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

THE INGENIOUS TIMELINE

20th Century

1900 to 1930

Big jet plane flying in very blue sky

Whittle's jet engine propels travellers around the world.

Photo: kickers@istockphoto.com

NUCLEAR PHYSICS,
VITAMINS,
TELEVISION,
PENICILLIN,
GENETICS, &
THE JET PLANE

Planets circling around the blazing sun

Ernest Rutherford discovers that just as the planets orbit the Sun, the electrons of an atom orbit its nucleus. A big man with a sense of humour, Rutherford was also a hero.

Photo: jpl.nasa.gov/image@istockphoto.com

1900s - 1930s GENIUS AND TEAM SPIRIT OF ERNEST RUTHERFORD CREATE NUCLEAR PHYSICS

The son of a mechanic and a schoolteacher, Ernest Rutherford swims in the local creek in New Zealand, milks cows with eleven other brothers and sisters, and plays rugby. While still in school he invents a device to switch electrical currents. Despite his brilliance, he cannot land a teaching job after he graduates, so he heads to Cambridge, and the Cavendish Laboratory, where they recognise he is a mathematical and experimental genius.

Rutherford's first task at the lab is to help sailors 'see' a lighthouse concealed in the fog, so he invents an apparatus that can detect electromagnetic waves over several hundred yards. In 1898 he discovers and names alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. In 1899 he invents the Rutherford-Geiger detector which tracks nuclear particles. (It will lead to the common smoke detector and save lives.)

Moving to the Chair of Physics Canada's McGill University, Rutherford discovers radon, a chemically unreactive radioactive gas. With young chemist Frederick Soddy he unravels radioactivity, and shows that some heavy atoms spontaneously decay into slightly lighter atoms.

Painstakingly experimenting with things he cannot see, Rutherford radically alters our understanding of the world by proving that atoms are not necessarily stable. In 1904 he publishes what he has learned in Radioactivity. He contributes to modern geology, archaeology, and energy exploration by demonstrating that radioactivity is the spontaneous disintegration of atoms, that half a radioactive sample will invariably take the same time to decay — its "half-life" — and by proposing to use this constant rate of decay as a clock to date the age of the Earth. In 1908 he is awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Back in England at Manchester University, Rutherford discovers that the atom is a small, heavy nucleus surrounded by orbital electrons. Explaining to a critic why the lighter electrons are flying around the heavier nucleus, Rutherford, a big man with bright blue eyes, booms, “When you’ve got an elephant and a flea, you assume it’s the flea that jumps.”

In 1919 he bombards nitrogen atoms with alpha rays (helium nuclei), sees a change in the outgoing photons, and correctly deduces that the nitrogen atoms have been converted into oxygen atoms in the world's first artificial nuclear transformation.

As Director of Cavendish Laboratory, Rutherford builds a top-notch research team. Always humble and immensely likeable, he attracts physicists such as Neils Bohr to work with him. Bohr combines Rutherford's nuclear model of the atom with the quantum theory to create the current description of the atom. Together they discover how to probe sub-nuclear particles. Their work will be crucial to the development of micro-electronic devices.

Rutherford predicts the existence of the neutron, which compensates for the photon and keeps the atom's nucleus from breaking apart. (The atomic nucleus is basically comprised of protons, which have an electrical charge, and neutrons, which do not.) He persuades colleague James Chadwick to search for the neutron, and Chadwick finds it.

In the 1930s, Rutherford urges Cambridge University to grant women the same privileges as men. During the Nazi build-up, he leads an organisation that helps Jewish scientists escape from Germany.

African park with elephants in Uganda

David and Mary Bruce first carry out experiments in Uganda, searching for the carrier of the sleeping sickness that ravages people and cattle.

Uganda
Photo: DmitryP@istockphoto.com

1901 DAVID AND MARY BRUCE DISCOVER CAUSES AND TRANSMITTERS OF MALTA FEVER AND SLEEPING SICKNESS

Born in Melbourne, schooled at Edinburgh University, a keen bird watcher, sportsman, and prizefighter, David Bruce embarks on medical studies, and marries Mary Steele, the daughter of a doctor. In Africa they heroically nurse the wounded at the siege of Ladysmith, and survive a number of hair-raising adventures in Zululand and Uganda while carrying out experiments and laboratory work to identify the carriers of sleeping sickness.

