incandescent light by sending current through a platinum wire.
Edison’s commercially available bulb wouldn’t arrive until 1879, but Davy’s work would be the basis for experimentation in the interim. Even then, Sir Joseph Swan of Sunderland showed off an actual working light bulb ten months before Edison.
Photo credit: Rex
Charles Bage, 1796
Everyone associates skyscrapers with the great metropolises of the United States, but their origins actually came in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. The five-storey Ditherington Flax Mill, which still stands today, is the oldest iron-framed building in the world.
Its architect, Charles Bage, decided iron would be a safer option than the fire-prone wooden frames. As such, it formed the basis for the modern skyscrapers across the pond, also built from metal frames. Construction on the Grade I-listed building was completed in 1797 and it’s now known as the ‘Grandfather of Skyscrapers’. The ten-storey Home Insurance building in Chicago was the first such building to pop up in the US in 1884.
Photo credit: PA
Thomas Wedgwood, 1790s
Frenchman Nicephore Niépce is widely credited with the invention of photography. His work in the 1820s saw images created on chemically treated pewter, and are recognised as the world’s oldest permanent photos.
However, his efforts owed much to a Brit, Thomas Wedgwood, some 30 years earlier. It was Wedgwood who first conceived the idea of playing a photosensitive surface inside a camera obscura (dark room) in order to capture a photograph.
While those experiments were unsuccessful, he did manage to create impermanent images by soaking white paper or white leather in silver nitrate and exposing it to sunlight. Anything in the shadow was left on the material. The resulting images were so perishable they could only be viewed by candlelight. Sadly, Wedgwood died in 1802, aged just 34, so was unable to take his work further.
Photo credit: Rex
Alexander Graham Bell, 1876
Some Americans celebrate Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the first practical telephone, as one of their own. Not so fast, cousins! Bell was actually born in Scotland and moved to Canada when he was 23, before heading across the border.
It was in the US that he patented the technology and went on to earn his fortune. So there! The telephone is a British invention!
Discover more about the history of the telephone in our feature: “Mr Watson, come here – I want to see you” the amazing history of the telephone.
Photo credit: PA
If you are interested in less successful inventions check out our article: Wacky British inventions that failed.
Are there any British inventions attributed to other countries we’ve missed? Let us know in the Comments section below.