21 Birmingham inventions that changed the World.
- THE PHOTOCOPIER
In 1779, the famous engineer James Watt patented a ‘letter copying machine’ to deal with the mass of paperwork at his business, and also created a special ink to use in the device.
This was the first widely used copier for offices and was such a success that it was in use for more than half a century. It’s considered to be the first ever photocopier.
Watt lived in Regent Place, Birmingham, from 1777 to 1790 and spent most of his time working with Birmingham manufacturer Matthew Boulton, of Soho House, on developing steam engines.
- THE COOKER
In the late 18th or early 19th century, the Birmingham joiner John Heard invented a standalone cooking range or stove that was capable of roasting, boiling and baking – as well as heating the room it was in.
For the first time, the smoke and fumes were carried off by a flue pipe that led to the chimney. Earlier models did not have flues and needed to be in a hearth right under the chimney.
- THE BICYCLE BELL
John Richard Dedicoat invented the bicycle bell in Birmingham, with patents appearing as early as 1877. At last cyclists could make a distinctive and immediately recognisable warning sound to alert people that they were coming and therefore avoid accidents.
Dedicoat – who was an apprentice of James Watt – went on to become a bicycle manufacturer who made and sold the Pegasus bicycle.
- ROLLER SKATES AND SKATEBOARD
Skateboard wheels owe their existence to Brummie toolmakers William Bown and Joseph Henry Hughes. In 1877, they patented their new Aeolus design for skate wheels that had a ring of ball bearings or rollers in the middle. The tiny steel balls stopped the parts of the wheel directly grinding against each other, reducing friction and creating smoother, faster motion.
Skateboards weren’t invented until the 1940s or 1950s in California, but these two men are responsible for the design of modern-day roller skate and skateboard wheels, as well as the use of similar ball-bearing systems in motorbikes and cars.
- THE WHISTLE
Around 1875, a toolmaker called Joseph Hudson made the first whistle in a workshop at the side of his end-terrace home in St Mark’s Square, Birmingham. It was used for the first time in 1878 at the English Football Association Cup 2nd Round game when Nottingham Forest beat Sheffield 2-0, replacing the handkerchiefs previously waved by referees to attract players’ attention.
In 1883, Mr Hudson invented and manufactured the first police whistle for the Metropolitan force, so officers no longer had to rely on hand rattles.
And then a year later he came up with the first pea whistle – the Acme Thunderer – whose shrill sound carried over long distances and high noise levels. J. Hudson and Co. (Whistles) Ltd still exists today and is based in Barr Street, Birmingham.
- THE X-RAY SCANNER
After X-rays were discovered in 1895, it was John Hall-Edwards who saw the medical potential of the new form of radiation.
In Birmingham on January 11, 1896, Hall-Edwards was first to use the radiation under clinical conditions by taking an X-ray image – or radiograph – of a needle stuck inside someone’s hand. On February 14, 1896, he was the first to use X-rays in a surgical operation. He also took the first X-ray of the human spine.
Although long-term exposure to the rays meant Hall-Edwards had to have his left arm amputated in 1908 because of radiation burns, he kickstarted a whole new field of medical science. Without Mr Hall-Edwards, there wouldn’t be any X-ray machines in hospitals today.
- THE SMOKE DETECTOR
Everyone’s aware of today’s public safety campaigns for smoke alarms, and it was in Birmingham back in 1902 that George Andrew Darby patented the first electrical heat detector and smoke detector.
The proportion of UK households with a working smoke alarm has risen rapidly from 8 per cent in 1988 to 70 per cent in 1994 and 86 per cent in 2008.
But there’s still a way to go – Government statistics also reveal that 37 per cent of UK properties that suffered a fire in 2010/2011 did not have a smoke alarm. That’s 16,400 homes where a blaze could have been prevented. Figures also show that 112 people died in fires where there was no smoke alarm and 76 people died where the smoke alarm did not work.
- THE MASS SPECTROMETER
If you’ve watched the forensic team on US TV show CSI, you’ll have seen them analysing crime scene samples using a mass spectrometer, which can detect the elements in an unidentified substance to find out what it is and what it contains.
It’s all down to Birmingham scientist Francis William Aston. He studied at the University of Birmingham and then continued his research at Cambridge, where he built the first fully functional spectrometer in 1919. In 1922, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discoveries he made using the machine.
- THE VACUUM CLEANER
It was Gloucester engineer Hubert Cecil Booth who had invented the first motor-driven vacuum cleaner in London in 1901. Powered by oil and later by electricity, it was hired to clean premises such as shops, theatres, barracks and churches. However, it was so large it had to be transported by horse and carriage and left outside while the suction hose was fed through the windows. Not exactly practical for household use.