They first win renown by discovering the bacterial cause of Malta fever (now known in their honour as brucellosis) and discover the agent of dissemination. Mary learns the latest techniques in microscopy, and they head off to Natal, where the Zulu people are in desperate plight because they are losing cattle to an unidentified illness. David and Mary's intense microscopic study of blood specimens and their experiments reveal the blood of infected animals is swarming with a motile, vibrating haematozoom, which they identify as trypanosome with the tsetse fly being the carrier.

In 1903 the Bruces are in Uganda, investigating sleeping sickness, which is believed to be caused by trypanosome. This is confirmed, but the carrier cannot be confirmed until the Bruces organise a national fly hunt. Thousands of tsetse flies are collected, and the Bruces prove with dissections and experiments that the fly is the carrier of the disease and that wild animals are the reservoir for the illness.

Bruce states their goal simply: "We are all children of one father. The advance of knowledge in the causation and prevention of disease is not for the benefit of any one country, but for all." The Bruces' identification of the causes and carriers of disease is the essential first step to prevention and eradication.

1901 HUBERT BOOTH PATENTS FIRST VACUUM CLEANER

One theme of Brit inventions is giving people time to play and dream. Hubert Booth patents the first vacuum cleaner. His large machine is first used in stores. Inspired by his invention, American James Spangler will create a portable electric vacuum cleaner for homes in 1908, and sell his business to William Hoover, whose company hoovered up vacuum cleaner profits.

1902 SCOTLAND YARD DEVELOPS FORENSIC TOOLS

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Scotland Yard scored 12 of the most important "firsts" in criminal detection, including the first "wanted" picture, the first use of a line-up, and the first convictions based on fingerprints (in 1902) and on ballistic evidence. Every forensic police division owes a huge debt to the pioneers at Scotland Yard.

1904 JOHN AMBROSE FLEMING INVENTS THE FIRST VACUUM TUBE; THE AGE OF MODERN WIRELESS ELECTRONICS IS BORN

From Tony Long, Wired: On November 16, 1904: British engineer Sir John Ambrose Fleming invents and patents the thermionic valve, the first vacuum tube.

With this advance, the age of modern wireless electronics is born. Although the Supreme Court eventually invalidated Fleming's U.S. patent — ruling that the technology he used for his invention was already known — he remains the acknowledged inventor of the vacuum tube, a diode (having two electrodes) that would have far-reaching applications. The tube was standard equipment in radio receivers, radar sets, early television sets and other forms of electronic communication for at least half a century, until it was replaced by solid-state electronics in the mid-20th century

. . . .Fleming lived long enough to see the fruits of his labour help save Britain during World War II. Radar sets using Fleming's diodes proved decisive in the Battle of Britain, allowing a relatively small number of British fighter planes to effectively turn back the Luftwaffe's onslaught against the home island.

1904-1921 FREDERICK SODDY DISCOVERS ISOTOPES

Educated at Oxford, Frederick Soddy moves to Canada to investigate radioactivity with Ernest Rutherford. Soddy formulates and proves the seemingly paradoxical concept of isotopes – elements that have different atomic weights, yet are chemically indistinguishable. Soddy points out how useful isotopes are in determining geological age, and predicts atomic energy. In 1921 he receives the Nobel Prize.

1905 WILLIAM BATESON FOUNDS AND NAMES THE SCIENCE OF GENETICS

His theories are sometimes implausible, but William Bateson lays the foundation for genetics and the "green revolution". First he rediscovers the long-neglected work Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, and proves Mendel's principles on the inheritance of traits experimentally. Bateson also shows, contrary to Mendel, that certain genetic features are inherited together. (This phenomenon is now known as linkage.)

An indefatigable researcher, Bateson attends flower shows and animal exhibitions, talks with horticulturalists and stock breeders, and experiments with sweet peas and chicks. He finds there are many cases where there are large jumps in characteristics with no smoothly evolving evolutionary steps between. In 1905 he coins a new word for the study of inheritance and variation: Genetics. He founds the study of plant genetics at the John Innes Center, with remarkable results.

