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

18th Century

1777 - 1799

First iron bridge in world spans the Severn

In "the valley of invention" – the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site in Shropshire – the first great cast-iron bridge in the world spans the Severn River. Ten museums exhibit the industry that created the highly complex world of machines on which we depend.

Photo: pauledwards@istockphoto.com

ENDING A SCOURGE
OF NATURE,
FINDING NEW STARS,
INVENTING INDUSTRY

1779 THOMAS PRITCHARD DESIGNS AND ADAM DARBY III BUILDS CAST-IRON BRIDGE

Abraham Darby’s ingenuity gave rise to the first iron railway tracks, the first iron railway wheels, and the first steam railway locomotive, made with his high-quality iron. See Abraham Darby. His grandson Adam Darby III builds the first great cast-iron bridge, 100 and a half feet long. Brilliantly designed by Thomas Pritchard, the bridge spans the river with five arch ribs, each cast in two halves. It will have far-reaching effects on bridge design and the use of cast-iron in buildings. Cast-iron bridges are lighter, need less support, and far exceed stone in length of span.

1780s HENRY CORT MODERNISES IRON-MAKING IN THE NICK OF TIME

Like John Hawkins, who produces a superior ship to help stop the Spanish Armada, and Frank Whittle, who invents the jet engine just in time to help defeat the Nazis, Henry Cort transforms the manufacture of iron just in time to prevent Napoleon from invading Britain. Adapting the work of earlier inventors, Cort creates a manufacturing process that improves quality and reduces cost. Brits will go on to use Cort's methods to manufacture modern plumbing and stoves.

Uranus with its rings and some of its satellites

Composed primarily of hydrogen, with 4 major rings and at least 17 satellites, Uranus swims into Frederick and Caroline Herschel's lens.

Digitally enhanced image: Hubble Space Telescope and Erich Karkoschka
photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov

1780s -1820s WILLIAM AND CAROLINE HERSCHEL DISCOVER A NEW PLANET, THOUSANDS OF NEBULAE, AND THE NATURE OF THE SUN

Escaping the German Army and fleeing to Britain as a penniless band musician, Frederick Wilhelm Herschel becomes a successful organist and music teacher. He also brings his sister Caroline, who has been stunted by typhus and deprived of an education, to Britain, and teaches her mathematics.

Fascinated by astronomy, Herschel starts building remarkable large mirror telescopes by hand and making observations by night with the help of Caroline and their brother Alexander. Standing on a ladder so he can reach the eyepiece, jotting down detailed observations of the stars, which Caroline writes up next day, the Herschels note the unexpected appearance of a new "comet," and realize they have discovered a new planet – Uranus, spinning through the universe with ghostly rings. 

The discovery electrifies Europe. The Royal Society publishes his papers. George III, a supporter of scientists, gives him and Caroline a pension so they can continue their research. The Herschels discover sunspots, the gaseous nature of the sun, and nebulae. William, Caroline and later William's son, John, discover more than 4,500 nebulae. With Caroline assisting, William assigns them the New General Catalog numbers (NGCs) still used today. His research confirms that our solar system is travelling through space.

Herschel also contributes to electromagnetic theory. Trying to understand why his telescope filters heat up at different rates, he realizes they grow hottest reflecting an invisible light, which he correctly concludes is part of the spectrum beyond red (the infrared).

1783 INVENTING THE "SOUL" OF THE PIANO

John Broadwood invents the modern piano when he patents the damper pedal. Pianos are stringed instruments played by depressing keys that cause hammers to strike the tuned strings and produce sounds. The pedal softens the tones of the notes. Pianists call the pedal the "soul" of the piano.

1785 EDMUND CARTWRIGHT INVENTS THE POWER LOOM

Edmund Cartwright is another clergyman fascinated with the production of clothing. He is in his forties when he invents the power loom, builds a factory, and uses Watt's steam engines to power his looms. The new machine causes the loss of hand weaving jobs, but makes the mass production of clothing possible, and is yet another advance in making clothing more affordable for everyone.

Digitalis, obtained from the leaves of foxgloves, is the most valuable heart medicine ever discovered.

Photo: Sarah Creswell

1785 JAMES WITHERING, A DOCTOR WHO LISTENS TO HIS PATIENTS, DISCOVERS HEART MEDICINE

Born in Shropshire, William Withering trained at Edinburgh University, became a doctor at Birmingham General Hospital, and then a member of the Lunar Society, a dining club of members who self-depecratingly describe themselves as "lunatics". At the club, young Withering meets scientists James Watt and Joseph Priestley, and is inspired to follow his scientific hunches with a methodical attention to detail.