But in 1905, the idea was revolutionised in Birmingham. Walter Griffiths of 72, Conybere Street, Highgate, built the first portable vacuum cleaner intended as a domestic appliance, patenting it as ‘Griffiths’ Improved Vacuum Apparatus for Removing Dust from Carpets’. It was small, easy to carry and store and operated by a bellows-like mechanism. This was the first vacuum cleaner that resembled the popular models we know today.
- THE CAR HORN
Beep, beep to Birmingham! Joseph Lucas’s Birmingham components manufacturing firm – which later became Lucas Industries and is today part of LucasVarity – made an electric car horn in 1910 that became the industry standard, followed by a motorcycle horn the following year.
- THE HAND GRENADE
A weapon of death and destruction might sound like a dubious claim to fame but grenades need to be safe when being handled and in 1915, William Mills developed a model – known as the Mills bomb – with a ‘pin-and-pineapple’ design, at his factory Mills Munitions in Bridge Street West, Birmingham. It had a trigger pin with a four-second fuse as well as a grooved surface with segments like a pineapple that offered a better grip so it wasn’t easily dropped.
Described as the first ‘safe grenade’, it was adopted by the British Army as its standard model in 1915 and about 75 million of the devices were made during the First World War.
Mills received £27,750 from the Government for his grenade, but had to pay income tax on the sum and claimed to have lost money on the invention.
- THE WINDSCREEN WIPER
Birmingham hand grenade manufacturer Mills Munitions also produced some of Britain’s earliest aluminium golf clubs, a telescopic walking-stick seat – and patented the windscreen wiper in 1921.
Although the first ever wiper had been developed by American inventor Mary Anderson in 1903, Mills Munitions was the first British firm to patent a wiper design.
- THE KETTLE
Fancy a cuppa? Without having to put some water on the stove and stand there watching and waiting? Back in 1922, Arthur L. Large – an engineer at Birmingham firm Bulpitt & Sons – thought exactly the same thing when he invented the immersed heating resistor, bringing in the era of plug-in kettles. That was followed in 1930 by the invention of a safety valve by the same company.
Although it wasn’t until 1955 that kettles had a thermostat that automatically switched them off when they boiled, electric kettles have changed very little – apart from some sleeker designs – since both Birmingham inventions appeared.
- THE CAMERA
Cameras have been made in Birmingham since 1880 and in 1926 the Coronet Camera Company joined the marketplace. Most noted for its box cameras, it was established at 48, Great Hampton Street, Aston, by Frederick Pettifer. Coronet’s aim was to market a cheaper range of cameras.
Birmingham plastics manufacturer Edwin Elliott made cameras for Coronet and by 1933, it was recorded that 510,000 cameras had been sold. Coronet, which was later based at 308-310 Summer Lane, Newtown, closed in 1967.
It had links with another Birmingham firm, Standard Cameras, which made a cheap box camera called the Conway (similar to Coronet’s Ambassador model) but went out of business in 1955.
- THE RECORD PLAYER
In 1932, Daniel McLean McDonald founded the company Birmingham Sound Reproducers, later known as BSR McDonald, and by 1961 it was employing 2,600 people. It made its own player – the Monarch Automatic Record Changer that could select and play 7”, 10” and 12” records at 33, 45 or 78rpm, changing between the various settings automatically.
BSR McDonald also supplied turntables and auto-changers to most of the world’s record player manufacturers, eventually gaining 87 per cent of the market.
A big spin-off development came in the early 1950s when London firm J & A Margolin started buying auto-changing turntables from BSR McDonald to use as the basis of its Dansette portable record player.
Over the next twenty years, Margolin manufactured more than a million of these players, and Dansette became a household name in Britain. With its lid, built-in speaker and carrying handle, the Dansette could be taken to parties so teenagers could listen to the latest music.
But Dansettes weren’t cheap – the first model cost 33 guineas (equivalent to £800 today) although later versions were a little more affordable at around a third of that price. Dansette ceased production in December 1969 as more advanced hi-fi systems arrived from Japan.
- THE MICROWAVE OVEN
The microwave oven that is a vital gadget in today’s kitchens owes its existence to the invention of the first microwave power oscillators at the University of Birmingham during the Second World War.
Just over a month after the war ended, American inventor Percy Spencer patented the microwave oven on October 8, 1945. He developed the gadget when he found a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted when he was standing in front of radar equipment (which uses microwave radiation), while working on improving wartime communications for the US Department of Defence.
