Science and invention in Birmingham

Science and invention in Birmingham

Birmingham is the second-largest city in the United Kingdom. It is one of the country's principal industrial centres and has an impressive history of industrial and scientific innovation.

16th century

1547: Although no record is kept to indicate when the first clock appears in Birmingham, during this year the 'King's Commissioners report that the guild of the Holy Cross are responsible 'ffor keeping the Clocke and the Chyme," at a cost of four shillings and four pence a year at St Martin's Church. The next recorded mention of a clock is in 1613, the earliest known clock makers in the town arrived in 1667 from London.Between 1770 and 1870 there exists over 700 clock and watch makers in Birmingham.

18th century

1722: Richard Baddeley, Ironmonger patents a method for "casting wheel streaks and box irons".

1738: Lewis Paul and John Wyatt, of Birmingham, patented the Roller Spinning machine and the flyer-and-bobbin system, for drawing cotton to a more even thickness, using two sets of rollers that travelled at different speeds. This principle was the basis of Richard Arkwright later water frame.

1741: John Wyatt, mechanic and inventor, designs and constructs a cart-weighing machine, later referred to as a Compound Lever Weighing machine, the design works by way of levers which hold in place a platform, no matter where the weight is placed the load is transferred to a central lever. Weights attached to that lever then help in obtaining a reading of accurate weight. The simplicity, efficiency and accuracy of the weighing machine proved extremely popular across England, subsequently weighing errors were reduced to approximately one pound per ton, this remained a high standard of measurement into the mid 19th century.

1742: Paul and Wyatt opened a mill in Birmingham which used their new rolling machine powered by the humble Donkey, this was not profitable and soon closed.

1742: John Baskerville takes out a patent for making metal mouldings, rolling, grinding and japanning metal plates by use of weights, rollers and pickling which Baskerville used over the more traditional method of employing screws. This is the first patent for making metal mouldings by passing them through rolls of a certain profile.

1743: A factory was opened in Northampton, fifty spindles turned on five of Paul and Wyatt's machines proving more successful than their first Mill this operated until 1764.

1746: Sulphuric acid factory was set up at Steelhouse Lane to use the lead chamber process invented by its co-founder John Roebuck, Roebuck and local businessman Samuel Garbett later relocate to Prestonpans in Scotland, taking with them several skilled men from the Birmingham factory, it is here in 1762 where Roebuck takes out a patent for making malleable iron.

1748: Lewis Paul invented the hand driven carding machine. A coat of wire slips were placed around a card which was then wrapped around a cylinder. Lewis's invention was later developed and improved by Richard Arkwright and Samuel Crompton, although this came about under great suspicion after a fire at Daniel Bourn's factory in Leominster which specifically used Paul and Wyatt's spindles. Bourn produced a similar patent in the same year.

1757: Rev John Dyer of Northampton recognises the importance of the Paul and Wyatt cotton spinning machine in poem:

:"A circular machine, of new design:In conic shape: it draws and spins a thread:Without the tedious toil of needless hands.:A wheel invisible, beneath the floor,:To ev'ry member of th' harmonius frame,:Gives necessary motion. One intent:O'erlooks the work; the carded wool, he says,:So smoothly lapped around those cylinders,:Which gently turning, yield it to yon cirue:Of upright spindles, which with rapid whirl:Spin out in long extenet an even twine."

1757: Baskerville serif typeface is designed by John Baskerville (1706-1775) in Birmingham, England. Baskerville is classified as a transitional typeface, positioned between the old style typefaces of William Caslon, and the modern styles of Giambattista Bodoni and Firmin Didot.

1758: Paul and Wyatt improved their Roller Spinning machine and took out a second patent. Richard Arkwright later used this as the model for his water frame.

1759: A patent is granted to Thomas Blockley (locksmith), for rolling iron into different forms and making (metal) wheel tyres.