Fascinated by plants, in 1776 Withering writes an essential plant guide. When he notices that one of his patients with congestive heart failure makes a remarkable recovery, and learns he has taken a herbal remedy of foxgloves, Withering makes extensive clinical trials of the plant. He isolates and identifies the active therapeutic ingredient as digitalis, and publishes a medical paper describing the life-saving discovery.

1789 GILBERT WHITE VIVIDLY EVOKES NATURE IN HIS CLASSIC BOOK

Gilbert White graduates from Oxford, and spends most of his life as a clergyman in Selborne, Hampshire, where he keenly observes nature. White makes connections between the relationships of plants and animals that are far ahead of his time. Naturalists and writers acclaim his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, which is published shortly before he dies in 1793, and is one of the world's all-time bestsellers.

ball bearings

“The entire industrial world runs on ball bearings.”

Photo: ajt@istockphoto.com

1794 PHILIP VAUGHAN INVENTS ONE OF THE MODERN WORLD'S MOST ESSENTIAL COMPONENTS – THE HUMBLE BUT POWERFUL BALL BEARING

Philip Vaughan of Carmarthen takes out the first patent for ball bearings. His invention reduces the friction between moving parts, and helps to supports loads smoothly. Ball bearings are essential to a car’s transmission and its wheels, to earthquake architecture, and to computer drivers, among many other uses. The modern world runs because of this small, breathtakingly simple and elegant invention.

1798 EDWARD JENNER'S DEADLY EXPERIMENT DESTORYS THE SCOURGE OF SMALLPOX

Smallpox begins with a splitting headache, vomiting, and a raging fever. As the fever wanes, a rash appears on the face and extremities, and turns into lumps like small bullets embedded under the skin. These pustules fill with fluid seeping from the capillaries. They line the nose, mouth, and throat, making swallowing unbearably painful, and cover the body, creating lesions as they break and layers of skin tear apart. Smallpox is fatal in one-third of all cases, and the majority of its victims are children. Survivors are scarred for life.

As early as 1726, Americans had adopted an African practice of innoculation by scooping pus from a smallpox patient into the open cut of another patient. However, since death was sometimes the result most people were too frightened to risk it.

Edward Jenner, an army surgeon and country doctor, decides to research smallpox and end its reign of terror. He bases his research on case studies and clinical observation. Jenner notices that milkmaids contract cowpox but not smallpox, and he becomes convinced that the pus in the cowpox blisters protects them.

In 1796, Jenner inserts pus taken from a cowpox blister into an incision in eight-year-old James Phipps’ arm, and repeats the procedure over a number of days, increasing the dose. Then he injects Phipps with smallpox. The boy becomes mildly ill, and swiftly recovers. Jenner’s scientific paper describing vaccination finally sees the light of day in 1798. After considerable controversy, vaccination is adopted and smallpox is eradicated from the earth.

1798 THOMAS MALTHUS POSITS POPULATION GROWTH INCREASES ON GEOMETRIC RATIO, OUTSTRIPPING FOOD SUPPLIES

Thomas Malthus is a benevolent country curate who causes a storm when he theorises that population increases in a geometric ratio and far exceeds food supplies, which grow arithmetically. Malthus calmly observes that only vice, misery, or moral virtue can control the geometric explosion of population. His population predictions are correct, but British contributions to agricultural science will keep food supplies steadily expanding. Where agricultural expertise and fair trade exist, Malthus' bleak predictions have been held at bay.

1798-1799 PERIPATETIC BENJAMIN THOMPSON DISCOVERS HEAT IS A FORM OF MOTION; INVENTS A KITCHEN RANGE AND A DRIP COFFEEPOT; AND FOUNDS THE ROYAL INSTITUTION

Benjamin Thompson is a fascinating fellow who spies for the British Government during the American Revolution, flees America for London, returns to lead a regiment, and then enters the Bavarian civil service where he becomes police minister and grand chamberlain, and eventually Count von Rumford. However, by preference he is a physicist.

Thompson brings Watt's steam engine into common use, invents a prototype of the convection stove, and the drip coffeepot, and increases the amount of radiant heat thrown by a fireplace (His fireplace ideas remain unexploited.)

At the age of 45 he begins a serious study of heat and energy. He designs an apparatus in which a blunt borer is forced against a metal cylinder enclosed by water and turned by horses. The water boils, and Thompson makes one of the earliest measures of mechanical energy as heat, and issues a classic report to the Royal Society on the significance of his findings. To encourage science, he co-founds the Royal Institution of Great Britain with Joseph Banks.

TO 1800

 

 

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