Brits at their Best.com: British History, Culture & Sports, History of Freedom, Heroes, Inventors

THE INGENIOUS TIMELINE

18th Century

1700-to 1750

London viewed from the embankment with old London lamps, St. Paul's Cathedral and many ancient and modern buildings visible across the Thames River

The London of previous centuries is still visible. Many aspects of the life we take for granted in the 21st century were invented in the 18th.

Photo: williamfawcett@istockphoto.com

GROWING MORE FOOD, TRANSFORMING MACHINERY, MEASURING THE SPEED OF SUNLIGHT

1700s DEVELOPING A CROP ROTATION SYSTEM THAT HELPS TO FEED THE WORLD

An unknown Brit notices that repeatedly planting the same crop in the same piece of ground creates problems. To address the disease and poor nutrition that result, he or she develops the four-course crop rotation system.

The Norfolk System, as it is now known, rotates crops so that different crops are planted with the result that different kinds and quantities of nutrients are taken from the soil as the plants grow. Each area of land is split into four sections. In the first year turnips or another root crop are grown; in the second year, barley; in the third year, clover or a grass crop; and in the fourth year, wheat. Certain crops like clover are planted to renew the soil; plants grown for fodder are returned to the soil through animal manure; no parcel of land lies unused. An obvious idea, eh? Not so obvious, but fortunate for those of us who like to eat.     

English fields showing Norfolk Rotation system

Viscount ‘Turnip’ Townshend and Thomas Coke popularise the Norfolk Rotation System - rotating crops dramatically improves crop yields. (Townshend turns to farming after the British Cabinet decided his contributions to foreign affairs were too adventurous.) Jethro Tull makes a mechanical contribution that jumpstarts the green revolution.

Photo: urbancow@istockphoto.com

1701 JETHRO TULL TRANSFORMS 3,000 YEARS OF FARMING WITH THE MECHANIZED SEED DRILL

Jethro Tull graduates from Oxford, and is admitted to the bar, but he is more interested in farming than in practicing law. He invents the mechanized seed drill, which radically changes the 3,000 year-old system of planting seed by hand. He constructs a rotary mechanism that sprays out seed evenly, and a drill that plants seeds at optimum depths in uniform rows and covers them with earth.

The result: dramatically improved yields, first at his "Prosperous Farm" and then across the nation. Tull also advocates improving soil with manure. His rotary mechanism, quickly adopted by Brits who settle in North America, remains the basis of sowing technology today.  

Machine parts

Buildings, railroads, bridges, and machines depend on iron and steel. The Darbys invent the technology essential to the mass production of iron.

Photo: rjmiz@istockphoto.com

1709-1790s THREE ABRAHAM DARBYS HELP TO LAUNCH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

The first Abraham Darby is a highly energetic inventor and industrialist who helps to create the modern world at Coalbrookdale. Darby tackles the problem of dwindling supplies of charcoal by substituting coke (baked coal) to smelt iron in a coke-consuming blast furnace that he designs. This allows him to smelt greater quantities of iron, which will be critical to producing steel and to the construction of railroad bridges, buildings, and machines. With the help of fellow members of the Society of Friends who invest in his business, he makes technological and productivity breakthroughs crucial to the development of machine parts – and the machines on which we depend.

When he dies at the age of 39, his son Abraham is still quite young, but he grows up to create the world's first integrated ironworking enterprise of mines and furnaces near Coalbrookdale. In 1742 the second Darby uses a steam engine to recirculate the water which powered the water-wheels of the Coalbrookdale ironworks, and keeps the blast furnaces operational all year round. A second innovation makes it possible to produce iron which can be forged into wrought iron in a coke-fired furnace. His son, Abraham Darby III, will take over the ironworks and become the builder of the world's first Iron Bridge.The Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site in Shropshire preserves one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution and the contributions of the Darbys.

1712 THOMAS NEWCOMEN AND THOMAS SAVERY POWER INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION WITH ATMOSPHERIC STEAM ENGINE

At the end of the last century, Thomas Savery had invented an engine that used heat to create steam pressure and pull water out of mines. Newcomen creates a vacuum inside a cylinder to pull down a piston. A lever then transfers the force to the pump shaft that goes down a coal mine. This is the first practical engine to use a piston in a cylinder. With a cylinder nearly eight feet long, Newcomen's engine raises ten gallons of water from a depth of 156 feet.

