Brits at their British History, Culture & Sports, History of Freedom, Heroes, Inventors

The Ingenious Timeline

19th Century


"Lady Ada" at the computer

Lady Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter collaborated with Charles Babbage, the designer of the first calculator and computer. She is credited with writing the first computer programme. (The U.S. Defense Department's Programming Language ADA is named after her.)




After graduating from Cambridge, where he knows more mathematics than his professors, Charles Babbage is swept away with the idea of building a calculating machine. In 1832 he invents the Difference Engine to compile mathematical tables. It is the first successful automatic calculator. He then embarks on creating a machine that will perform any kind of calculation. He hopes for government support, but fails to receive it. He pours his own money into the enterprise.

A trained mathematician, "the enchantress of numbers", Lady Ada encourages him. She predicts that such a machine could be used to compose music, create graphics, and solve scientific problems. Her plan for instructing Babbage's engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers is regarded as the first computer programme.

Model of Analytical Engine

A model of Babbage's Analytical Engine built by
Douglas Eichenberg.

©Douglas Eichenberg

In 1856 Babbage builds the Analytical Engine, a general symbol manipulator, which is digital. " The analytical engine was conceived as a general-purpose machine capable of calculating virtually any mathematical function. It had a repertory of the four basic arithmetical functions (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) and was programmable—that is, it could be instructed to perform any of these operations in any sequence" (DNB). Unfortunately machinists could not handle his precise specifications and it could not be built.

Babbage's heroic attempt to build a computer will inspire future designers, such as the builders of the Colossus in 1944. In 1991, a replica of Babbage's machine will be built and will be found to be Turing-complete – it can perform any computational task.

Doctors and patients depend on the great guys of Guy's Hospital, London. The research of Thomas Hodgkin, Richard Bright, and Thomas Addison into disease will be life-saving.


Thomas Hodgkin is the finest pathologist of his time and a pioneer in medicine. A doctor who hated to charge his patients, and an excellent researcher, in 1832 Hodgkin describes the clinical manifestations of the cancer of the lymphatic system that is now called Hodgkin's Disease. He is one of the first to write about the importance for health of air, light, cleanliness, clothes, breathing, and food. Disappointed in love and in his hopes for medical advancement, Hodgkin spends much of the rest of his life trying to improve health care for the poor.

Thomas Addison studies at Edinburgh University, and later lectures brilliantly at Guy's Hospital. He identifies and describes several diseases for the first time: Appendicitis, lobar pneumonia, pernicious anaemia, and Addison's Disease, which is named after him. As a result of his work, all these diseases can now be treated.

Also working at Guy's (and also a graduate of Edinburgh) is Richard Bright, who is collecting and painstakingly recording an extraordinary amount of helpful data from clinical observations and post-mortem findings. Bright notes, "It is quite impossible for any man to gain information respecting acute disease, unless he watch its progress. Day after day it must be seen. . .Acute disease must be seen at least once a-day by those who wish to learn; in many cases twice a-day will not be too often."

Bright, who once explored Iceland and wrote up his scientific findings, uses his observations to describe diabetes mellitus, unilateral convulsions, tuberculosis of the larynx, condensation of the lung in whooping cough, and kidney disease (Bright's disease).

In 1839, Addison and Bright write Elements of the Practice of Medicine. In 1842, Guy's Hospital sets aside two clinical wards so Bright can carry on intensive study of renal disease.

Guy's Hospital, London

Thomas Guy and other generous Brits build Guy's Hospital. Dozens of charitable hospitals were founded before 1750, and more than 2600 hospitals were founded after 1800. These hospitals were treating patients, often for free, long before the advent of the National Health Service.


Both devote the next years to research. Addison publishes his results in 1855. His work establishes endocrinology, which is the study of the hormone-producing glands, including the thyroid, adrenals, ovaries, testes, and pituitary gland. Both doctors are known for their "spirit of inquiry, respect for evidence, and careful observation."

