Wednesday, November 18, 2009

11 Britons that changed the face of technology

The UK innovators that helped shape the world of tech

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Well, we couldn't exactly leave him out now, could we?


Britain may no longer be in thepowerhouse of the world's technology industry, but we sure did some pioneering work in days gone by - and we're still pushing back the barriers in certain areas too.

To celebrate Britain's major contributions to the world of innovation, here are eleven Brits that have changed the face of technology - and some of them are still at it, too.

1. Sir Clive Sinclair

Sinclair may be looked back on with slight amusement because of the 1985 C5 electric tricycle, but we shouldn't forget his formidable contribution to the UK home computer market. He started with the ZX80, but it was with 1981's inexpensive ZX81 (which cost less than £50 for the kit version or £70 fully built) and the follow-up ZX Spectrum that Sinclair became an indelible part of computing history.

Read: Clive Sinclair was 'a cross between Einstein and Willy Wonka'

Sinclair had also released the world's first pocket calculator in 1972 – the £80 Executive which ran on hearing-aid batteries. He now concentrates on folding bicycles.


2. John Logie Baird

Although Baird died in 1946 and never saw television come to major fruition, he changed the world forever with his electromechanical system. It was in 1925, after years of experiment, that he transmitted the world's first television picture – the head of a ventriloquist's dummy at five images per second – after having transferred moving silhouette images two years previously. In 1926 he held the first public demonstration for a reporter from The Times in Soho at a scan rate of 12.5 pictures per second and the year after he performed the same between London and Glasgow. Colour, using three light sources, followed in 1928. In the same year he began making programmes for the BBC. He truly was a pioneer like no other.


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3. Chris Curry

Alongside Sinclair, Curry was the subject of the 2009 BBC docu-drama Micro Men. A former employee of Sinclair, Curry went on to co-found Acorn Computers, the company who went up against Sinclair to carry out the early-1980s BBC Computer Literacy Project and put a microcomputer into every school in Britain. Together with VLSI, Acorn developed the first ARM silicon chip for Acorn in 1985 – derivatives of which we still use today in smartphones such as the Apple iPhone. Curry and his co-founder Hermann Hauser did a deal for Olivetti to take over nearly half of Acorn in 1985. ARM was spun off. At the same time, Curry founded GIS (General Information Systems) who make contact and contactless smartcard products. Below are Acorn founders Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry.


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4. Alexander Graham Bell

Bell was a prolific inventor who experimented with acoustic telegraphy in the early 1870s in the US and Canada using vibrating steel reeds. After a period in which Bell had struggled with his invention (despite getting financial backing), he teamed up with Thomas Watson. Working in collaboration it quickly became clear that different tones could be transmitted via a single reed. Despite a wide interest in the field, Bell was first to the patent office in 1875 – with an "apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically". Although advancements were made by others – especially Elisha Gray – it was Bell who went on to develop apparatus commercially and show it publicly in 1876 and 77.


5. Jonathan Ive

As the Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple, it's fair to say Ive has landed on his feet. But you have to hand it to him – he designed the look of the iMac, iPod and iPhone among others. Born in Chingford, he later studied Industrial Design at Northumbria University (as is now) and spent a short time in London before moving to the US in 1992. Although the eMate showed signs of the Apple we know today, it was with the pioneering first-gen iMac that Ive really came to the fore, with translucent finishes and colourful touches before moving toward the aluminium designs we know today.


6. Charles Babbage

Babbage was a mathematician and inventor who thought up the original concept of a computer as a device being able to solve mathematical problems to drive out human error. First thinking up the principles in the early 1820s, he came up with the idea of the difference engine. The Science Museum has since built a fully functioning machine from his design, but the original was never completed. Instead, he designed an improved version, again completed by the Science Museum in 1991, which performed calculations to 31 digits. Babbage then thought up the Analytical engine which was designed to use punch cards and could be described as the first programmable computer. And his influence is still being felt in diverse fields like nanotechnology.


7. Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt

Saying Watson-Watt is the inventor of radar is a bit like saying Bill Gates invented the home computer. But Watt, along with assistant Arnold Wilkins, designed a radio detection system that became crucial in winning the Battle of Britain in 1940. It tracked aircraft at distances of more than 100 miles from stations all along the East and South coasts of England. He had been deployed to the Bawdsey Research Station near Felixtowe in 1936 and gained a patent for radar in 1935. He later advised the US on air defence before moving to Canada and finally to Scotland.


8. Alexander Bain

Bain was a clockmaker who moved to London from Scotland. There he invented the electric clock, patented in 1841 using a pendulum kept moving by electromagnetic impulses. Bain also worked on an experimental facsimile machine in the 1840s and patented the chemical telegraph, which could print 282 words in 52 seconds.


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9. Sir Frank Whittle

Although German Dr. Hans von Ohain was also involved, Whittle is credited with inventing the jet engine. Whittle took three attempts to enter the RAF due to his physical stature. In his RAF course he had to write a dissertation and decided to write on future developments in aircraft design. Here he wrote about flight at high altitudes and speeds where propeller engines would not be sufficient. In the late 1930s he joined with retired RAF engineers to form a company to produce the jet prototype. In 1944 the company was nationalised.


10. Dr Lyn Evans

CERN's Large Hadron Collider may continue to have problems (with bread), but it's hardly a recent project – Welsh miner's son and particle physicist Dr Lyn Evans began working on the LHC project in 1994. He cites his French O Level – a requirement for him to go to university – as his biggest hurdle, telling the BBC that it's ironic as "since joining CERN, I spend half of my time working in French".


[Image credit: CERN]

11. Tim Berners-Lee

One of the greatest British tech pioneers of all, Tim Berners-Lee made the first proposal for the World Wide Web in 1989. His work was to change the lives of billions. After spending most of the 1980s working for technology companies in Dorset and a consultant software engineer at CERN, he wrote the first web server and initial specifications for URLs, HTTP and HTML. In 1990, he and Robert Cailliau established communication between an HTTP client and server. Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium in 1994 where he remains Director.



Liked this? Then check out 5 technologies to thank the 1950s for

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