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



1931 TO 1949

White crystals looking like the pyramids

Born in Cairo, the daughter of archaeologists,
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin becomes fascinated with crystals and chemistry when she is ten. She goes on to gaze inside the crystal structure of penicillin, insulin, and vitamin B12, and her work results in the mass production of the synthetic versions of these substances.




An expert fencer and a keen cyclist, Edgar Adrian is a tireless researcher and an inspiring teacher at Cambridge. His challenge is to understand how our nerves work and to capture their most sensitive nerve impulses. To do this he uses the cathode ray tube, the capillary electrometer, and thermionic valves to amplify nerve impulses 5,000 times. (Thermions are electrically charged particles like electrons that are emitted by a conducting material at high temperatures.)

Adrian records the electrical discharges in single nerve fibres that are produced by tension, pressure, and touch on muscles. He extends his investigations to a study of the electrical impulses caused by painful stimuli.

Charles Sherrington also has been studying nerves. He discovers Sherrington's Law – when one set of muscles is stimulated, muscles opposing the action are inhibited. Sherrington investigates nearly every aspect of nervous function, coins the terms neuron and synapse to mean the nerve cell and the point at which the nervous impulse is transmitted, and contributes to the development of brain surgery and the treatment of nervous disorders.

Adrian and Sherrington describe the results of their research in a number of books. They jointly share the Nobel Prize for their work.

After 1934 Adrian studies electrical activity in the brain and opens up new fields of study for epilepsy and brain lesions. He establishes the electroencephalogram (EEG) as a diagnostic tool. Sherrington makes contributions to the treatment of paralysis and atrophy.


Short, with owlish spectacles, John Cockcroft looks as Harry Potter might if he became a grandfather and wore a waistcoat. He is joined at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory by Ernest Walton who is Irish and angular and equally determined to delve into the mystery of the atom's nucleus.

Building on the success of Ernest Lawrence and Rolf Wideroe, who created a circular accelerator, Cockcroft and Walton figure out how to accelerate protons to unheard of speeds so they can bombard atoms. Bombarding lithium nuclei with protons, they manage to split its atom. They establish the Cockcroft-Walton accelerator as an important tool for studying the atomic nucleus, and share the Nobel Prize in physics in 1951.

Understanding the mysteries of atomic and subatomic structure will lead to transistors, CT scans, and MRIs.


James Chadwick goes to Germany in 1914 to conduct research with Hans Geiger just before war breaks out, and is imprisoned by the Germans. During five years of internment Chadwick forms a science circle with other prisoners, and looks for a source of radioactivity he can study. He finds it in a toothpaste popular in Germany. To detect electrical charge he constructs an electroscope from wood and tin foil.

After the war Chadwick works with Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, bombarding elements with alpha particles and investigating the nature of the atomic nucleus. He makes a discovery fundamental to nuclear science by proving the existence of neutrons in the atom. Rutherford had posited their existence, but neutrons were difficult to find because they have no electrical charge.

Smiling woman in kitchen works at computer with microwave behind her

The invention of radar and the microwave transmitter
will give rise to the kitchen microwave. Air traffic control also relies heavily on radar (Terminal Radar Approach Control or TRACON, in the U.S.) to keep planes safe.



In the late 1930s the British Government becomes interested in developing a method for locating moving objects like airplanes. Robert Watson-Watt suggests using radio waves for echolocation, and radar (RAdio Detection and Ranging) is born.

To find an object with echolocation, a signal must be transmitted. Since the velocity of radio waves (equivalent to the speed of light) is a constant, the distance and location of an object is obtained by measuring the time it takes for a radio signal to travel out and bounce back and the direction from which it is reflected. This information is collected and displayed on a cathode-ray screen.

The threat of attack by air accelerates research. Radio location stations are built to throw an invisible net of radio waves over Britain. What the system needs is a multicavity magnetron (the first practical microwave transmitter). Harry Boot and John Randall invent it. The system is up and running just before waves of Nazi German bombers assault Britain.

The Nazi Luftwaffe greatly outnumbers the Royal Air Force, but the radar shield helps to foil the Nazis by locating their planes. This helps tip the balance for the outnumbered British pilots.

Radar is used today to determine automobile speed, among many other things. A car reflects the radio pulse fired at it by a "gun", and the velocity of the vehicle is determined by analyzing the returning signal. Radiolocation technology is essential to marine navigators, surveyors, meteorologists, and astronomers. A continuous-wave version called Doppler radar is used to track storms and hurricanes. Radar technology helped to locate a subterranean lake the size of Lake Eire under the desert of Darfur, Sudan, giving hope that the people there will be able to share water, grow food, and live in peace.