Talbot's photo of Nelson's Column 1843

William Fox Talbot's 1843 photograph of Nelson's Column, under construction in Trafalgar Square, London


A classicist, Egyptologist, mathematician and Biblical scholar, William Henry Fox Talbot spends one year in Parliament before hurriedly exiting. He turns his attention to his photographic experiments and his attempt to capture the beauties of nature. His first photograph, taken in 1835, uses a camera obscura and sensitive paper. Unlike Daguerre, who used sheets of copper, Talbot develops the negative/positive paper process treated with silver chloride, and reduces exposure times in the camera to less than one minute.

As with all inventions, modern (non-digital) photography is based on many preceding inventions and discoveries. Talbot continues to work. Ten years later, in 1851, exploiting the development of photosensitive chemicals, he produces the first instantaneous photography using electric sparks for lighting.


A number of Brits are trying to build a telegraph that works, including Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke. As a boy, Wheatstone had seen the telegraph Francis Ronalds built in his back garden in 1816, and this forms the basis of his ideas.

Wheatstone has already invented the Wheatstone bridge, which accurately measures electrical resistance. He forms a working partnership with Cooke, and they design an electric telegraph for the railroad, and take out a patent. (This is not, however, the telegraph that railroads will use.) Almost simultaneously the American inventor Samuel Morse devises the telegraph signalling code that is adopted all over the world.

Charles Wheatstone goes on to invent an A-B-C-telegraph language that requires no knowledge of code. This is important since at that time government, business, police and fire brigades depend on the telegraph to communicate. He also builds a revolving mirror to measure the speed of light.

Stamp showing Queen's profile above landscape of Tolkien's Rivendell
A postage stamp commemorating Tolkien. Stamps transform postal delivery.


Rowland Hill was a school teacher and educational reformer who was the first to introduce science labs and a swimming pool to the model school he had founded. He liked receiving letters, and he became fascinated with the postal operations then in operation.

Around 1839 he arrived at the brilliant and counter-intuitive idea that postal costs have little to do with distance and that the whole cumbersome process could be speeded up and the charge for sending mail could be drastically reduced. And profits? Profits increased because the numbers of people who could afford to send a letter increased dramatically.

Under Hill's plan, postage on a letter would not be collected after complicated travel computations which slowed down delivery and were often so high recipients of letters refused to accept them. Instead, those sending mail would simply buy adhesive stamps for a uniform charge at the post office.

The government bureaucrats of the day naturally called Hill's idea wild and visionary - and these were not compliments - but his plan made such obvious sense it swept Britain and, soon after, the world.

Penny Black Stamp

The Penny Black, the world's first stamp, which shows a profile of Queen Victoria as an eighteen-year-old princess, was first posted early in May, 1840. For letters over half an ounce, Hill had two-penny blues produced.

Since they were the first stamps in the world, they needed to show no country of origin, a detail British stamps continue to omit today, while always carrying the profile of Britain's reigning monarch. Hill's idea revolutionised postal systems worldwide and put Britain's postal system on a firm financial footing.

Regular and reliable mail deliveries - often twice a day - continued throughout Britain for decades, no small achievement for Middle Earth.

Clifton Suspension Bridge spans river

Still in his 20s, Isambard Kingdom Brunel designs the Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol. Two hundred feet above the River Avon, the bridge is 700 feet long.



In 1828, Brunel is working with his father Marc on the first tunnel to be built under a river, the Thames Tunnel. Swept through the tunnel by a water break-in, and washed up a service stairway, he is rescued from almost certain death by miners, but is badly injured. Work on the tunnel, which will be successfully completed and is used today for the East London Underground Line, is temporarily halted. Brunel heads off to design the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Bold and restless, in 1833 Brunel becomes chief engineer for the Great Western Railway. He mathematically works out the best size of track for comfort, safety, and speed, and despite considerable opposition installs the tracks that will make modern high-speed train travel possible when he builds the railway between London with the West Country. Brunel designs the soaring viaducts, tunnels, stations, and even the locomotives.

