10 Brits that changed the world

Updated August 10, 2017

Whether in science, technology, philosophy, politics, literature, music, theatre or art, Britons have had a profound and lasting impact on the shape of the modern world. This is as true today as it was in the heyday of the British Empire. Some of these world-changing Brits are well-known, while others are much less famous.

Charles Darwin

Geologist and naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is one of the fathers of modern biology. Originally from Shrewsbury, he studied at Edinburgh and Cambridge. In 1859, he published On The Origin of Species, in which he presented his theory of evolution through natural selection, together with compelling evidence to support it. Today, Darwin's work is the fundamental underpinning of all life sciences. While his theory remains controversial in some parts of the world, in Britain he is recognised as a scientific pioneer. His portrait appears on the back of the £10 note.

Charles Babbage

Mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage (1791-1871) invented the earliest mechanical computer and originated the concept of the programmable computer, although he did not complete his design during his lifetime. Babbage was one of Victorian England's great eccentrics: he despised organ grinders and attempted to have the children's game of hoop-rolling banned. Today, Babbage is acknowledged as a visionary whose work provided the foundation for modern information technology. His brain is on display in the Science Museum in London.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith (1723-1790) was one of the group of Scottish philosophers and political thinkers who formed the movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment in the late 18th century. Born in Kirkcaldy, he studied first at the University of Glasgow and then at Oxford, which he considered inferior to Glasgow. Smith's most famous work is An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. This was one of the first works in the field of what would become political economy. Smith is regarded as one of the founders of the whole field of economics.

Queen Elizabeth I

Although modern historians have painted a more complicated picture of this ruler than the heroic legend of "Good Queen Bess", Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) had a significant impact on British and world history. Her sponsorship of the colonisation of North America laid the foundations for modern American and Canadian identities, while her (relatively) stable 44-year reign saw both the growth of England's international stature and a flowering of art and literature.

John Logie Baird

John Logie Baird (1888-1946) isn't as famous as some other great British inventors, but his invention is everywhere in the modern world. Born in Dunbartonshire, Baird's time at university was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. Baird was only one of a number of scientists working on the concept of television, but he was the first to demonstrate a working set in 1926. Baird's prototype was made from items including a hatbox, a pair of scissors, darning needles, a tea chest and lenses from bicycle lights.

Tim Berners-Lee

Another inventor who is less well-known than his invention, Tim Berners-Lee is one of the fathers of modern information technology. While working as a computer programmer in Switzerland in 1989 and 1990, Berners-Lee, with a group of colleagues, developed a new means of sharing information over the internet. Berners-Lee called his creation the World Wide Web. The first website went online in 1991. Since then, the web has grown and grown, changing the way people communicate forever.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) was one of the group of British scientists whose research uncovered the double-helix structure of DNA. Working at King's College London in the early 1950s, Franklin contributed vital data that led to the discovery of the double helix. However, her contribution was downplayed until relatively recently, possibly because she was a woman and possibly because she died before the other researchers who discovered the structure of DNA -- Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins -- were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was one of the most influential scientists in history. His work described not only gravity but the three laws of motion, the foundation of mechanics. He also made major advances in optics and mathematics. Newton was an unorthodox freethinker who also dabbled in alchemy and wrote theological pamphlets explaining his views on the interpretation of the Bible. His many achievements have made him the most famous of all British scientists, a striking honour considering the many other contenders.

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce (1759-1833) is best-known for his work as leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, but he also championed many other causes, including missionary societies and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Wilberforce's tireless campaigning led to the abolition of slavery within the Empire and the active suppression of the slave trade, which severely damaged slavery in other nations. Although Wilberforce did not succeed in abolishing slavery worldwide, his work paved the way for other nations to do so.

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) achieved fame as a nurse during the Crimean War. Although her methods were primitive, her work drew attention to the need for nursing to become an organised profession. She established a nursing school in London in 1860 which continues to train nurses today. Nightingale's example, as well as her persuasive writing and public speaking about her work, inspired generations of nurses and led to the establishment of the modern nursing profession.

Related: 10 Great British eccentrics

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About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.