Working in some of the same fields as Watson-Watt, Boot, and Randall, Alan Dower Blumlein was an electronics engineer - “possibly the greatest British electronics engineer of the twentieth century" (Oxford DNB). Born in Hampstead to a British mother and a German-born, naturalized British father, Alan was educated at City and Guilds College. His 128 patents, which were produced in a working lifetime of just eighteen years, "embrace the fields of telephony, electrical measurements, sound recording and sound reproduction (both monophonic and stereophonic), high-definition television, and radar." His work in stereophonic recording was twenty-five years ahead of the industry. All this work would prove critical to Britain fighting for her life against Nazi Germany.

Blumlein and E. L. C. White designed and demonstrated a 60 MHz radar in 1939. When the war began, Alan moved into high gear. He “applied his binaural concepts to the problem of the sound location of enemy aircraft, and his transformer ratio arm principles to the design of a low-level altimeter for the RAF. . .Their solution to the minimum range problem and their development of a new modulator–transmitter (which became part of the AI Mark IV radar) contributed substantially to the defeat, from the beginning of 1941, of the German night bomber offensive over England. . .

Blumlein's work on the navigation radar H2S and its adaptation, known as air surface vessel (ASV) radar, for locating enemy U-boats, was invaluable. These radars had a dramatic effect on the battle of the Atlantic and on the Allies' long-range strategic bombing of Germany. His delay-line circuits, automatic strobe-following concepts, and diverse electronic circuits found application in other types of radar, including GL Mark III—a gun-laying radar which played a significant role in the anti-aircraft gunnery defence of the United Kingdom” (DNB).

On 7 June 1942, when he was thirty-eight, Alan Blumlein was killed while flight testing a version of the H2S radar over the Wye Valley. He left a wife and two young sons, just three and six years old.

Long green rows of plants at Fernleigh Farm

Fernleigh Farm, close to the south coast of Australia,
shows the well-turned, well-composted earth of farmers
using Albert Howard's well-tested organic methods.
Organic farming reduces pollution, increases
the ability of plants to resist drought and weeds, and
helps animals to resist disease.

Photo: Fernleigh Farms


Albert Howard's team includes his wife, Gabrielle, the people of India, the earth, and, unusually, pests and weeds. Howard's goal is to promote the health of plants, animals, and humans. Side by side with Gabrielle, and after she dies, with his second wife, Louise, Howard learns how to grow a healthy crop naturally in adverse conditions.

Howard had been posted to a British agricultural station in India. He soon noticed that plant and animal diseases were more prevalent on the government’s artificially fertilized lands than on those farmed by Indians. However, the yields of the Indian farmers, who used no fertilizer, were low. Howard had a theory he could make land more productive, and plants more resistant to pests, and he decided to experiment.

He had discovered that soil was dead without compost - decaying plant matter “cooked” by sun and rain. Full of microorganisms, compost brings nature’s eternal cycle of decay and renewal to a farm. It shields plants from drought and freezing, protects them against insects, and is the world’s finest soil conditioner. After he applied compost to his test fields, Howard’s crops became virtually immune to pest attack, and so did his livestock, which easily resisted foot-and-mouth disease.

The trick is making compost efficiently on a farm. Howard worked out the process, and described farming organically in An Agricultural Testament. Organic farmers consider it the most brilliant and helpful treatise on farming ever written.


Bletchley Park, which has been a manor since Norman times, is conveniently located between Oxford and Cambridge. This is useful during World War II because the two universities harbour top Classical scholars and math geniuses. They prove to be the best codebreakers, and Bletchley becomes the nerve center of British counterintelligence.

Polish heroes had already secretly obtained the internal wiring of the Nazis' code-producing machine called Enigma. A Polish mathematics team led by Marian Rejewski had made important steps in cracking Enigma. Shortly before the Second World War began, the Germans made Enigma far more complex, but a British naval officer retrieved the codebooks and the encoding machine from a sinking German U-boat in the Atlantic in 1940. He just had time to hand off the codes before going down with the sub. The success at Bletchley Park was made possible by these heroes.

Even with the codebooks, thousands of Enigma cipher messages have to be decoded. That requires the brilliance of Alan Turing, Classicists Dilly Knox and Donald "Duckmouse" Michie, and mathematicians and cryptographers such as Robert Roseveare, Peter Twinn, John Jeffreys, and Gordon Wellchman.Their work will prove fundamental to the development of modern computers. Much of Turing's most brilliant mathematical work, which will earn him the sobriquet "the father of modern computer science," was done before the war. One wonders what he might have done if the war had not intervened.


To speed up deciphering thousands of German encrypted war messages, Tommy Flowers at the Post Office Research Station and Dollis Hill, with input from mathematician Max Newman and the group at Bletchley, design the Colossus machine, an early electronic digital computer. (This was not known for decades, until information about the Colossus was declassified.)

