Lobsters strutting along the Costa del Sol in Union Jack shorts help us realise why the British are more suited to inventing things in the garden shed than trying to look good on the beach.
For a country that has punched above its weight throughout modernity, the Brits have come up with some pretty impressive inventions. Then another country comes along and makes them work, thus taking all the credit. Tea and beer are obvious exceptions.
But as a small island occasionally on the receiving end of an angry neighbour, some eccentric ideas have proved rather useful and even defined the course of history. Here are five of them, in no particular order.
Ask an American who made the first powered flight and chances are they will tell you the Wright Brothers. They would be close, in that the Wright Brothers’ effort can safely be called the first “successful” attempt to conquer the skies. But in fact the trophy goes to a bloke from Sheffield called John Stringfellow, who flew a short distance in 1848.
Together with his lace industry crony, William Samuel Henson from Nottingham, and a few others, they formed the Aerial Transit Company in 1843 – a bold move considering there was no such thing as aerial transit. Yet these visionaries foresaw a future where people were transported by flying machines to exotic and distant lands.
Pushing their eccentricity to the envelope, they obtained a patent for the Henson Aerial Steam Carriage – basically a flying steam engine with a wingspan of 150 feet. They developed a small scale version the like of which had never been seen before; or since for that matter, because it could not fly.
After several failed attempts, Henson got fed-up and moved to Newark – the one in New Jersey, not Nottinghamshire. But Stringfellow persisted and in 1848 made the first ever powered flight in a disused lace factory in Somerset.
Piloting a 10 foot, steam driven monoplane, he “flew” several metres before bouncing off a canvas sheet designed to stop him from hitting the wall. The machine can be seen today at the Science Museum in London.
As a cadet at RAF College Cranwell in 1928, Frank Whittle from Coventry submitted his design for a turbo-fan engine. In 1932, Whittle patented his plans for a two-stage axial compressor feeding a single-sided centrifugal compressor (don’t ask, but it has something to do with a seminal paper by A.A. Griffith in 1926).
Whittle had a prototype by 1937 which went pear-shaped because the engine kept accelerating after the fuel had been disconnected. It turned out that fuel had leaked into the engine which refused to stop until the excess had burnt off. His superiors were not impressed.
Meanwhile, Hans von Ohain was working on a similar design in Germany, with no knowledge of Whittle’s efforts. He was introduced to Ernst Heinkel, whose bombers pounded the hell out of Britain before meeting a Spitfire and making their way to the bottom of the English Channel.
Due to this formidable partnership, Germany developed the first jet powered aircraft in 1939, which failed to impress the High Command. Whittle, on the other hand, had produced a workable engine by 1941. This was fitted to the Gloster E28/39, a forerunner of the Gloster Meteor which was considered to be a good plane.
By the 1970s, the final detractors of jet propulsion conceded its overwhelming superiority over the piston. By that time, Whittle and von Ohain had become good friends and moved to America. And now we have the Eurofighter Typhoon, as does Germany.
The torpedo as we know it today was devised by Robert Whitehead from Bolton, who managed a factory in Fiume, in the Austrian Empire. He was commissioned by Austrian naval officer Giovanni Luppis to perfect a floating bomb driven by rope (hard to explain, but it was rubbish and would not work). But it set the stage for a weapon that redefined modern naval warfare.
Whitehead produced a tubular device powered by compressed air and designed to skim along below the surface of the water. Around 1866, after he fixed some problems maintaining the correct depth the Austrian Imperial Naval commission invested and he opened the first torpedo factory in Fiume.
The Royal Navy ordered a batch from Whitehead in 1870 and thereafter paid him £15,000 to put his developments into production at the Royal Laboratories in Woolwich. Whitehead opened a factory in England and the inevitable competition caught on in the form of America and Germany.
Ironically, Whitehead sought to improve his own torpedoes by purchasing the design of his American counterpart, Lieutenant Commander John Howell, whose torpedo was better than his.
More ironic still, Whitehead’s granddaughter Agathe married naval commander Georg Ludwig von Trapp (of The Sound of Music fame), who sank plenty of British ships during the Great War. Torpedoes were used extensively during both world wars and despite the von Trapp’s of the world, came in extremely handy against that irritating German contraption known as the U-boat.
It’s ironic to think a nation that prides itself on a sense of fair play would invent something as unsporting as the submarine. But with its advent, it made perfect sense for the Brits to also come up with a device to give their submariners some surface vision as they lurked beneath the waves. Enter the periscope.
Early versions included the omniscope in 1902, credited to a mechanical engineer from Pleasantville, New Jersey, called Simon Lake. But it was Sir Howard Grubb, a Dublin-born civil engineer, who perfected the device that to this day continues to send hapless vessels and countless souls to a murky and very wet grave.
His father, Thomas Grubb, had established a telescope-making firm in Dublin which garnered wide acclaim after young Howard joined the company in 1865. During the First World War demand shifted from telescopes to periscopes and as a result, Sir Howard shifted his attention to the latter.
And by virtue of the less than sporting side of the submarine’s nature, periscopes were employed with devastating affect to enable Whitehead’s torpedo to send British shipping convoys scattering in all directions, mainly down.
The use of radar by the British during World War Two is well known but with an inventor named Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt it seemed wrong to exclude it from the list.
Despite early efforts by a few notable foreigners, the British managed to harness the power of radar as an effective early warning system against enemy aircraft. This was coaxed along by the rumour that the Germans were producing “death rays” which unsurprisingly turned out to be a load of old ballyhoo.
After working for the British Meteorological Office where he coined the word “ionosphere” in 1926 (not strictly relevant to this article but sounds cool), Watson-Watt patented a working prototype in 1935 while at the British National Physics Laboratory.
This served as the basis for British early warning during World War Two and helped send Heinkels to the bottom of the English Channel. Brilliant idea, but they still had Whitehead’s torpedo…