Since Savery has the patent for raising water with steam, Newcomen goes into partnership with him. For years their reliable, hard-working engines facilitate deep-seam coal mining, hauling coal to the surface and feeding industry with essential fuel. Neither man will profit much, however, and their invention will be completely overshadowed by James Watt’s improved steam engine, built in 1765.

1715 BROOK TAYLOR CONTRIBUTES TO CALCULUS AND ART

Inspired by a conversation in a coffeehouse, Brook Taylor develops Taylor’s Theorem, which makes a significant contribution to differential calculus. James Gregory had already made this advance forty years earlier, but Taylor was unaware he had. Differential calculus deals with the variation of a function with respect to changes in the independent variable or variables. Unfortunately, no one at the time was excited by Taylor's breakthrough. The importance of his theory went unrecognized until 1772.

A gifted artist, Taylor also writes a book on perspective that contains the first general treatment of vanishing points and how to achieve them.

Woman holding huge credit card above her head

John Law transforms the future by inventing credit, which used wisely can free creative energies and build business.

Photo: danielle71@istockphoto.com

1715 JOHN LAW INVENTS CREDIT

Opinions of John Law clash dramatically. In one view he is a rake and scoundrel who rescues the French government from a financial crisis only to precipitate financial chaos by printing money unsupported by equity and embroiling the French in the Mississippi swindle. In another view he introduces modern economic concepts, including the stock market, and changes the spending practices of businesses and families by inventing credit. He describes all this in “Money & Trade Considered, with a Proposal for Supplying the Nation with Money.”

1729 JAMES BRADLEY DISCOVERS HOW FAST SUNLIGHT TRAVELS

James Bradley almost died of smallpox when he was a young boy. His uncle, an amateur astronomer, nursed him back to health, and Bradley began taking an interest in the stars.

Bradley realises that we notice the "aberration" of starlight – the apparent but not actual shifting of the stars' positions in the sky – because we are standing on the moving ship of Earth travelling around the Sun. Bradley provides the first direct evidence that the Earth travels around the Sun.

With the help of a friend who buys the equipment he needs, Bradley uses his measures of stellar parallax to obtain the distances of stars. He calculates that light travels 10,000 times faster than Earth, taking eight minutes twelve seconds to reach the Earth from the Sun. His calculation is just 10 seconds short of the true time.

For 18.6 years Bradley, now Astronomer Royal, makes minute observations of the Moon during an entire revolution. In 1748 he is able to say that his observations prove Earth's nutation, a slight irregular motion (a "nodding") in the axis of its rotation due to the fact that the tidal forces which cause the precession of the equinoxes vary over time.

Boy playing electric guitar with electric cord draped over bare foot

Electrical safety arrives when Stephen Gray
identifies the materials that conduct electricity and
those that insulate.

Photo: PhotoEuphoria@istockphoto.com

1729 STEPHEN GRAY DISCOVERS HOW TO MAKE ELECTRICAL CURRENTS SAFE

A self-taught man and a dyer of fabric like his father, Stephen Gray becomes an expert at astronomical observation in his free time. In his sixties, he makes a series of experiments that will change the way we live. Gray proves that electricity travels by current and he establishes which materials are conductors of electricity and which are insulators.

1730s-1780s STEPHEN HALES CONTRIBUTES TO MEASURING BLOOD PRESSURE, DESALINISATION, AND VENTILATION

Almost unknown today, Stephen Hales is a famous experimental scientist during his lifetime. He devises simple but ingenious experiments to measure transpiration and sap pressure in plants; measures blood pressure; and figures out how to preserve food, desalinise saltwater, and ventilate buildings and ships. He is also a well-loved minister who serves his parish for fifty-one years.

1733 BRITS IN AMERICA PLANT FIRST COMMERCIAL RESEARCH GARDEN

The new plants of the New World – potatoes and tomatoes among them – inspire Brits to establish the Trustee’s Garden in Savannah, Georgia. The 10-acre experimental research garden is devoted to studying and growing plants with commercial possibilities. Its most famous is the Georgia Peach.

It is also an example of an idea special to Anglo-American law that has immense political and social significance today – the trust. A trust is comprised of a person or persons who hold legal ownership of a property in trust for the benefit of another.

Schools, colleges, universities, professional bodies, libraries, charities – all began as associations organised for the benefit of their members or for others, and are protected by the Common Law. A trust protects the funds in its charge, ensuring they are used wisely and properly. Trusts make it possible for Brits to come to the aid of others without asking for government permission. They have helped to create a more compassionate and interesting world.

