The Brits have always been a busy bunch, pioneering a range of zany innovations that enrich our lives. Here’s our pick of the best:
Pimm’s was first produced in 1823, by James Pimm, a farmer’s son who became the owner of an oyster bar in the City of London.
Pimm offered his tea-coloured, gin-based tonic as an aid to digestion. Six types of Pimm’s, each based on a different spirit, were soon developed.
Today, Pimm’s No. 1 (gin) and Winter Pimm’s (brandy) are the most popular.
Tidbit: Pimm’s No. 1 (main image) is the favourite drink of the English summer, particularly at Royal Ascot and Henley Regatta.
The erectile dysfunction drug, also known as sildenafil citrate, was first synthesised by pharmaceutical chemists working for drug company Pfizer at a facility in Sandwich, Kent.
It was initially studied for use in hypertension and angina, but while clinical trials showed a lack of results in these treatments, the drug was shown to put the lead back in pencils.
Tidbit: Viagra is sometimes taken by users of MDMA or ecstasy in an attempt to reverse the side-effect of erectile dysfunction. This is referred to as a ‘trail mix’.
3. Cat’s eyes
The retroreflective safety device used in road marking originated in the UK in 1933 and is today used all over the world.
The inventor of cat’s eyes was Percy Shaw of Halifax, West Yorkshire, who was inspired by the eyeshine reflecting from the eyes of a cat sitting by the side of the road on a dark night.
Tidbit: One wonders if the cat had been facing the other way whether Shaw might have invented the pencil sharpener instead.
4. Lawn tennis
In the 19th century, Harry Gem and Augurio Perera started playing a game that combined elements of racket sports and a Basque ball game on a croquet lawn in Birmingham.
In 1872, they founded the world’s first tennis club in Leamington Spa in Warwickshire.
Around the same time, Welshman Walter Clopton Wingfield patented a similar game, which he called sphairistike from ancient Greek meaning ‘skill at playing at ball’.
Tidbit: Wimbledon starts June 21, but Queen’s is also a great lawn tennis tournament in London. It starts June 7 and is played at the club in West Kensington.
Developed as beachwear in the 1830s by the Liverpool Rubber Company, the plimsoll design – a canvas upper and a rubber sole – endures today.
The shoes were called plimsolls because the coloured horizontal band joining the upper to the sole resembled the Plimsoll line on a ship’s hull.
For a period in the UK, these shoes were compulsory footwear in schools’ physical education classes.
Tidbit: Australians will be more familiar with the Dunlop Volley, which is what plimsolls are known as Down Under.
6. Fish and chips
Fish and chips became popular with the British working class alongside the growth of trawl fishing in the North Sea.
In 1860, the first fish and chips shop was opened in London’s East End by Jewish proprietor Joseph Malin and, by 1910, there were 25,000 fish and chips shops in Britain.
Tidbit: Established in 1871, Rock & Soul Plaice is London’s oldest fish and chips shop. It’s located at 45-47 Endell Street, WC2H 9AJ. Jump off the Tube at Covent Garden.
The metal spiral that bores into a bottle’s cork has long been known as a worm, and has been used as such at least since 1681.
But in 1795, the first corkscrew patent was granted to English reverend, Samuell Henshall, who fixed a flat disk, now known as the Henshall button, between the worm and the handle to prevent the spiral from going too deep into the cork.
Tidbit: The corkscrew design may have derived from the gun worm, which was a device used by musketmen to remove unspent charges from a musket’s barrel from at least the early 1630s.
Wackiness aside, the Brits have been busy with these important inventions:
■ Light bulbs: Chemist Humphry Davy invented electric light by attaching two wires to a battery and then fixing a charcoal strip between them.
■ TV: In 1925, Scottish engineer John Logie Baird became the first man to televise moving images, having initially been dismissed as a nutter by the British press.
■ Penicillin: When scientist Alexander Fleming left a petri dish uncovered, he accidentally created a substance with antibiotic properties that would revolutionise medicine.
■ The locomotive: In 1804, Cornish inventor Richard Trevithick’s unnamed steam locomotive made the first railway journey at the Penydarren ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfil, in Wales.
■ The world wide web: Sir Timothy Berners-Lee was an MIT professor when, in 1990, he implemented the first communication between an HTTP client and server via the internet.
WORDS: TOM STURROCK