For a small nation, Britain has had a very large impact on the development of society and technology around the world. Many devices we use every day were created by the hard work and inspiration of British inventors. Some of these great British inventions are famous, while others are lesser-known, but all of them changed the world in some way.
American programmes may be a common sight on British screens, but television itself is a British invention. Although a number of engineers were working on the technology at around the same time, John Logie Baird is usually credited as the first to produce a live, moving image. Baird's first broadcast, in 1925, was of a ventriloquist's dummy named Stooky Bill.
The slim gadgets we carry around in our pockets make it easy to overlook how revolutionary the telephone was. By making it possible (if not, at first, easy) to communicate with distant people in real-time, it revolutionised whole sectors of society and the economy. Scottish inventor and elocution expert Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. Although British, Bell was working in Canada at the time and patented his device in the USA first.
Postage stamps are so commonplace today that it's hard to imagine a world without them. Before stamps, collecting postage was a difficult process for postal workers. Some senders prepaid, while in many cases the postman had to try to get postage from the recipient. The result was a great deal of wasted time and effort. In the 1830s, teacher and civil servant Rowland Hill advocated the introduction of adhesive pre-paid stamps. The first postage stamp, the "Penny Black," first appeared in 1840. The following decades saw a huge boom in letter-writing, as Hill's innovation made sending letters faster and easier than ever.
Tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles are a major feature of the modern battlefield. These armoured behemoths first appeared during the First World War. The idea of tracked, armoured vehicles had been around for some time. Initially named "landships," the British prototypes were renamed "tanks" to help conceal their purpose. Although they did not prove decisive in WWI, it was obvious that tanks had potential, and they remain an important part of all modern armies.
British engineer Frank Whittle developed early designs for an aircraft jet engine in the period between World War I and WWII, patenting his design in 1930. However, German scientists managed to produce a working prototype before the British. The first jet aircraft were deployed by both Britain and Germany in 1944.
The computer is such a symbol of modern life that it's hard to imagine one being created in the 19th century, and yet British mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage is widely regarded as the father of the computer. Babbage conceived the idea of a mechanical computer, which he called a "difference engine," for solving mathematical problems. During World War II, British scientists developed the first electric computer, Colossus, for use in cracking German codes.
World Wide Web
Like many of these great British inventions, the World Wide Web is so common that it's hard to remember what it was like before it existed. But it wouldn't have existed without the work of a British computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee. While working in Switzerland, Berners-Lee and his colleagues developed the protocols for storing and displaying information that created the Web we know today, from revolutionary new forms of art and commerce to lolcats.
The humble threaded screw doesn't look like much, but it literally holds much of our world together, from furniture and devices such as computers to entire buildings. British engineer Henry Maudslay didn't invent the screw, but in 1800 he did create a screw-cutting lathe which could produce large numbers of identical screws. The mass-production and standardisation of these fasteners revolutionised the building and crafts industries.
Some great inventions are the product of a single person's inspiration, while others are the result of years or decades of subtle refinements to an existing device. George Stephenson's "Rocket" locomotive wasn't the first steam railway engine, but its multi-tube boiler made it the fastest engine of its day and the ancestor of the steam locomotives that changed the way Britons travelled throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th.