1762: Matthew Boulton opened the Soho Foundry engineering works, Handsworth; his partnership with Scottish engineer James Watt made the steam engine into the power plant of the Industrial Revolution. The term "horsepower" was coined by Watt.

1770: James Watt attached a screw propellor to a Steam Engine.

1777: Boulton and Watt build 'Old Bess', as described by the London science museums 'an engine that stands at a crossroads in history'.

1779: James Keir takes out a patent for a compound metal which is capable of being forged when hot or cold more fit for the making of bolts, nails, and sheathing for ships prior to anything before. This metal used the same compounds and similar quantities of metals as the patent of Muntz metal which appear at the same time.

1779: Matthew Wasbrough designs and builds the Pickard Engine (first crank engine) for James Pickard of Snow Hill, this is defined as 'the first atmospheric engine in the world to directly achieve rotary motion by the use of a crank and flywheel.' []

1780: James Watt patents a copying press or 'letter copying machine'; he also invents an ink to work with it.

1781 James Watt markets his rotary-motion steam engine. The earlier steam engine's vertical movement was ideal for operating water pumps but the new engine could be adapted to drive all sorts of machinery. Richard Arkwright pioneered its use in his cotton mills and within 15 years there were 500+ Boulton & Watt steam engines in British factories and mines. Boulton also arranged, in 1775, an Act of Parliament extending the term of Watt's 1769 patent to 1799.

1784: James Watt, referred to a two-speed transmission in patent No.1432, which related to steam carriages: The concept of changing speed (or a variable velocity) in gearing which could arguably be the seed of thought for all subsequent gearing systems.

"Motion [from a steam engine] is communicated to the axle-tree of one or more wheels of the carriage by means of the "circulating rotative to machinery" formerly patented by the inventor. Two or more loose wheels of different diameters are placed to be locked on the axle and impart extra power for bad roads or steep ascents."

1785: William Withering publishes "An Account of the Foxglove and some of its Medical Uses", pioneering its use as a cardiac drug, Digitalis.

1785: James Watt and William Murdoch invent the oscillating cylinder and double action engine. Around this time James Watt creates a governor and throttle valve for automatically regulating the supply of steam to an engine although no patents were taken out by Watt.

1788: Boulton and Watt build the rotative steam engine, it was an improved steam engine which could be used in any place, for any purpose, at any time.

1790: W. Richardson publishes "The Chemical Principles of the Metallic Arts: designed chiefly for the use of Manufacturers" which is used to help with diseases associated with the metal working industry.

1794: Ralph Heaton patents a steam powered machine for mass producing button shanks. This is one of the earliest forms of mechanical mass production and steam powered machine tool operation.

Around this time William Futrell (a well known Birmingham pugilist) becomes publisher of the first boxing paper.

1797: Matthew Boulton erects at Soho a complete coining plant with which he strikes coins for the Sierra Leone and East India companies and for Russia, and produces a new copper coinage for Britain. Also in 1797, he takes out a British patent in connection with raising water on the principle of the hydraulic ram although one of a similar nature appears in France at around the same time.

1799: The first Bell-crank engine was by patented by William Murdock while working for Boulton and Watt. It was the first compact, self contained engine.

At some time around the late 18th or early 19th century possibly the first stand alone cooking range or stove was invented by John Heard (joiner), capable of roasting, boiling, baking and of course heating a room. The products of combustion are carried off by means of a flue leading to the chimney, the inventor mentions it is particulalrly suitable for use on board ships.

19th century

During the early 19th century many advances in lead and copper rolled pipes and tubing take place by many metal workers and inventors in Birmingham.

1802: the exterior of the Soho Foundry is lit with gas lighting by William Murdoch. Murdoch, its developer, worked for Matthew Boulton and James Watt at Soho. This becomes the basis for Birmingham's immense Gas Industry which incorporates many products and trades that rely on Gas to work.

1811: Henry James takes out a patent for propelling vessels by steam, via a paddle wheel fixed in the middle of the stern and steered by two fins to alleviate leggers from the arduous duty of pushing boats through canal tunnels.