Before the railway is finished, Brunel designs and builds the Great Western (1837). The largest and fastest ship in the world, she makes the transatlantic voyage in record time.

Brunel builds railway lines in Britain, Ireland, Italy, Australia, and India. An energetic and brilliant engineer who is never without a cigar, Brunel employs compressed-air caissons to sink the foundations of bridges underwater, and launches the Great Britain, the first steamship driven by a screw propeller. He then builds the Great Eastern, the first oceangoing steamer with a double iron hull that is driven by both paddles and a screw propeller. The ship makes its maiden voyage in 1860, and is strong enough to lay the first successful transatlantic cable in 1866, but Brunel does not live to see it. However, his confidently Victorian designs, like the Royal Albert Bridge in Cornwall, survive the ages.

Morgan sports car running on fuel cell

William Grove invents the forerunner of the fuel cell, an electrochemical device that changes the chemical energy of a fuel (hydrogen) and an oxidant (oxygen) into electrical energy and heat without combustion.
The British partnership of QinetiQ, Europe's largest science and technology solutions company, and legendary British sports car manufacturer, the Morgan Motor Company, are developing the world's first environmentally clean sports car powered by a fuel cell which converts hydrogen into electricity. Cranfield and Oxford universities, BOC and OSCar are also partners. The ultra quiet new vehicle, known as LIFECar, will produce only water vapour. The challenge will be finding a cost- and energy-effective way to produce the hydrogen fuel.



William Grove grows up in Swansea, is taught by private tutors, studies classics at Oxford and after graduation is called to the bar. Illness interrupts his law career, and he turns to the study of science, which he has loved since he was a boy. He is thirty when he invents the “gas voltaic battery”, the forerunner of modern fuel cells.

The principle of the fuel cell was discovered by German scientist Christian Friedrich Schönbein in 1838 and published in the January 1839 edition of the "Philosophical Magazine". Grove responds with a letter on “new voltaic combinations”. In the next year he invents the nitric acid battery. In 1842, he announces his invention of the gas battery, the forerunner of the fuel cell.

Grasping that an electric current will split water into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen, Grove reverses the reaction, combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water. His invention slumbers for the next 150 years. It may become a practical reality in the 21st century.

Married, with six children to support, Grove reluctantly returns to the law. When he can he continues to research, and gives lectures using the platinum-zinc batteries he developed to light the hall. Fascinated by photography's power to record facts and by its potential impact on our "moral destinies," Grove is captured in a 1844 photograph looking young and intense.

In 1846 he publishes On the Correlation of Physical Forces, and provides evidence that all physical forces - electricity, heat, light, magnetism, etc - are mutually interrelated. Since any one of these forces could be used to produce any of the others no particular force could be said to be the particular cause of another. His radical idea is the precursor of the principle of conservation of energy described a year later by German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz.

This is Grove's last major scientific paper. In 1853 he is elevated to Queen's Counsel and a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas with expertise in technical lawsuits. He retires from the bench at 77, and immediately returns to his scientific studies. It seems a pity he was kept from them for so long.


An interesting and passionate writer and historian who writes about denial and affirmation, sees heroes as the masters of erupting forces, and society as increasingly dehumanised, Carlyle's greatest achievement is probably not his books but the founding of the splendid London Library.

He wants a library where members can take books home, and whose rules, unlike the British Library's, are to his liking, and Dickens', who was also a founding member. The result is a library where members bask in a clublike atmosphere, reading or researching among over one million books, which can be borrowed or browsed in open stacks. Anyone can become a member for a fee. Happily the library's 8,000 members never arrive at once. Books can be posted to members outside London or the UK. The library's collection, rich in literature, history, fine and applied art, architecture, philosophy, religion, topography, and travel, spans the 16th to 21st centuries.


Edwin Chadwick is a young, poor lawyer when he begins writing about applying scientific principles to government. He attracts the interest of Jeremy Bentham, who eventually leaves him a large legacy, and with this income he has time to design the reform of the Poor Laws in 1834. We are not enthusiastic about Chadwick's enthusiasm for replacing elected government representatives with salaried experts accountable to a centralised board, but many of his reforms are real improvements.