Man standing in a field of wheat with arms outstretched

Bateson directs the John Innes Centre in Norwich, which improves plant types with outstanding results.

Photo: Sveta@istockphoto.com

1906-1930 FREDERICK GOWLAND HOPKINS DISCOVERS VITAMINS

As a young man Frederick Hopkins works for six months as an insurance clerk before he takes a course in chemistry, sits an examination, and does so well that Thomas Stevenson, an expert in poisoning, engages him as his assistant. Hopkins contributes to several important legal cases, takes his London University degree in the shortest possible time, and then studies medicine at Guy's Hospital, London.

Biochemistry is a new, underfunded field, but Hopkins pursues his research. Working in one small room at Cambridge, he discovers tryptophan, an amino acid component of casein and other proteins that is essential to human nutrition but is not synthesised by the human body. He and Walter Fletcher establish that working muscles accumulate lactic acid, and they investigate its effects. In 1929 Hopkins shares the Nobel Prize with Christiaan Eijkman for discovering substances vital to life and maintaining health – vitamins.

Little boy eating bread

Developing new varieties of wheat with higher yields and less disease, Rowland Biffen increases food supplies and reduces hunger worldwide. The breakthrough is possible because City of London merchant John Innes has established and funded the John Innes Centre » where Biffen conducts his research.

Photo: mammamaart@istockphoto.com

1910 JOHN INNES AND ROWLAND BIFFEN MAKE LIFE-ENHANCING CONTRIBUTIONS TO AGRICULTURE

Few remember Rowland Biffen, a Brit who researches crop genetics and physiology. He assembles wheat and barley from around the world to study variations. He is trying to hybridize a strain of wheat that is resistant to rust, a devastating fungal disease that wrecks harvests and causes starvation.

Biffen discovers that immunity to rust depends on a single recessive genetic characteristic. He achieves remarkable success in hybridizing the Yeoman wheat variety which resists rust and is soon available to people around the world. Other Brits such as John Percival will also work to improve the resistance of crops to drought and other environmental factors.

Inspired by Biffen, American Norman Borlaug will spend years breeding the high-yield, rust-free dwarf wheat that forestalls starvation around the world. Taking a leaf from Adam Smith, Borlaug insists that governments allow farmers to freely charge world prices for their grain, which increases production.

1914 BRITS INVENT AIRCRAFT CARRIERS

Many people consider military inventions anathaema, and hardly the best work produced by anybody. However, without them civilized people would die at the hands of barbarians.

In 1914, the Brits launch HMS Ark Royal, the world's first aircraft carrier. The Americans launch their first carrier in 1920. At the beginning of World War II, Britain fortunately had seven carriers, while Nazi Germany and Italy had none.

Two significant developments in aircraft carrier technology are both British. These are the steam catapult and the angled flight deck.

In 2005, U.S. aircraft carriers rushed to the areas of tsunami devastation and provided electricity and fresh water for whole cities.

1915 WILLIAM LAWRENCE BRAGG AND HIS FATHER WILLIAM BRAGG MAKE MAJOR MEDICAL ADVANCE WITH BRAGG'S LAW & X-RAY SPECTROMETER

William Lawrence Bragg grows up in South Australia, and enters Cambridge after excelling on the mathematics exam, though he is forced to take it in bed while ill with pneumonia. During his first year as a research student, he calculates the positions of the atoms within a crystal from the way the crystal's lattice diffracts an X-ray beam. This is a remarkable discovery.

He explains what is now called Bragg's Law to his father, who develops the X-ray spectrometer, a tool that can analyze crystals based on Bragg's law. The spectrometer will be crucial to identifying the crystal patterns of medicines and to developing cheaper, synthetic versions of drugs such as penicillin. At the age of 25, William Lawrence becomes the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Prize.

After World War II, the younger Bragg becomes head of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. He plays a major role in supporting the research of Watson, Crick, Wilkins, and Franklin, who will use the Braggs' X-ray spectrometer to reveal the spiral secret at the heart of DNA.