In 1947 the first commercially-produced microwave oven went on the market but it was nothing like today’s versions – it was 6ft tall, weighed 750 lbs, and cost up to $3,000. The first small, countertop microwave oven didn’t appear until 1967, at a cost of $495.
- THE COMPUTER
Birmingham-born mathematician and computer scientist Conway Berners-Lee was part of the team which, in 1951, unveiled the Ferranti Mark 1, the world’s first ever commercially-available electronic computer. It’s worth noting that it was Second World War codebreaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing who had written the operating manual for the machine.
In 1954, Berners-Lee married computer programmer Mary Lee Woods, who was also from Birmingham. Woods had done a maths degree at the University of Birmingham and worked in the team that developed programs for the Manchester Mark 1, Ferranti Mark 1 and Mark 1 Star computers.
In 1955, the Lees become parents to Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web and put forward the first proposal for it in March 1989.
- THE PACEMAKER
Leon Abrams was a Birmingham heart surgeon who loved gadgets. And it was in 1960 that medical journal The Lancet announced that Abrams had just fitted the first variable-pace heart pacemaker, which he had designed with electronic engineer Ray Lightwood.
Abrams was a surgeon at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, setting up one of the UK’s top centres for lung and heart surgery and establishing open-heart surgery on the site.
The pacemaker he devised solved the infections and pain caused by earlier designs because it was in a small box outside the body. It was marketed by Lucas Industries as the Lucas-Abrams Pacemaker.
Abrams also developed an artificial heart valve, though that was less successful. He died in December 2012, at the age of 89.
- THE MICROPHONE
Microphones have been around in some form since the 1870s, evolving over the years, and it was Birmingham-born inventor Michael Gerzon who teamed up with Peter Craven to invent the soundfield microphone in 1975. It could record in mono, stereo or multi-channel surround sound formats.
Calrec Audio turned the duo’s design into a product which was launched on the market in 1978 and later hived off into its own separate company, SoundField Ltd.
The SoundField range are considered by many to be the ultimate microphones for simultaneously recording in stereo and surround sound at large, live, outside events in sports stadiums and concert halls.
Gerzon also played a major role in the invention of Ambisonics, a complete surround sound technique that also records above and below the listener.
- THE SAMPLER
The idea of ‘sampling’ – taking sounds from one recording and using them in a new production – is well-known in the modern music industry. It was here in Birmingham that the concept first took on life.
Frank, Norman and Les Bradley of Birmingham tape engineering company Bradmatic invented the Mellotron, a keyboard that was arguably the original sampler. Pressing the keys played recordings of real instruments, sound effects and voices that were stored on a piece of audio tape underneath. It was based on a similar American device called the Chamberlin that hadn’t been designed for commercial use by musicians.
With the support of BBC conductor Eric Robinson – who arranged the recordings that would go on the internal tape – and backing from magician and presenter David Nixon, a company called Mellotronics was formed and the first Mellotron keyboards were made in Aston in 1963, costing £1,000 at a time when a typical house was £2,000 to £3,000.
The device was popularised by The Beatles and became a crucial part of rock music. Birmingham band The Moody Blues made great use of the device, as did Genesis, Yes and many other groups. As synthesisers grew in popularity during the 80s, the Mellotron faded away but a new version came on the market in 1999.
- THE PEN
In about 1822, John Mitchell, of 36, Newhall Street, Birmingham – in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter – invented a machine that pioneered the mass production of steel-nib pens, at a time when most people used quills for writing. The use of machinery increased production and cut costs and his thriving company Newhall Pen Works moved to Moland Street, Birmingham, in 1908.
Other companies followed and by the 1850s, Birmingham was a world centre for the pen trade. More than half the steel-nib pens manufactured in the world were made in Birmingham, where thousands of skilled craftsmen and craftswomen were employed in the industry.
In 1828, Birmingham manufacturer Josiah Mason developed a cheap, efficient slip-in nib that could be added to a fountain pen. Mason became the largest pen-maker in England but is less well-known than Mitchell because he was a supplier to stationer James Perry, whose names were on the pens instead. In 1875 Josiah founded Mason Science College, which became the University of Birmingham.
Making pens more efficiently and cheaply encouraged the development of education and literacy.
* An honourable mention must go to THE STAPLER. A patent was registered on March 5, 1868, by C.H. Gould of Birmingham, but this was not the first appearance of this piece of office equipment. American inventor George McGill had exhibited his own version of a paper fastener the year before and then in 1879 unveiled his McGill Single-Stroke Staple Press, which is widely regarded as the forerunner of the modern stapler we know today.