His 1842 report on The Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Population contains life-saving ideas to improve sanitation. Chadwick sees that poor sanitation kills. He understands that when breadwinners die, families are impoverished.

An energetic man, he organises the development of new sanitation technologies, among them sewers rinsed by water, and the legal and administrative structures needed to build these expensive works. The result is good sanitation and the eradication of disease and poverty. The British Medical Journal’s 2007 poll of the fifteen most important medical advances since 1840 calls sanitation number one.


John Stringfellow demonstrates a remarkable ability at designing and building light steam engines. A short time after William Henson patents his design for the Aerial Steam Carriage in 1842, Stringfellow works with him to build and operate a passenger-carrying, steam-engine-powered version.

Their first large model fails to fly, though Henson and Stringfellow make repeated attempts. Henson gives up, but Stringfellow pursues aeronautical research on his own.

In 1848 Stringfellow invents a machine powered by two contra-rotating propellers driven by one of his powerful and lightweight steam engines. At the second attempt, the flying machine leaves a guide wire and flies straight and true for about 30 feet. This is the first powered airplane to fly.

Collaborating with his son, Stringfellow continues to experiment, adapting the idea of superimposition of wing surfaces, and exhibiting his flying machine at the Crystal Palace, where it flies a short distance, and into history. His machines can be seen in the Early Flight Gallery of the National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D. C, and at the Science Museum in London.

George Cayley has been experimenting with aerial devices for years. By 1849, he has an excellent grasp of the aeronautical principles and challenges. Having ascertained some of the fundamental principles of flight, he builds a glider, and puts a boy in it. The boy floats off the ground. In 1853, Cayley asks his coachman to fly a bigger glider, and the man does. When he returns to ground, he quits, saying "I was hired to drive, not fly." British aviation will take off in the 20th century.


James Joule studies mathematics and chemistry with John Dalton when he is a boy, and becomes fascinated by science. He wants to discover the unity of forces in nature because he believes in a Creator. He is also a practical man. He runs his family's brewery, and conducts experiments with remarkable precision.

After establishing the relationship between the heat produced by an electric current, the resistance of the wire, and the strength of the current, he publishes the Joule value for the amount of work required to produce a unit of heat. His experiments are so exact, and so at variance with prevailing views, that he is met with disbelieving hostility from much of the scientific community.

Undeterred, Joule makes his experiments more precise to determine the mechanical equivalent of heat. He also establishes that heat is a form of energy. Today the standard unit of work is called the joule.

In the 1850s he and William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) are writing each other daily as Thomson theorises that the temperature of a gas will fall if it is allowed to expand without performing external work, and Joule's experiments prove the theory. The Joule-Thomson effect is the theoretical basis of refrigeration.

Joule's work proves that mechanical, electrical, and heat energy are basically the same, and can be changed, one into another. In doing so he establishes the experimental basis for the law of the conservation of energy.


The son of a tenant farmer, John Couch Adams had a remarkable gift for mathematics that was recognised by his parents. He was still at Cambridge when he realized that the irregularities in the orbit of Uranus might be due to the action of a remote and undiscovered planet. Using only mathematics, and the laws of Kepler and Newton, he predicts the existence, position, and mass of Neptune. He leaves his paper with two famous astronomers but they are not interested enough to confirm his results by examining the sky with a telescope.

Adams's prediction is a remarkable intellectual feat, which, unknown to him, is being duplicated by the Frenchman Leverrier. In 1874-76, as President of the Royal Astronomical Society, he presents the gold medal of the year to Leverrier.

Adams continued to research and calculate gravitational astronomy, the moon's parallax, the elliptics of the Leonid meteor showers, and terrestrial magnetism.


James Simpson was one of those young people whose brilliance startles us. He entered Edinburgh University at fourteen, and successfully sat his medical examinations at eighteen. Not allowed to practice medicine until he was twenty, he took the enforced time off to study obstetrics.