Colossus compared two data streams, counting each match based on a programmable Boolean function. Cryptographers recall “its sheer bulk and apparent complexity; the fantastic speed of thin paper tape round the glittering pulleys; the childish pleasure of not-not, span, print main header and other gadgets; the wizardry of purely mechanical decoding letter by letter. . .; the uncanny action of the typewriter in printing the correct scores without and beyond human aid; the stepping of the display; periods of eager expectation culminating in the sudden appearance of the longed-for score; and the strange rhythms characterizing every type of run: the stately break-in, the erratic short run, the regularity of wheel-breaking, the stolid rectangle interrupted by the wild leaps of the carriage-return, the frantic chatter of a motor run, even the ludicrous frenzy of hosts of bogus scores.”

With the Colossus as a foundation, "Britain had such vitality that it could immediately after the war embark on many well-conceived and well-executed projects in the computer field". (All quotes from Wikipedia)


Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin graduates from Oxford with a degree in chemistry, and focuses her graduate research on the new science of crystallography. She uses the X-ray crystallography developed by the Braggs to look deep inside crystals, those solids that are composed of atoms in regular and repeated patterns. By shining the X-ray through a crystal, analysing the diffraction patterns on film, and completing the intense mathematical calculations, the molecular structure of almost any crystalline material can be determined.

Dorothy completes a detailed X-ray analysis of over 100 steroids. She reports their unit-cell dimensions, reactive indices with respect to their crystallographic axes, the molecules' crystal packing, and their hydrogen-bond scheme. This is a breakthrough in crystallography because it is the first analysis based on three-dimensional calculations.

Hodgkin amazes scientists in Britain and America when she uses X-ray analysis, isomorphous replacement, optical analogs, difference maps, and the first IBM analog computers to determine the structure of penicillin. This is the beginning of synthetic penicillin which has helped to save so many lives.

Because she is a woman Hodgkin is initially barred from Oxford research meetings. This will change. The student who will break another barrier for women works on X-ray crystallography in Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin's lab. She is Margaret Thatcher.

Working with Kenneth Trueblood, Dorothy Hodgkin determines the complex structure of vitamin B12, a discovery that allows the vitamin to be synthesised and used in the treatment and prevention of pernicious anemia. After thirty years of work, she completes her analysis of the structure of insulin.

A recipient of the Nobel Prize, she is "one of these masters whose method of work is as exciting and beautiful to follow as the results that flow from it." Dedicated to international peace, and always hospitable, Dorothy and her husband keep an open house for pupils and scientists from all over the world.


Cecil Gray looked imposing, but he was kind; he had an infectious sense of humour, and he saved millions of lives, not to mention making major operations less painful. He revolutionised the practice of anaesthesia.

“Before the Second World War major operations in the chest or abdomen required the patient to be given extremely deep anaesthesia, usually with ether” (Telegraph). Muscles did not completely relax, so they had to be cut, leaving unsightly scars, and babies with congenital heart defects died.

After the Second World War, which almost killed Gray, he experimented with using the drug curare, an extremely effective muscle relaxant. With colleagues at the Liverpool School of Medicine, he developed the "Liverpool Method", the basis of modern anaesthetic practice. Later, working with Jackson Rees, he developed keyhole surgery for babies.


A biologist who does research in dolphins, social groups, and schizophrenia, Gregory Bateson becomes famous for his work in cybernetics, the science of communication and control. Cybernetics deals with 1) the development and control of machines like computers and 2) the control processes of self-organising biological and social systems. Bateson (his father was the geneticist William Bateson), focuses on biological and social systems, with an emphasis on power and ecology.

The word cybernetics comes from the ancient Greek word for helmsman, the person who steers a ship, but Bateson’s point is that there is no helmsman in charge of a self-organising system like the Earth’s biosphere. No part of the biosphere has unilateral control over the whole, and trying to control the whole with a part is impossible. (This is one reason why socialist-controlled economies repeatedly fail.)

However, the facts have little weight with many people, who see power as a lever they intend to control. Bateson describes the myth of power as “a very powerful myth" that "leads inevitably to all sorts of disaster.” Bateson points out that trying to control others engenders a dualistic mindset that makes some people good and some bad, and leads at best to inefficiency and at worst to genocide.

Beatles in zebra crossing, London from Abbey Road cover

The Beatles marching in a zebra crossing on the cover of Abbey Road.


Zebra crossings are one of those inventions that has been adopted around the world. The first zebra pedestrian crossings are traced back to the Belisha beacons named after the Minister of Transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha, who introduced them in 1934.

Pedestrians have right of way in the zebra crossing once they have put a foot on it. However, they do depend on motorists stopping and giving way.

To 1950-1970


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