Sharp Laboratories of Europe is nestled just a few minutes from Oxford’s dreaming spires and halls of learning, famous across the globe. The building might not have the global glamour of its high profile neighbours, but behind its doors Sharp’s boffins are quietly changing the world. Back in 1992, Sharp’s industrious scientists began researching 3D displays. Building on the company’s existing LCD expertise to create prototypes using two screens at 90 degrees from each other, sandwiching optics which sent each LCD’s image to different eyes. It was ingenious, but bulky. It wasn’t until 1994 that Sharp’s team achieved glasses-free 3D with a single flat panel screen. The first versions were dubbed “3D-only displays” since they were unable to show 2D images, and the 3D effect was limited to a small “sweet spot”, requiring the viewer to position themselves a certain distance from the screen. In 1996 the technology had advanced to include a “sweet spot indicator” to help the user position themselves correctly. This feature was unique to Sharp. Now in 2011, almost 19 years after development began, glasses-free 3D is taking the tech world by storm. Nintendo’s new 3DS games console is captivating gamers across the globe and prototype TVs are wowing audience at gadget shows every couple of months. It’s all possible thanks to Sharp, and its industrious scientists beavering away, silently in the heart of the UK.
Glasses-free 3D gaming isn’t the only innovation to spring forth from the brainpower of the UK’s engineers. Microsoft’s jaw-flooring Xbox Kinect technology was first shown off in the glitzy surroundings of the E3 games show in Los Angeles. What’s less well known is its birth took place in the UK, at Microsoft’s Cambridge research laboratory. Kinect’s motion-sensing smarts were developed in Blighty, after the American Xbox team demonstrated their fledgling 3D technology to its scientists. The Brits took that germ of an idea and ran with it, developing a computer system that learned and taught itself as more and more information was fed in. “The idea was that we would teach the computer with lots of different people of lots of different shapes and sizes in lots of different poses and the computer will learn how to distinguish one part of your body from another part,” says Dr Jamie Shotton, one of Microsoft’s Cambridge researchers. It was one of the world’s largest machine learning projects in the history of computing, letting the Xbox Kinect system function perfectly and immediately, thanks to the ingenuity of Britain’s publicity-shy researchers.
The Brits didn’t invent the Internet. That was the work of the US Military. But Sir Tim Berners-Lee was the first to use it for anything useful to civillians. His invention of the World Wide Web is the reason you’re reading these words right now. He began work on the web in 1989 while working at the CERN Laboratory near Geneva, building on the concept of Hypertext to create a system that would blend existing transmission protocols with the ability to make rich pages of interlinked content. Without realising it at the time, Tim Berners-Lee had stumbled upon the recipe for mankind’s greatest technological achievement to date. In 1990 Berners-Lee built a prototype, along with the world’s first web browser and editor. The application, simply called worldwideweb let the first generation of web users connect to the first ever web server. The CERN HTTPd server went live, and the first web site went live on it on 6 August 1991. It was a landmark achievement, but Berners-Lee makes it all sound simple: “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and—ta-da! — the World Wide Web,” he said in 1998, seven years after its inception.
Almost every electronic device in your house has a British designed component. We can make that bold claim because of the success of one company: ARM. You might never have heard its name, but since 1985, the company’s RISC and and Cortex chips have powered some of the world’s most iconic devices. Its less well-known chips have seen huge successes too. ARM has designed chips that sit inside most mobile phones, MP3 players, digital cameras, games consoles and printers. But ARM itself has never made a single one of them. Instead, the company designs and licences them. It charges licensees a single fee to use its designs and then claims a royalty every time a product containing its chip design is sold. It’s a strategy which has seen ARM grow exponentially. In 2000, only 19 of the 37 partners licencing ARM’s chips had products on sale. Because of lengthy chip development cycles, ARM typically licences a design three years before it goes on sale inside a product. Fast forward to today, and ARM displays its gargantuan list of 669 partners proudly on its website. Back in 2000, ARM chairman and chief executive Robin Saxby said: “It is a momentum business.” We’d say ARM has plenty of that now.