Simpson became interested in preventing Puerperal fever, which killed so many women in childbed after the birth of their children and in treating their pain during childbirth. Ignoring bugaboos that childbirth should be painful since it was natural (no other pain received the same consideration) Simpson began experimenting.

According to the British Medical Journal, in 1847 James Simpson “discovered chloroform by chance when testing a number of volatile fluids in the hope of finding one that was easier to breathe than ether. Chloroform was less irritating to the lungs and produced unconsciousness swiftly.” Chloroform immediately became the anaesthesia of choice. Dr John Snow gave chloroform to Queen Victoria during the birth of Prince Leopold in 1853. Dr Simpson also improved the design of the forceps.

William Hooker expands the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which now contain the largest plant collection in the world. Research at Kew has led to the commercial cultivation of the banana, coffee, tea, and a number of medicinal drugs, including quinine for malaria.

Photo: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew


In 1759 Augusta, the "embattled" Princess of Wales, and John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, start a botanical garden at a royal residence. They hope that some day it will contain all the plants known on earth. (They are unaware just how many plants this is.) Forty years later, under the direction of Joseph Banks, who had sailed with Captain Cook, and collected plants in Australia, specimens stream into the garden from all over the world. But the buildings are falling down when William Jackson Hooker takes over in the 1840s.

Hooker initiates the great metamorphosis and flowering of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He establishes the museum, the library, the crucial department of economic botany, and the extraordinary glass palaces that are the Palm and Temperate Houses.


Beginning with a fever, headache and aching, moving on to diarrhea and a high fever that lasts four weeks, with complications that could include haemorrhage, peritonitis, and pneumonia, typhoid fever was a life-threatening and all too common illness. It is caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhosa, found in contaminated water.

Brits today no longer worry much about typhoid because a growing sanitary reform movement in Parliament in the 19th century improve sanitation so dramatically. Boards of health are established with powers to supervise street cleaning, refuse collection, water supply, and sewage disposal. However, these improvements do not occur overnight, as will be seen in 1854, during the cholera epidemic.


William Thomson's father, a mathematics tutor, teaches him until he enters school at the age of ten. At the age of fifteen the young Thomson wins the University of Glasgow's gold medal for a mathematics paper. His subject is the age of the earth. He also reads French scientist Joseph Fourier's theory of heat, and writes two papers asserting that his mathematics could be applied to fluids in motion and to electricity flowing through a submarine cable. Studying at Cambridge, Thomson is handed a copy of George Green's essay on applying mathematics to electricity and magnetism. He has it reprinted at his own expense, and creates a pioneering synthesis that mathematically describes magnetism and electricity.

At the age of twenty-two, after gaining experimental knowledge in a lab, Thomson is elected to the chair of natural philosophy at Glasgow. In 1848 he describes the absolute temperature scale. (As a result, absolute temperature is now given in degrees Kelvin.) In 1851 he provides a version of the second law of thermodynamics. This decade also sees his collaboration with Joule on the thermal effects of gases.

The invention of the instantaneous transmission of information by electricity has been achieved, but how to lay the cable that will carry that electricity under the ocean has not. Drawn into the controversy over how best to lay a transatlantic telegraph cable, Thomson participates in the hazardous early cable-laying expeditions in the 1850s. The manager planning the project rejects his advice, but Thomson perseveres through lost cable and violent storms. His motto: “When you are face to face with a difficulty, you are up against a discovery.”

All seems lost, but Thomson redesigns the cable. (A rubber-like product from Malaya called gutta-percha is used.) He invents the telegraph receiver and siphon recorder, makes the telegraph wildly successful, and becomes a rich man. (He uses the telegraph to propose marriage; his future wife signals back, "Yes.")

The telegraph shrinks the world, and links the far-flung British Empire. By 1880 there will be 97,568 miles of cable running across the world's oceans and linking Britain to India, North America, Africa and Australia. Messages sent today will be received tomorrow.

Kelvin writes more than 600 scientific papers, takes out more than 70 patents (while insisting on quality controls at the factories that produce his inventions), and earns more honorary letters after his name than anyone else in the world.