1918 ALMROTH WRIGHT AND WILLIAM LEISHAM BATTLE TYPHOID FEVER

Salmonella typhosa is a deadly bacterium that enters the body through contaminated food or water. Eccentric genius Almroth Wright battles the global typhoid scourge with vaccination, but his vaccine proves ineffective until William Leisham modifies the method of sterilizing it. Their efforts to prevent typhoid will see its greatest triumph in World War I.

1918-1921 FRANCIS ASTON INVENTS APPARATUS THAT MEASURES THE WEIGHT OF ATOMS; DISCOVERS HUNDREDS OF ISOTOPES

Francis Aston jumps from the study of chemistry to physics, and invents the mass spectrograph, a remarkable device that separates atoms by mass and allows him to measure their weight. Working at Cambridge, Aston discovers 212 naturally occurring isotopes. He also calculates the atomic weights of elements from their isotopic masses. Aston's mass spectrograph is used in nuclear physics, geology, biology, and chemistry. His description of isotopes will be fundamental to the development of nuclear physics.

1919 THE HUNT FOR THE CURVING PATH OF LIGHT

According to Einstein's general theory of relativity, light is affected by gravity: A ray of light passing through a gravitational field will curve. Brits in the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society mount two expeditions – to Sobral, Brazil, and to the island of Principe, West Africa – to look for the curving path of starlight during a total eclipse of the sun.

The eclipse will show them the stars and starlight near the sun's disc that are usually invisible. Comparing photographs of these stars, and measuring the infinitely small discrepancies in their apparent locations, they attempt to establish that the sun's gravitational field has indeed caused starlight to curve, and prove the general theory of relativity. It was an excellent attempt. Later, nuanced reports suggest that the evidence is less certain than was reported. It will be interesting to see if the general theory stands up over time.

Man about to board small plane smiles

In 1919, the first regular commercial passenger flights in the world take off from London’s international air terminal at Croydon. By 1926, commercial and passenger planes are flying between London and India.

Photo: sjlocke@istockphoto.com

1919 BRITS LAUNCH SOME OF THE FIRST PLANES AND FIRST COMMERCIAL PLANE FLIGHTS

Brits are fascinated by the possibilities of air travel. In 1804 George Cayley flew the first successful model glider. In 1843 William Henson patented plans for a steam-driven airplane that had many of the basic parts of a modern airplane. In 1848 John Stringfellow built a plane based on Henson's design, and launched it, briefly. Then in 1903, in America, Orville and Wilbur Wright built and flew the first engine-powered, heavier-than-air plane. Sixteen years later, after enormous advances in plane design, Brits began flying commercial passenger flights.

1921 JOHN MACLEOD, FREDERICK BANTING, CHARLES BEST, AND JAMES COLLIP DISCOVER INSULIN

Today, when a “diabetes epidemic” is sweeping the western world, the discovery of therapeutic insulin is a life giver. Frederick Banting and Charles Best are working in Canada in the laboratories of John MacLeod when, with the indispensable help of James Collip, they manage to isolate the hormone insulin in a pure form that is effective in treating diabetes.

Oddly, only Banting and Macleod receive the Nobel Prize for the discovery, but Banting voluntarily shares his award with Best, and MacLeod shares his prize money with Collip, who goes on to make real contributions in endocrine research. Banting's research career is cut short when he is killed on a secret military mission during World War II.

1925 EDWARD APPLETON'S INVESTIGATIONS INTO RADIO WAVES AND REFLECTIVE AIR MAKE LONG-RANGE RADIO POSSIBLE

Radio only travels at certain wavelengths and through certain zones of the atmosphere. Depending on temperature and the time of day, some layers of air will disrupt radio waves. Working at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, Edward Appleton discovers that radio waves with a wavelength short enough to penetrate the lower region of the ionosphere will be reflected by an upper region. This upper region is now called the Appleton or F layer, the layer where radio waves travel best. Appleton's discovery makes long-range radio and radar possible.

television car navigator shows beautiful beach and ocean

John Logie Baird's television brings the image of something far away close.