1814: Thomas Dobbs (actor) invents a reaping machine which consists of a circular saw or sickle, the grain is drawn or fed up to the saw by means of a pair of rollers, this predates William Bell's straw cutting machine.

1821: Emanuel Heaton, gun finisher, takes out a patent for a water tight pan for gun locks.

1823: Francis Deakin improves a method of stringing the Piano by employing the screw and nut as opposed to the previously used wooden peg, thus allowing a greater tension and strength of wire.

1828: Josiah Mason improved a cheap, efficient slip-in nib which could be added to a fountain pen.

1830: With the invention of a new machine, William Joseph Gillott, William Mitchell and James Stephen Perry devised a way to mass manufacture robust, cheap steel pen nibs.

1832: Muntz metal is patented, an alpha-beta brass with about 40% zinc and 60% copper. Its original use was as a replacement for the copper lining placed on the bottom of boats as it maintained the anti-fouling abilities of the pure form. As it cost around a two-thirds that of pure copper and had identical properties for this application it became the material of choice and Muntz made his fortune.

1832: A form of German Silver is invented by Charles Askins, this was used to make spoons and cutlery specifically in the Birmingham area.

1837: Custard powder was invented by pharmacist Alfred Bird.

1838: Charles Green patents an original and unique method of producing solid, seamless brass and copper tubes, around this time much development takes place in Birmingham and Manchester with regards to copper tubing and printing plates.

1839: Sir Edward Thomason improves the gun lock by making the cock detachable by the thumb and finger as well as making improvements to prevent misfires.

George Elkington and Henry Elkington founded the English electroplating industry in the early 1800s. In 1840, they aided John Wright, who discovered that potassium cyanide was a suitable electrolyte for gold and silver electroplating.

Carl Wilhelm Siemens had several meetings with George Elkington, and made speeches on 'Science and Industry,' to the Birmingham and Midland Institute, he later set up a works in Birmingham and carried out experiments on metals and telegraphy.

Richard Bissell Prosser wrote 58 lives for the Dictionary of National Biography, and supplied much material for the New English Dictionary. Prosser also wrote Birmingham Inventors and Inventions, 1881 and was a pioneer of the study of technical history, his published biographies and manuscript records are an incomparable source for present-day researchers. He was heavily involved with the introduction of the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852, and his 700-volume library, combined with that of Bennet Woodcroft formed the basis of the Patent Office Library.

Birmingham glassworks were among the early mass-producers of uranium glass. Manufacturers included Bacchus, Green & Green (later George Bacchus & Sons), Union Glassworks, in the 1840s, and Lloyd & Summerfield in the 1850s who were the first to use uranium in glass commercially.

1849: William Tranter takes out the first of many patents for his improvements in manufacture of the firearm.

1851: John Nettlefold, screw manufacturer, attends the Paris exhibition. He later buys exclusive rights to use Thomas Sloan’s machine for making screws which is in the show. With adaptation of the machine for their Birmingham premises and inspiration of Birmingham mass production methods, Nettlefold & Chamberlain become Britain’s leading screw-making firm.

1859: The first ever game of lawn tennis is played in Edgbaston, international tennis is still played at Edgbaston's Priory Club.

The first celluloid as a bulk material for forming objects was made in 1856 by Alexander Parkes. Many years later, and with the recognition of celluloid as a format for making photographic film, an American court declared Parkes as the true inventor of celluloid.

1862: the thermoplastic Parkesine was showcased at the Great International Exhibition in London. Invented by Alexander Parkes, this celluloid is credited by the London Science Museum to be "generally accepted as the first plastic". (This presumably refers to synthetic plastic formed into objects: it is predated by the 1848 collodion, a nitrocellulose-based solution that dried to a celluloid-like film but was useless for industrial purposes, as well as several natural plastics).

1862: James Moore Clements of Livery Street who had already invented an improved machine for making buttonholes was granted a patent for a new arrangement of 'stitching the hole'.

Birmingham had a great history of wire and cable manufacture, the industry later set various international standards for wire gauge. 1865: The steel wire, some 16,000 miles long, for sheathing the first successful Transatlantic telegraph cable was made by Webster and Horsfall, Birmingham. [] []

1865: Joseph Hinks sets up James Hinks & Son, of 91-96 Great Hampton Street and 66 Hockley Street. He patented improvements to oil lamps, marketing the resultant Duplex Lamp which was later used across the world and became popular for railway workers.

1868: C.H. Gould patents a British stapler although it remains unclear as to how unique this was from U.S. patents of the same age.

1873: William Westley Richards gunmakers takes out its first of many patents relating to the firearm, for which gold medals and royal warrants, were awarded.

1876: William Bown patented a design for the wheels of roller skates which embodied his effort to keep the two bearing surfaces of an axle, fixed and moving, apart. Bown worked closely with Joseph Henry Hughes who drew up the patent for a ball or roller bearing race for bicycle and carriage wheels which includes all the elements of an adjustable system in 1877.

1878: Joseph Hudson (inventor) makes the first whistle ever to be used by a football referee. It is used for the first time at a game held at Nottingham Forest, prior to this referees used handkerchiefs to attract players attention.

1880: Gamgee Tissue is invented by Joseph Sampson Gamgee, a surgical dressing which has a thick layer of absorbent cotton wool between two layers of absorbent gauze. It represents the first use of cotton wool in a medical context, and was a major advancement in the prevention of infection of surgical wounds. It is still the basis for many modern surgical dressings.

1883: surgeon and gynaecologist, Lawson Tait (pioneer of several surgical procedures), carried out the world's first successful operation on a ruptured ectopic pregnancy.

1883: Joseph Hudson (inventor) invents and manufactures the first police whistle for the Metropolitan police force, prior to this police had to use hand rattles, whistles were only used as musical instruments or toys. His whistle is still used by the force and many others today.

1884: Joseph Hudson invents the world's most successful whistle to date, the 'Acme Thunderer' (the first ever pea whistle). The whistle has been used as an alarm or attention instrument by all manor of industries, sports and revellers. It continues to sell in great quantities throughout the world.

1885: The world's first professional football league is founded at a meeting in Aston under the auspices of William McGregor, a director of Aston Villa.

Sir Francis Galton, who formulated (and later coined the term for) eugenics as well as questionnaires and many important tools in statistics, was born in Birmingham. Galton avidly supported the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin, and also furthered the most important advances in fingerprinting.

1889: Charles Pinkney of Tangyes perfects a gas engine, this comes about through is experimentation with a Hydrocarbon Gas Producer and a Bituminous Coal gas Generator. The engine is proved to be more economical that an earlier ‘Four-stroke cycle Otto’ engine.

1891: the Dunlop Rubber Company co-founded by John Boyd Dunlop established its Birmingham factory Fort Dunlop, later to become the focus of Dunlop as one of the largest multinational manufacturers of automotive and aeronautical tyres.

1894: Richard Norris, a doctor of medicine and professor of physiology at Queen's College, Birmingham, brings out a new patent of dry plate used in photography and is generally credited with the first development of collodion dry plate in the 1860s.

1895: Frederick William Lanchester and his brother built the first petrol driven four-wheeled car in Britain. Lanchester also experimented with the wick carburetor, fuel injection, turbochargers and invented the accelerator pedal and first used the Pendulum Governor for controlling the speed of a car engine. In 1893 he designed and built his first engine (a vertical single cylinder) which was fitted to the first British motorboat.

1896: the first radiograph used to assist in surgery was taken in Birmingham by the British pioneer of medical X-Rays, Major John Hall-Edwards.

1896: The first public trial in Birmingham of a "horseless carriage" or motor car took place at Cannon Hill Park.

20th century

1900: The University of Birmingham is founded, later to provide much scientific research.

1900: Bournville Village Trust is founded by George Cadbury, this was to set many improvements and high standards of living and leisure pastimes for factory workers the world over.

By 1900 Birmingham has the largest number of cycle makers and component manufacturers in Britain, several small advances in the development of the bicycle take place in various companies, one of the longer established and high quality manufacturers being 'Quadrants' of Sheepcote Street which later manufactures motor bikes, other notable firms are New Hudson, B.S.A., C.W.S. Dawes, Grundle, James and Hercules.

1902: On 7 April the Teasmade was patented by gunsmith Frank Clarke. He called it "An Apparatus Whereby a Cup of Tea or Coffee is Automatically Made" and it was later marketed as "A Clock That Makes Tea!", however, the original machine and all rights to it were purchased from Albert E Richardson, a clockmaker from Ashton-under-Lyne. Clarke later abandoned Tea making machines and made several important patents to the Air pistol.

1902: Frederick William Lanchester patented disc brakes.

1902: George Andrew Darby patented his electrical Heat detector and Smoke detector.

1904: King Edward VII & Queen Alexandra open the Elan Valley water supply which was used to provide clean drinking water for Birmingham.

1905: Herbert Austin began making cars at Longbridge, many improvements in car manufacture and production later came about from the works.

1903: Brummie, Francis William Aston won a scholarship to the University of Birmingham and it was in his studies of electronic discharge tubes there that he discovered the phenomenon now known as the Aston Dark Space. He later moved to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where he used a method of electromagnetic focusing to invent the mass spectrograph, which rapidly allowed him to identify no fewer than 212 of the 287 naturally occurring isotopes. His work on isotopes also led to his formulation of the Whole Number Rule which was later used extensively in the development of nuclear energy. In 1922 he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the invention of the mass spectrometer.

1905: a manually-powered domestic vacuum cleaner was invented by manufacturer Walter Griffiths of 72, Conybere Street, Highgate. It was originally patented as 'Griffiths' Improved Vacuum Apparatus for Removing Dust from Carpets'. Although an electric cleaner had been patented in 1901 by H. Cecil Booth, Griffiths' design was more similar to modern portable cleaners than Booth's cart-mounted device.

Birmingham's ingenuity and expertise in metal working aids the early production of lightweight tubing used in the construction of successful airplanes. Engineering firms pioneer advances in aircraft engines also such as Austin who designs and build early aircraft for the British Air force during the early 20th century, Wolseley Motor Company help to set Vickers on their path to motor and engine development for aircraft at Adderly Park, with a new engine ready for production by 1909. Several other small engineering firms design and build early aircraft engines such as Maxfield & Co who test a plane in 1909 at Castle Bromwich, the Butterfield Brothers also making an experimental aircraft engine in 1911. Birmingham engineering works later diversify with all manner of industries relating to the development and manufacture of aircraft components including assembly of whole planes during war years.

1910: Oliver Lucas's company designs and makes an electric car horn.

1911: Oliver Lucas's company designs and makes an electric motorcycle horn.

1914: Oliver Lucas and Charles Breeden carry out pioneering work on the design of the Dynamo and electric equipment for motorcycles and by 1914 they are already manufacturing these items.

1914 Birmingham, by now, is supplying the world with 28 million pen nibs per week.

1915: William Mills (inventor) develops the first "safe grenade" meaning it was safe for the soldier throwing it rather than his opponent. It was named the Mills bomb, and was adopted by the British Army as its standard hand grenade in 1915, 75,000,000 grenades were supplies during The Great War.

1918: Much work is carried out by Oliver Lucas's company on the design and improvement of the military search light, he also designed a signalling lamp after experiences at the Somme and the design was later used by the British Army.

1921: A British patent for windscreen wipers was registered by Mills Munitions.