Kirkpatrick MacMillan fits cranks to the rear wheel axle of the dandy horse and connects them with rods to foot pedals. Though many vie for the honour, MacMillan has as good a claim as any to wheeling the first bike onto a road. In 1869 a machine named for its two wheels and called a bicycle (its wheels have steel rims and hard rubber tires) is patented in London. Brits take to the bicycle partly because John McAdam has given them so many miles of smooth macadam on which to ride.


Conceived by Queen Victoria's Consort, Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition is held in the Crystal Palace, which is built with over a million feet of glass in Hyde Park, London. More than six million visitors view 13,000 exhibits featuring the latest inventions, culture, and art from all over the world.

A series of great courts showcase the history of art from ancient Egypt through the Renaissance; musicians and circus performers entertain vast crowds in the arched Centre Transept; 12,000 fountain jets splash in the gardens; fireworks fill the night sky. The Great Exhibition is an unqualified technological success.


George Boole's father is a cobbler who is fascinated by the application of mathematics to scientific instruments. Born in Lincoln, George has little formal education, but his father encourages him to study math, and finds a bookseller to teach his son Latin. George teaches himself Classical Greek. He becomes a teacher at sixteen to help support his parents and siblings, and starts his own school at nineteen. Meanwhile he is reading mathematics. In 1842, at the age of 27 he writes a paper that applies algebraic methods to solving differential equations, and receives the Royal Society Medal.

George Boole becomes Professor of Mathematics at Queen's College, County Cork, and a dedicated teacher. In 1854, he publishes An Investigation into the Laws of Thought, on which Are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities. Quite so. Boole approaches logic in a whole new way by crystallizing it into algebra. The result is Boolean algebra, which translates logical reasoning into mathematical symbols. It will become essential to the design of digital computers and switching circuits.

By now Boole has met Mary. When her father dies, leaving her impoverished, he marries her, and embarks on a happy marriage. He publishes articles on differential equations and calculus, and is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, but his brilliant career is cut short when he dies at 49.

Cholera ward in Bangladesh

Ending cholera requires providing clean sources of water.

Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders »


John Snow is a London doctor concerned about the cholera that sweeps through cities, killing thousands. The accepted theory is that cholera is transmitted through contaminated air. Snow thinks otherwise. He believes it is transmitted through contaminated food or water.

In 1854 Dr John Snow plunged into a cholera outbreak in London, mapped the location of deaths and realized that 500 cholera deaths had occurred within 10 days around the Broad Street Pump. Officials removed the handle (so the water couldn't be pumped), and the disease faded away. To verify his idea that cholera was caused by infected water, Dr Snow expanded his study "to 300,000 individuals of both sexes, of varying ages and occupations, and from all social classes". After he confronted the London government with his findings, London began cleaning up the water supply, but it was not until the 20th century that the medical world substantiated infected water as a primary cause of cholera.(See William Burton on cleaning up Japan's water supplies.)

Woman and baby shortly after childbirth

The man who established statistical mapping as an invaluable tool in medical epidemiology was also the doctor who helped to bring relief to women in childbirth.

The son of a labourer-farmer, Snow studied Latin as a boy, became an apprentice to a surgeon-apothecary at the age of fourteen and was only eighteen when he treated miners in a cholera epidemic. After training in London he became a member of the Royal College of Physicians.

Snow recognized that "an efficient inhaler, which allowed the control of vapour strength, was fundamental to the safe administration of any anaesthetic agent and he went on to develop several instruments"in 1847."One of his most important legacies to anaesthetics was his description of the five identifiable stages of the anaesthetic process. His intention was to provide doctors with the ability to interpret the patient's physiological signs and to adjust the administration of vapour accordingly." (Quotes from Oxford DNB)

A common 19th century view was that women were supposed to suffer during childbirth. Queen Victoria put paid to this notion for all time by giving birth to Prince Leopold with anaesthesia, with Dr Snow in attendance.


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