1735 GEORGE HADLEY SHOWS HOW THE TRADE WINDS BLOW

George Hadley is fascinated by the trade winds, those winds just north and south of the equator that blow easterly (from the east to the west). British sailors give the steady trade winds their name. When they say "the wind blows trade," they mean that the wind is blowing on a predictable track.

Hadley is one of the first to realise the global dimensions of convection, and to describe the causes of the trade winds as partly the result of warm air rising at the equator and flowing toward the poles, while cool, dense air at the poles sinks and flows toward the equator.

1730s JOHN HADLEY BRINGS THE STARS CLOSE

A lawyer who prefers viewing the stars to legal work, George Hadley's brother John improves the reflecting telescope so it can be useful in astronomy. To the delight of astronomers, his reflector telescope is the first of sufficient accuracy and power to be really useful in viewing the night sky. A reflector telescope is an optical telescope which uses mirrors, rather than lenses, to reflect light.

John Hadley also invents a double-reflecting octant for measuring the altitude of the Sun or a star above the horizon to help determine location at sea. (Thomas Godfrey of Philadelphia independently invents a similar instrument.)

Asian businesswoman

The inventiveness of Brits – John Kay, James Hargreaves, and Edmund Cartwright – will clothe the world.

Photo: phildate@istockphoto.com

1733 JOHN KAY'S INVENTION HELPS TO PRODUCE CLOTHING CHEAPLY

John Kay invents the flying shuttle. Powered by a lever that shoots the shuttle across a wider bed, the flying shuttle weaves wider pieces of cloth faster. Hand weavers become fearful they will lose their jobs, and wreck Kay’s factory. Manufacturers refuse to pay him royalties for his invention. Kay dies in poverty, but millions will benefit from his invention, which dramatically reduces the cost of producing clothing.

1747 JAMES LIND CONDUCTS ONE OF THE FIRST CONTROLLED TRIALS, AND PROVES CITRUS FRUITS CURE SCURVY

Scurvy is a disease due to a deficiency of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), which can cause ulcers of the lower legs and feet, bleeding gums, loss of teeth and hair, weakness, depression, hallucinations, blindness, and death. It is believed that in the 18th century the Royal Navy saw more mortalities from scurvy than from battles.

A surgeon of the British East India Company had advocated using citrus fruits to combat scurvy as early as 1600, but their use wasn't widespread. James Lind studies in Edinburgh, becomes a surgeon with the Royal Navy, and is well acquainted with the scourge of scurvy. He decides to probe the effectiveness of citrus fruits with a systematic experiment.  His trial proves their efficacy, and ranks as one of the first experiments in the history of medicine.

Though he published his results in 1753, the lackadaisical attitude of the authorities meant that quite a few years passed before citric fruits became part of the shipboard menu. In 1794 Gilbert Blane, also experimenting, issued lemon juice on board the Suffolk on a two-month-long voyage to India. The daily ration mixed in grog contained the necessary minimum daily intake of ascorbic acid, and no sailor fell ill. The Admiralty took notice.

Lind ascribes the effect of the citrus fruits to their acid. He has no knowledge of vitamins, which will be discovered by British scientist Frederick Gowland Hopkins in the early 20th century.

A pioneer of naval hygiene in the Royal Navy, Lind also discovers that it is possible to obtain potable water by distilling sea water.

1750s SETTING UP LIABILITY AND PROPERTY INSURANCE WITH THE HELP OF RICHARD PRICE

The international insurance markets that began flourishing in England in Edward Lloyd's London coffeehouse in the 17th century are expanding. Wealthy merchant owners drinking coffee on the Thames and hearing the latest maritime news are underwriting marine enterprises based on their unscientific assessments of the risk. Each man who signs on to share the risk writes his name under the name above, and becomes an underwriter. Insuring against property loss is a natural and important development. It allows a community of property owners to share the cost of protecting against loss.

Now Richard Price establishes a scientific basis for what had previously been 'guesstimates'. Price, a brilliant dissenting minister who will become an ardent supporter of the American Revolution, figures out the riskiness of an enterprise by creating a method of establishing probability estimates for insurance. He does the same for old-age pensions.

TO 1751

 

When you contribute to this website,
you support Brits at their Best.

Join the Circle of Friends

English bulldog puppy

 

Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass