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past innovations

Black-and-white photograph of Alan Turing.

Universal machine

the theoretical basis for all computers

The theoretical basis for all modern computers was laid down when Alan Turing (1912-54) imagined a ‘universal machine’ in his 1936 paper ‘On co...

Side view of a Mini car with doors and side removed, exposing the insides.

BMC Mini

highly influential small car design

The Mini represented a unique advance in motorcar design when it was introduced in 1959 by the British Motor Corporation.

The popul...

William Henry Bragg standing next to scientific instruments mounted on a bench and made of metal parts connected by wires.

X-ray crystallography technique

revealing the atomic structure of materials

X-rays, one of the most exciting discoveries of the late 19th century, had been shown to react strangely when exposed to crystal...

A young woman (Bell) in front of a large circular receiving dish.

Discovery of Pulsars

radio beams from dead stars

These cosmic lighthouses were found by accident while a University of Cambridge team was looking for twinkling sources of radio ...

The blue Mallard steam train travels along the rail with stream billowing from its chimney.

Mallard

fastest steam train in the world

On July 3rd 1938, A4 class locomotive Mallard sped down Stoke Bank on the East Coast Main Line in Lincolnshire at 126mph, setting a new locomot...

People gathered around a computer demonstration by Tim Berners-Lee.

World Wide Web

connecting the planet

The World Wide Web, which has transformed the way we access information and communicate with one another, was born when scientists sought more ...

Close-up of a digital watch with a metallic casing.

Liquid crystal

transforming digital displays

Our lives are full of digital displays: clocks, watches, DVD players and computer or TV screens. Many of these make use of liquid crystal displ...

Three women stand by a table admiring a pile of Tupperware.

Polyethylene synthesis

accidental discovery became one of the world's most used plastics

This polymer was discovered in March 1933, when Reginald Gibson (1902-83) and Eric Fawcett (1908-87) of Imperial Chemical Indu...

Alexander Fleming looking into a microscope.

Penicillin discovery

the world’s first antibiotic drug

The first antibiotic drug was revealed when Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), a bacteriologist working at St Mary’s Medical Schoo...

Front view of a Concorde aeroplane moving up the runway towards the camera.

Concorde

the first supersonic passenger airliner to enter regular service


Aviation technology had leapt forward in the years after the Second World War with jet engines and new aerodynamic shapes. The dre...

A zoomed-in photograph of a microchip.

ARM chip

found in most of world's smartphones and tablets

The ARM (advanced RISC machine) processor is a family of processors used in devices such as smartphones, tablets and computers. Developed in 19...

Hexagonal metal plates connected together by metal rods and arranged helically around a central stand.

Double helix

the ‘secret of life’

Biotechnology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology, all frontiers of research in the 21st century, owe their origins to th...

Black-and-white photograph showing two women standing next to a bank of computer equipment.

Colossus

the world’s first digital electronic computer

The Colossus was the world’s first digital electronic computer. Designed by Tommy Flowers (1905-98) at the Post Office Research Station in Doll...

Columns with bars in different shades of grey.

Genetic fingerprinting

revealing our unique DNA profile

At 09.05 on 10 September 1984, in a laboratory at the University of Leicester, the world’s first genetic fingerprint was reveale...

Four images showing a pipette injecting round dots into a cell.

Stem-cell

finding the blueprint for all human cells

Martin Evans (born 1941) conducted pioneering work at University of Cambridge on stem cells, the ‘parent’ cells of all the 200 o...

Lines of grey and black dots.

DNA sequencing technique

revealing the genetic code

The most common method used to ‘read’ DNA code to reveal the genetic ‘recipe’ of an organism was developed in Cambridge. While w...

Black-and-white photograph of Peter Medawar.

Randomised Controlled Trial

the key to evidence based medicine

In the 1940s the Medical Research Council (MRC) pioneered the development of the randomised control trial. This is the gold standard for a clin...

Netlon fencing on a building site.

Tensar/Netlon

fabrics of modern society

Netlon and Tensar are materials that are woven into much of the fabric of the modern world; their uses range from highway crash barriers to f...

Black-and-white photograph of an aeroplane flying overhead.

Jet engine

faster and higher aeroplanes

Frank Whittle (1907-96) was a cadet in the Royal Air Force in 1928 when he came up with an idea for a jet engine. He argued that this would ena...

A collection of red, black, blue and white balls arranged on a wire frame.

Crystallography of biomolecules

revealing the workings of nature’s smallest machines

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-94) advanced the methods used to study atoms and molecules in living things, which are critical for understan...

Black-and-white photograph of Peter Medawar.

Anti-rejection therapy

the key to successful organ transplants

Organ donation has revolutionised the way we treat organ failure and many other illnesses: today in Britain around 2700 peop...

Vehicle with large engines on either side in the desert.

ThrustSSC

first car to break the sound barrier

Developed by Richard Noble (1946- ), and a team of engineers, ThrustSSC set the Land Speed Record on the 15th October 1997. At a speed of 763...

A catseye embedded in cement in the middle of a road.

Catseye road marking

a guide for night time drivers

The inventor of 'catseye' roadstud was Percy Shaw (1890-1976) of Halifax, West Yorkshire. The inspiration for this invention struck Percy when ...

View of a computer terminal that fills a whole room. On the terminal are buttons and dials and a plaque reading ‘LEO’.

LEO I

the first business computer

The LEO I (Lyons Electronic Office I) was the first computer used for commercial business applications.

J Lyons & Company ran te...

One large brown dried frog with a number of smaller white frogs behind it.

Cloned frog

the first animal cloned from a mature cell

At the age of only 25, John Gurdon (born 1933) of the University of Oxford helped to lay the foundations for modern-day research...

Andrew Wiles standing in front of a chalk board.

Proof of Fermat's last theorem

the solution to a 350 year old mathematical problem

Prime number theory and Fermat’s last theorem are today essential for modern cryptography and computer security, helping to keep our online tra...

A sports bicycle with black frame and wheels, highlighted with yellow graphics, some reading ‘Lotus’.

Strong carbon fibre

key to reinforced plastic

In the latter half of the 20th century new technologies demanded strong materials. Plastics were the new wonder material, bein...

A clear dome with many plastic tubes connected inside. The tubes are lit in shades of red, yellow and orange.

Optical fibre

information arteries of today’s society

Optical fibres facilitate broadband communication that enables music, images and video to be transferred around the globe in a split second. Pu...

A woman standing in front of a museum display of racks of computer equipment.

‘Baby’ Small Scale Experimental Machine

the first stored-program electronic digital computer

The Small Scale Experimental Machine, nicknamed the ‘Baby’ computer, was developed as a research prototype to prove the concept of digital stor...

Drawing of two faces, each at a different stage of plastic surgery. Skin is taken from the chest to cover an injury on the cheek.

Pioneering facial surgery

paving the way for modern plastic surgery

The origins of modern plastic surgery, now in everyday use to repair a damaged body, can be traced to one of the greatest confli...

Image shows a large white cube-shaped full-body MRI Scanner with a hospital bed positioned in front of it.

MRI scanner

revealing the inside of the human body

While X-rays give detailed pictures of bones, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) reveals disease in soft tissue. Patients lie inside a huge magne...

Distorted monochrome image of Oliver Hutchinson’s face

Baird's original TV apparatus

the world’s first demonstration of true television

In his home in Hastings, self-employed inventor John Logie Baird (1888-1946) sought the means to transmit and receive images. For decades this ...

Photograph of a hovercraft painted black and silver, with ‘Westland SR-N1’ displayed on its side.

Hovercraft

travelling on a cushion of air

In the 19th century it was recognised that ships wasted a great deal of energy on the friction between the hull and the water. Experiments were...

Donald Davies sits in front of a blackboard while holding a book. A computer is just visible at the left edge of the image.

Packet switch

foundation of the internet

Packet switching is the process by which all data (regardless of content, type or structure) is broken into suitable blocks or ‘packets’ and tr...

Photograph looking into a CT scanner. The couch for the patient to lie on is in the foreground and the entrance to the scanner in the background.

CT scanner

revealing the mysteries of the living human body

Before the invention of the CT (computerised tomography) scanner, it was impossible to see the structures inside the human brain...

Robert Watson-Watt makes a note on some equipment.

Radar

Winning technology for the Battle of Britain

Robert Watson-Watt (1892-1973) led the British development of radar (radio detection and ranging), which built on experiments carried out by He...

A cluster of eight cells.

In vitro fertilisation

the first ‘test-tube baby’

In vitro fertilisation, better known by the initials IVF, means ‘fertilisation in a glass’ and is now a standard procedure to ...

Black-and-white photograph of a surgical implant with one end long and tapering, the other rounded to fit in a socket.

Charnley hip joint

the first practical hip replacement

A persistent squeak led a Manchester orthopaedic surgeon to develop a revolutionary medical technology. In the early 1950s sur...

A map of the whole Earth centred on the Pacific Ocean, showing the contours of the ocean floor.

Plate tectonics theory

the motion, formation and recycling of Earth’s crust

Dan McKenzie (born 1942), a Cambridge geophysicist, developed the theory of plate tectonics using earlier ideas of continental...

Two white hoops on a stand, representing electron orbits, encircle a red ball, representing the nucleus in the centre.

Splitting of the atom

the first artificial nuclear reaction

By the end of the 19th century it was already understood that the world could be divided into smaller and smaller parts. In 1911 Ernest Rutherf...

A tube suspended in a metal frame supported on a steel base structure, with a caesium source to the left, magnets to deflect the beam at either end and a tuning cavity in the middle.

First successful atomic clock

world’s most accurate timekeeper

In 1955, Louis Essen (1908-97), assisted by Jack Parry at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, built the first atom...

Computer graphic showing blue and green antibodies sticking to bumps on the surface of a white sphere representing a cell.

Monoclonal antibodies

manufactured antibodies that revolutionised the biotechnology industry

Monoclonal antibodies, proteins with the ability to bind to a specific molecular target, have found many uses in research, tre...

Adult sheep (Dolly) with lamb (Bonnie).

Dolly the sheep

the first mammal cloned from an adult cell

Dolly, born on 5 July 1996, was the first mammal cloned using an adult cell. The cell was taken from the mammary gland of an o...

Black and white image of the three physicists walking up a path.

Predicting antimatter

when theory revealed half the universe

The father of antimatter was the University of Cambridge physicist Paul Dirac (1902-1984). His 1931 paper predicted, for the first time, the existence...

Blue and green computer image of a car crashing into an obstacle.

Finite element method

key to computer simulations


This powerful method for dividing a complicated engineering problem into manageable pieces has revolutionised design and analysis....

A large object made up of a wooden computer desk and a freestanding panel. The desk has dials and switches on it. The panel has hundreds of glass valves, some with coloured sleeves.

Pilot ACE

making the ‘universal machine’ a reality

The Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) was the first physical manifestation of the ‘universal machine’ outlined by the mathematician and wa...

The round disc of the Moon surrounded by a halo of light from the Sun.

Test for Einstein’s theory of relativity

showing that space-time can warp

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) described in his theory of general relativity how a massive body curves, or warps, the space-time ar...

Strips of blue paraffin wax in a white case.

Neutron

revealing the structure of the atom

In 1911 Ernest Rutherford had already shown that atoms were more complex than previously thought, drawing them as electrons orbi...

David Payne sits in a darkened room next to a laser.

Light amplifier

the basis of optical communications

A doped fibre amplifier can be used to boost fibreoptic signals across vast distances. The device consists of a fibre that amplifies a light si...

In the foreground a farmer drives a tractor across a field. In the distance are the cooling towers and other structures of a nuclear power station.

Calder Hall station

the world’s first commercial nuclear power station

The nuclear power station at Calder Hall, Cumbria was the first nuclear power station to supply electricity in commercial quantities. It consis...

Black-and-white photograph of a tractor on display in the Museum, with a plough mounted on the tractor’s back and attached directly to it.

Three-point linkage system

revolutionising agriculture

Brought up on his father’s farm in County Down, Northern Ireland, Harry Ferguson (1884-1960) had first-hand experience of the hardships of agri...

Black-and-white photograph of six men in suits inspecting a piece of glass.

Development of ‘float’ glass

the process at the heart of the world’s glass industry

When Alastair Pilkington (1920-95) set out to find an economical technique for making high-quality plate glass, he had no idea...

Francis William Aston examines apparatus resting on a work bench. Other laboratory apparatus can be seen on the wall behind him.

Mass spectrograph

the smallest ‘weighing scales’ of all

While experimenting with how charged atoms and molecules can be deflected by magnetic and electric fields, Cambridge chemist J...

A computer screen displays a 3D image of a flower.

3D displays

first mass produced device that did not need glasses

In 2002 Sharp, released the first mass-produced device to feature a 3D screen that could be viewed without wearing glasses.

The displ...

Robert May

Biological Chaos

finding mathematical order in ecology

Ecologists are interested in how populations, communities and ecosystems change. Mathematical models have become increasingly useful for unders...

Sepia photograph showing spherical material binding to shards of bone.

Bone replacement

a new synthetic material for repairing bones

In 1996 William Bonfield (born 1937) and colleagues at Queen Mary, University of London developed a synthetic bone graft material with a simila...

Trevor Baylis holding a rectangular, black radio. Other radios are in the background.

Wind-up radio

putting clockwork to powerful uses

In 1991, Trevor Baylis (born 1937) saw a television programme about the spread of AIDS in Africa, highlighting the desperate need to communicat...

Computer graphic showing coloured spheres stuck together in a chain and labelled ‘ATP’.

ATP enzyme

the energy-producing motor of the human body

While working at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, John Walker (born 1941) revealed how the energy necessary for...

John Maynard Smith sits on a low chair while writing on a notepad. In the background are books, a window and some jars of liquid.

Evolutionarily stable strategies

placing evolutionary thinking on a mathematical basis

John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) of the University of Sussex, along with George R Price (1922-75), developed a new theory to exp...

Black-and-white photograph of Mary Lucy Cartwright.

Origin of Chaos

when radar research detected a new theory

The effort to develop radar in the Second World War provided early insights into what would come to be called ‘chaos theory’, ...

Hand drawn diagram illustrating Hawking radiation.

Hawking radiation

a surprising discovery on the path to a new theory of quantum gravity

One long-standing goal of physicists has been to blend the theory of the very big (general relativity) with the very small (quan...

Black-and-white photograph showing a large room full of computer banks. Two men on the left of the image are at a desk.

Ferranti Mark 1

the first commercial general-purpose electronic computer

The Ferranti Mark 1 ushered in the era of commercial computing. Having already completed work on a fast-evolving series of experimental computi...

Room filled with old computer equipment.

Quicksort algorithm

the time-saving algorithm

While a visiting student at Moscow State University, Tony Hoare (1934- ) was asked to work on a project for machine translation from Russian to...

A white coffee pot resting on a black base. It has a clear glass lid and a pattern of leaves and pink flowers on its side.

Model CP1

the world’s first automatic coffeepot

When William Russell (1920-2006) and Peter Hobbs (1916-2008) came together to form Russell Hobbs they created a series of innovative appliances...

APT-E travelling at speed.

Tilting train

negotiating tight curves at high speeds

Tilting mechanisms allow trains to negotiate tight curves and travel at high speeds along our rail network. Trains with active tilting system...

A cylindrical bronze block drilled with six holes, or ‘cavities’, mounted between two square bronze plates.

Cavity magnetron

key to airborne radar and microwave ovens

The prototype of the cavity magnetron was invented by John Randall (1905-84) and Harry Boot (1917-83) at the University of Birmingham in 1940. ...

Upright bagless vacuum cleaner coloured pink and purple.

Dual cyclone vacuum cleaner

a design that does not lose suction

Frustrated with the performance of traditional vacuum cleaners, James Dyson (1947- ) decided to design his own. 

Inspired by a cyclon...

 Bicycle with small wheels and larger white frame.

Moulton Bicycle

an important step in bicycle design

In 1962 Alex Moulton (1920-2012) exhibited a new type of bicycle at the Earls Court Cycle show. His bike, with a novel 'F' frame design, not ...

A large cylindrical object covered in reflective material. Far below is the Earth, with Cuba and the Bahamas visible beneath clouds.

Photon Detector Assembly

a camera for observing the faintest cosmic objects

The Photon Detector Assembly (PDA) instrument from the Hubble Space Telescope was used in the telescope’s faint-object camera - its ‘telephoto ...

A woman stands on front of a bamboo wall. Squares of flattened seaweed are propped against it.

Artificial seeding

revolutionising the Japanese seaweed industry

Kathleen Drew-Baker (1901-57), a biologist at the University of Manchester, pioneered artificial seeding techniques. These techniques revolutio...

The abdomen of a pregnant woman in the foreground with a doctor’s hand conducting a sonogram. In the background is a monitor showing an image of the fetus.

Ultrasound scanner

transforming antenatal care

Half a century after the remarkable discovery of X-rays in 1895, the limits of their medical applications had become clear. Th...

A passenger travels on the world’s first commercial maglev train in Birmingham.

Maglev

the wheel-less rail system

Maglev trains use electromagnetic systems to ‘levitate’ rail carriages above tracks to create a fully friction-less and wheel-less rail system ...

Dennis Gabor

Holography

inventing the 3D image

Holography is a technique which enables three-dimensional images, known as holograms, to be made. 

The process is similar to the me...

Large metal instruments and bank of computers fill a room.

Scanning electron microscope

the most powerful microscope ever made

In the 1950s and early 1960s Charles Oatley (1904-1996) and his group at the Engineering Laboratories at the University of Cambridge developed ...

A small cylindrical object with a fine metal tube fed through its centre.

Electron capture detector

a sensitive way to spot pollutants

Independent scientist James Lovelock (born 1919) developed a highly sensitive electron capture detector in 1956 to detect a range of substances...

A diagram showing the ocean floor spread away from the magma centre.

Magnetic band

the first scientific test of ocean floor spreading

Cambridge geophysicists Fred Vine (born 1939) and Drummond Matthews (1931-97) proved that the radical notion of continental dr...

View of a computer terminal that fills a whole room. On the terminal are buttons and dials and a plaque reading ‘LEO’.

Showing singularities really exist

places where the laws of physics do not apply

Stephen Hawking (born 1942) and Roger Penrose (born 1931) from the University of Cambridge worked together on the structure of s...

Image shows bottles of vitamins A,B and D.

Vitamin

discovering the key to growth and health

Vitamins are naturally occurring and found in many foods but their existence was only discovered in 1912. In a series of ingeniously-designed...

A jet aeroplane with silver body and long nose cone, suspended from the ceiling of a museum gallery.

Pegasus engine

key to vertical takeoff and landing

In the 1950s the next great challenge for aeroplane design was to produce a craft that could achieve vertical takeoff. Many different designs w...

A freestanding gas cooker with its door open.

Thermostatically controlled oven

how cooking became a science

In 1923 a thermostat-controlled flue oven designed for the Radiation ‘New World’ H16 marked the greatest single advance in the design of gas ...

Photograph of the retina of a healthy eye.

Laser opthalmoscope

providing early detection of eye disease and defects

The laser opthalmoscope was invented by Douglas Anderson (born 1951) when his five year old son was blinded in one eye after a retinal detachme...

Close-up view of wooden cabinet with glass panels. Inside are mechanical gears. Other similar cabinets can be seen in the background.

Hartree differential analyser

a machine to solve complex equations

Differential equations have numerous applications in engineering, chemistry, biology and economics. Since they can describe exponential growth ...

Railway freight wagons moving along track are in the foreground. In the background are the large cooling towers of a power station.

‘Merry-go-round’ wagon

making power stations more efficient

The ‘merry-go-round’ train revolutionised the way Britain was powered in the 1960s by making the delivery of coal more efficient.

F...

PCM

Pulse Code Modulation

Foundation of digital telecommunications

Pulse-code modulation (PCM) was invented by Alec Reeves in 1937 while developing radio telephones for transatlantic calls. He wanted to make hi...

Six men standing by the wing of a biplane. A large propeller can be seen just behind them.

Vickers Vimy Biplane

first non-stop transatlantic flight

To give a lift to the early aviation industry, in 1913 Daily Mail owner Lord Northcliffe offered a £10,000 prize to the first person to cross t...

A man looks through a camera at a woman. It is as tall as the man, consisting of a large, boxy camera resting on a tripod.

Emitron TV camera

used by the world’s first regular television service

The Emitron camera was the first electronic television camera in the world to be applied in regular 'high definition' broadcasting. Cameras of ...

A man in a white coat adjusts an industrial-sized loom. Fibres stretch out of it in all directions.

Terylene polyester synthesis

the stuff of synthetic fibres, containers and much more

The polymer was described as ‘just a few grams of dirty-looking stuff like treacle’ when it was presented to Imperial Chemical...