1923: Arthur L. Large, invented the immersed heating resistor, a major advancement in the electric kettle (A safety valve was introduced by kettle maker Walter H. Bullpitt, also from Birmingham, in 1931.

1929: Brylcreem (made famous by the Teddy Boy) was invented in the city and later gave rise to other hair styling products.

1929: Foam rubber was invented by EA Murphy at the Dunlop Latex Development Laboratories, Fort Dunlop.

1932: Leonard Parsons was the first to use synthetic vitamin C as treatment for scurvy in children. []

1935: Birmingham has a long history of Toy and trinket manufacture and in 1935 the biggest toy makers in England, Chad Valley, are appointed Toy Makers to the Queen of England. During their existence Chad Valley carry out several improvements and practices in manufacturing of Toys during their production between the late 19th and mid 20th centuries, constantly striving to develop new board games, jigsaws and toys.

1937: Professor Norman Haworth was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his pioneering work on carbohydrates and synthetic vitamin C.

1939: Dr Mary Evans and Dr Wilfred Gaisford began trials of the world's first antibiotic M&B (sulfapyridine) as treatment for lobar pneumonia.

Birmingham was the major British manufacturer of the phenolic plastic Bakelite.

The magnetron, the core component in the development of radar, and the first microwave power oscillators were developed at the University of Birmingham during World War II (the microwave oven owes its existence to these developments).

1940: The Frisch-Peierls memorandum was finalised by Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls while both working at Birmingham University - the first document to set out a process by which an atomic explosion could be generated.

1940: Maurice Wilkins, New Zealand born British physicist and Nobel Laureate for his work on DNA structure, was educated at King Edward's School. He received his PhD for the study of phosphors at the University of Birmingham Physics Department, where he worked on radar display screens and uranium isotope separation before moving to the Manhattan Project.

Between 1947 and 1951 Professor Peter Medawar pioneered research on skin graft rejection at Birmingham University, this led to the discovery of a substance which aids nerves to reunite and the discovery of acquired immunological tolerance, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1960 for his work during this time.

1950: in February, the first operation in England for 'hole-in-the-heart' (congenital atrial septal defect) was performed at Birmingham Children's Hospital.

1952: Professor Charlotte Anderson (Leonard Parsons Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health) was one of the team who proved that the glutens in wheat caused coeliac disease, from this gluten-free diets were introduced.

1950-1959: essential research and development on heart pacemakers and plastic heart valves was carried out by Leon Abrams at Birmingham University.

During the later half of the 20th century the first trials of the combined oral contraceptive pill outside the USA took place at Birmingham University and extensive research into advanced allergy vaccines and the synthesization of artificial blood took place.

Sir John Robert Vane, winner of a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1982 for his work on aspirin, was educated at King Edward's School and studied Chemistry at the University of Birmingham.

The city has become an internationally important centre for cancer research.

21st century

Since the establishment of its Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory, the University of Birmingham has become one of the significant UK research centres for nanotechnology.


* Edwardian Inventions, Rodney Dale & Joan Gray, Star Books, 1979, ISBN 0-352-30345-X
* Victorian and Edwardian Birmingham, B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1973, ISBN 0-7134-0128-1
* Workshop Of The World, Ray Shill, Sutton Publishing LTD, 2006, ISBN 0-7509-3503-0
* Birmingham's Industrial Heritage 1900 - 2000, Ray Shill, Sutton Publishing LTD, ISBN 0-7509-2593-0
* Birmingham Inventors And Inventions, Richard B. Prosser, H.M. Patent Office (originally 1881) later published by S.R. Publishers 1970, ISBN 0-85409-578-0
* Watch & Clockmakers Of The British Isles, Birmingham, ISBN 1-871252-008
* A Pictoral History Of Boxing, Sam Andre and Nat Fleischer, Hamlyn, 1988, ISBN 0-600-50288-0

External links

* [ Birmingham Inventors club]
* [ Innovators and inventors from the University of Birmingham]

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