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Famous Inventors, Scientists and Engineers

As 2010 draws to a close, I'd like to present an homage to a selection of pioneers, engineers, inventors and scientists. I've published a choice quote from each of them. They are presented in no particular order, but there is a common theme. Can you work out what it is?

Sir Christopher Cockerell (1910-1999)

Formel1 hovercraft

Sir Christopher Cockerell invented the Hovercraft in 1953. His first prototype was built using a hair-dryer and a pair of tin cans (one was a coffee can, the other a food can).

"Hovercraft will always be around – you can’t un-invent something!"

Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

Charles Babbage was the great-grandfather of the computer.

His Difference Engine was the first programmable mechanical computer. Not a bad achievement for someone whose parents ordered his teachers that his "brain was not to be taxed too much" after suffering a childhood fever. Interestingly, you can still see his brain today; it's sitting in a jar in the London Science Museum.

I like the following quote he once made, "Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all."

Michael Faraday (1797-1867)

Faraday was a chemist as well a a physicist. He established the basis for the electromagnetic field, discovered Benzene, the Bunsen Burner (though obviously it was not named after him) and built the first electric DC motor. He has been described as the best experimentalist in the history of science.

“The five essential entrepreneurial skills for success are concentration, discrimination, organization, innovation and communication.”

RJ Mitchell (1895-1936)

Spitfire 22

RJ Mitchell was the designer of what is, without question, the most beautiful plane every built (with Concorde coming in second). Not only good looking, but also aerodynamically perfect, with elliptically loaded wings.

A prolific engineer with 24 aircraft designs to his name, his S6B was winner of the Schneider Trophy race and later broke the air speed record.

And remember his advice, "If anybody ever tells you anything about an aeroplane which is so bloody complicated you can't understand it, take it from me: it's all balls."

Sir Alexander Flemming (1881-1955)

With his discovery of Penicillin in 1928 (for which he later received the Nobel Prize), Flemming changed the course of history and saved countless millions of lives.

"One sometimes finds what one is not looking for."

George Stephenson (1781-1848)

08 tory railtrack ubt

Father of the Steam Engine, and co-inventor of a miners safety lamp.

Not only did he build the first steam locomotive, but he also built the World's first public railway line. It his railway line that is the origin of standard gauge (4 ft 8½ in) now used by the majority of the World's railways.

I like standards.

Sir Timothy John "Tim" Berners-Lee (1955- )

Inventor of the web. Without him, you'd not be reading this now.

"Data is a precious thing and will last longer than the systems themselves."

Sir Frank Whittle (1907-1996)

The inventor of the Jet Engine, the device that shrank our planet.

Before the jet, aircraft were propeller driven vehicles; Those that could afford to travel would cruise about in "flying boats" with the journey itself being just as important as the destination. With the jet engine came speed, and now aircraft are just the mechanism to get to the destination.

"A nation's ability to fight a modern war is as good as its technological ability."

John MacAdam (1756-1836)

Road in Norway

The inventor of a better surface for roadways than soil and mud!

Transportation of everything got easier, and with good roads personal transportation (cars) became more prolific.

"The thickness of the road should only be regulated by the quantity of material necessary to form such impervious covering and never by reference to its own power of carrying weight."

Alan Turing (1912-1954)

A mathematician, cryptanalist, and one of the World's first Computer Scientists.

He was influential in creating the first modern electronic computer and, with his code breaking colleagues, probably shortened WWII by two or three years.

"A computer would deserve to be called intelligent if it could deceive a human into believing that it was human."

Sir Henry Bessemer (1813-1898)

Henry invented the process to mass-produce steel.

Inexpensive and rapid production of steel was essential for the production skyscrapers, factories and, well, pretty much everything made out of steel. Steel is still made the same way today.

"I had an immense advantage over many others dealing with the problem inasmuch as I had no fixed ideas derived from long-established practice to control and bias my mind, and did not suffer from the general belief that whatever is, is right."

Charles MacIntosh (1766-1843)

A chemist, and inventor of waterproof fabrics.

Credited with the invention of the waterproof coat that still bears his family name. (Created by disolving India-rubber in a solvent of naphtha).

Sorry, no interesting quote!

Sir Robert Watson-Watt (1892-1973)

After initial passive experiements to detect lightning (with the aim of enabling pilots to avoid approaching thunderstorms), his idea morphed into the active RADAR invention we know today.

It was another invention that greatly shortned the war and undoubtedly saved many lives.

Ironically, later in life, Watson-Watt was pulled over in Canada for speeding by a policeman toting a radar gun. He is reported as saying:

"Had I known what you were going to do with it I would never have invented it!"

George Cayley (1773-1857)

The first person to define mechanical flight (way back in 1799), and the principles of aerodynamics.

He designed the first glider to (succesfully) carry a human aloft. His tri-plane, built in 1853, was piloted by his coach-driver and flew 900 feet across a small valley to become the first pracitcal heavier-than-air flying machine. This was fifty years before the Wright Brothers mades their first powered flight! He understood that powered flight could not be achieved until a light-weight engine was developed to give the thrust and lift required. "To make a surface support a given weight by the application of power to the resistance of air"

A forward thinker too, in 1809 he said:

"I may be expediting the attainment of an object that will in time be found of great importance to mankind; so much so, that a new era in society will commence from the moment that aerial navigation is familiarly realised … I feel perfectly confident, however, that this noble art will soon be brought home to man's convenience, and that we shall be able to transport ourselves and our families, and their goods and chattels, more securely by air than by water"

He spoke that over 200 years ago!

In his spare time, he also invented a new type of telescope, artificial limbs and a caterpillar tractor.

Common theme

Did you work out the common theme? That's right, all the above people are British.

Want more?

How about James Hargreaves, the inventor of the Spinning-Jenny which, in 1764, greatly sped up the production of cloth?

Sir John Douglas Cockcroft and Ernest Walton who split the atom? Not forgeting Ernest Rutherford who became known as the "father of physics" for his pioneering work on the atom.

Or Humphry Davy the surgeon who first used laughing gas, and co-invented the safety lamp.

Wilford Sweeney earned 23 patents ranging from acrylonitrile/styrenesulfonic acid, Nomex, carbon fibre, semiconductive fibre, and a new solvent for aromatic polyamides.

There are plenty of prolific engineers and bridge builders too, like Thomas Telford, Joseph Locke, George Bidder, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, William Jessop, Charles Vignoles, Benjamin Baker

(Neville) Barnes Wallice designed airships, WWII bombers, geodesic airframes, earthquake bombs and the famous Bouncing Bombs of the Dambusters Raids.

Sir Joseph Whitworth (the World's Best Mechanician) pioneered the rifled breech loading gun, and the process of fluid-compression to make the steel, and is also responsible for the standard for screw thread angles at 55° with a standard pitch for a given diameter (Have I mentioned that I like standards?) He also built a knitting machine and horse-drawn mechanical roadsweeper.

I almost forgot about the scientists: Charles Darwin, Robert Boyle, Richard Dawkins, Francis Crick, Paul Dirac, Robert Hooke, Stephen Hawking. Anyone heard of Isaac Newton?

Edward Jenner discovered the efficacious protection that cowpox gives against smallpox.

Thomas Young partly deciphered the Rosetta Stone, and John Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre.

The internet is a good place to dive into investigation in the true inventors of the TV, and the first bicycle with foot pedals and chloroform … There is slightly less dispute about Alexander Graham Bell for the telephone, and no dispute about Alexander Bain for the fax machine.


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