Photo: Jeryc@istockphoto.com

1924 -1928 JOHN LOGIE BAIRD BECOMES FIRST TO TELEVISE PICTURES

He is plagued by ill health, but John Logie Baird decides to create a television, a dream of many scientists. Within two years Baird has built his first crude set. It sits on a washstand; the base of its motor is a tea chest; a biscuit tin houses the projection lamp. He cut its scanning discs from cardboard, and used four-penny cycle lenses, scrap-wood, darning needles, string, and sealing wax to hold his gizmo together. With this contraption Baird manages to transmit the flickering image of a Maltese cross over a few feet.

Two years later Baird demonstrates the world's first television to fifty scientists in his attic workshop. The next year, 1927, he demonstrates television over 438 miles of telephone line between London and Glasgow, and in 1928 he achieves the first transatlantic television transmission between London and New York.

The BBC begins using Baird's television in 1929, but Baird's television works mechanically. He is exploring electronically supported television when he is edged out by Marconi.

In 1930 Baird demonstrates big-screen television in the London Coliseum, televises the first live TV transmission (of a horse race), develops colour television, and is the first to demonstrate ultra-short wave transmission.

Charming woman pharmacist holding bottle of penicillin pills

Prior to penicillin there were no antibiotics to treat pneumonia, syphilis, septicemia, or any other bacterial infection from which millions died. Penicillin's discovery and production is one of British and American medicine's stupendous achievements.

Photo: geotrac@istockphoto.com

1928 - 1945 CASCADE OF EVENTS LEADS TO ONE OF THE GREAT MEDICAL ADVANCES: PENICILLIN

The cascade begins almost invisibly when a rare penicillium spore serendipitously lands in a petrie dish of bacteria in a research wing of St. Mary's Hospital, London. Alexander Fleming discovers the remarkable change that has occurred to the bacteria, and realises what it means, but his discovery goes nowhere.

Ten years later at Oxford, Howard Florey and refugee Ernst Chain happen upon Fleming's paper about his discovery, and decide to test penicillin's antibiotic properties. They succeed despite overwhelming difficulties, with the essential help of American medical developers. Penicillin is mass-produced to treat wounds in World War II, pneumonia, gangrene, syphilis, gonorrhea, and child-killers like GBS, diphtheria and scarlet fever.

Fleming believes the discovery and development of penicillin is a miracle, but even he is not aware how intricate and extraordinary a miracle it is. For more, see It Was a Miracle.

In the 1950s Howard Florey and his cohorts, Edward Abraham and Guy Newton, go on to isolate and determine the structure of cephalosporin-C. This was the precursor of the many antibiotic cephalospoin drugs currently available.

Wing of jet plane and beautiful English countryside far below

Whittle's first jet engine prototype is so powerful it plunges out of control, sending mechanics diving for cover. One of the century's great aero-engineers, Whittle faces and meets enormous design and production challenges on his way to changing the way we travel.

Photo of England: leviticus@istockphoto.com

1930 FRANK WHITTLE INVENTS JET PLANE

Just five feet tall, Frank Whittle has a knack for overcoming adversity. When his father's engineering business collapses and he has to leave Leamington College, he educates himself. When the Royal Air Force rejects his application, he puts himself through a gruelling regimen to pass the RAF's physical.

When he is accepted in the apprentice wing of the RAF College, his career does not look promising, but he is so outstanding he is among the 1% selected for the officer training course. When it seems doubtful he has the talent to become a pilot, Whittle becomes a flying daredevil. When everyone else accepts the gas-propeller status quo, Whittle writes his thesis on jet propulsion, and in 1930 he applies for a patent.

He then fights for ten frustrating years to interest British industry and government in his jet plane. Whittle envisions a whole new system of propulsion. The old thinking had a gas turbine turning propellers. Whittle designs a jet engine with a turbojet that draws air in, compresses it, mixes it with fuel, and ignites it in one continuous operation. The expelled gases propel the aircraft and run a turbine, which turns the compressor blades. The challenge is to invent an engine strong enough to withstand the resulting heat and vibration.

Whittle's ideas would have gone nowhere, but the RAF sends him to Cambridge to study engineering, and two fellow RAF pilots pay for his patents and the cost of building his jet plane. When British Government officials watch his jet plane's maiden flight, and see it racing and diving in the sky above, their mouths drop open. Whittle continues to improve the jet engine for the next three decades, and sends many of us flying around the world.

TO 1931

 

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