James Dyson is one of the most famous British inventors of recent years. Sure, he’s had a few duds (the Dyson washing machine, anyone?) But his cyclonic vaccuum cleaner has influenced the industrial design and engineering ethos of an entire industry. Dyson’s quest to improve household hoovers began in 1978 when, frustrated by his own bag-equipped vacuum cleaner, and inspired by the air filters in use in his wheelbarrow factory, Dyson set to work on five solid years of prototyping. His idea, of using cyclonic separation to create a cleaner which deposited dirt in a chamber without losing suction as it did so, was inspired. Manufacturers and retailers first saw the idea as too disruptive, fearing it would destroy the market for their existing products, and attempted to block it. In 1983, after funding a reported 5,127 prototypes out of his own pocket, Dyson went to market alone, launching his first cleaner which didn’t lose suction as it collected grime. Dubbed the G-Force in Japan, it was sold through catalogues and mail order. It was expensive, at around £2,000 but secured Dyson his first patents in the US in 1986 and won the 1991 International Design Fair prize in Japan. It wasn’t until 1993 that Dyson set up his own manufacturing company, with a research centre and factory in the British market town of Malmesbury. Now, however, almost every vacuum manufacturer has a similar product on the market. Dyson single-handedly diverted an industry with pure determination, and a single groundbreaking idea.
It’s almost unthinkable that music or movies would be recorded with audio in less than two channels, but back in the 1930s mono was the norm. Until Alan Blumlein, a publicity shy British electronics engineer at EMI patented stereo records, stereo films, and surround sound. That’s right. Surround sound with multiple speakers, the most modern of movie technologies, was invented by a Brit just ten years after TV was first ushered into British living rooms. Blumlein’s original 1930s patent for stereo sound features details of a surround sound system using multiple woofers and tweeters.
Yes, there were MP3 players before the iPod, but before all of them there was Kane Kramer, a British inventor who first conceived the idea of a portable digital music player. Dubbed the IXI and packing 8MB of internal memory, Kramer’s innovation is well documented. He secured a UK and US patent on the idea and in 1987 looked likely to become an extremely wealthy and successful man. However, in 1988 his company suffered internal wrangling and disputes. Financial difficulties followed, and Kramer could not raise the funds needed to renew his patents. They lapsed and his designs entered the public domain. In 2008, Apple called Kramer as a witness to defend itself in a court case alleging the company had infringed patents for the design of the iPod, proving beyond any doubt that Kramer really had been the first person to envisage our digital entertainment destiny.
Stand clear, innovation charging! British inventors have touched all areas of science and technology, but perhaps the most life-changing, or life-changing, is Frank Pantridge’s portable defibrillator. Shocking heart attack victims back to life, and forming the modern must-have in any paramedic’s kit, the portable defibrillator was first used in 1965, when Pantridge installed the first version into a Belfast ambulance. It weighed a whopping 70kg, and ran from car batteries stashed in the back of the ambulance, but meant patients could be revived before being transported to hospital. By 1968, Pantridge had created a version of the portable defibrillator which weighed 3kg, made possibly partly because of miniature capacitor technology manufactured for NASA.
No, really. Before Apple, Microsoft, IBM and all the other big players, there was Charles Babbage. In 1812 Babbage, born in London, invented the Difference Engine, or at least he created the plans for it. He died before this mechanical calculating wonder could be built, although in 1991 a project to build his idea was completed by the London Science Museum (pictured here), and worked like a charm. In 1943, Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer was created. Its workings were still largely mechanical, but it helped crack coded Nazi messages at Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes, propelling Britain to victory in the second world war.
French inventors are commonly credited with coming up with the camera in 1838, but in fact the British got there first, using silver nitrate and sensitised leather to make photographic images of insect wings and leaves. The groundbreaking work was done by Thomas Wedgewood and Humphrey Davey, who published their work and findings in 1802, a whopping 36 years before the Frenchman Louis Daguerre unveiled his camera.