Category Archives: Great British Innovation

Alexander Fleming in his Lab, December 1943.

1920: Penicillin discovery

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1920s, the discovery of Penicillin.

It’s hard to imagine life without penicillin. This drug, which many of us take for granted, has saved millions of lives since its discovery by Alexander Fleming less than a century ago.

Alexander Fleming in his Lab, December 1943.

Alexander Fleming and Penicillin.
Image Credit: Credit © Daily Herald Archive/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society said, “Just imagine a world without antibiotics, a world where infections that would barely keep you off work or school today, would have actually killed you. That was the world that existed just a little over 70 years ago.” listen to ‘Sir Paul Nurse’ on Audioboo

Today, penicillin continues to fight against infectious diseases. Yet who would have thought you could create such a phenomenal medicine from mould? Fleming, a bacteriologist working at St. Mary’s Medical School in London, observed that certain bacteria were killed by mould when he saw a bacteria-free circle forming around a culture dish used to grow microbes, and by 1944 the drug was being mass-produced and proved a powerful weapon in fighting diseases such as pneumonia and syphilis.

Thanks to Penicillin, we lead much longer, healthier lives which is why it deserves your vote as the Greatest British Innovation.

William Henry Bragg and the Birth of Crystallography.

1910: The Birth of Crystallography

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1910s, the birth of Crystallography.

William Henry Bragg and the Birth of Crystallography.

William Henry Bragg and the Birth of Crystallography. Image credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Science Museum curator, Boris Jardine, explains via an audioboo why he thinks Crystallography is the greatest British Innovation, and visitors to the Museum can see some examples of the work of X-ray crystallography in a new display case, Hidden Structures.

To paraphrase the great x-ray crystallographer Max Perutz: it’s even told us why blood is red and grass is green. ‘It is’ said Perutz ‘the key to the secret of life’.

Our understanding of the structure of compounds – from the ordered crystal structure of table salt and diamonds to the complex organic compounds that make up life – was only possible through the discovery of X-ray crystallography a century ago.

Father and son physicists William and Lawrence Bragg exposed crystals to X-rays, recording and interpreting the resulting image, the X-ray diffraction pattern, to predict the atomic structure of the crystal. For this, Bragg and his son won the Nobel Prize (at 25, Lawrence Bragg became the youngest ever Nobel Laureate) and X-ray crystallography remains to this day the most accurate method of determining the atomic structure of materials.

Crystallography has allowed innumerable advances in chemistry, physics and medicine, and it deserves your vote as the Greatest British Innovation. Click here to vote.

Mini, one of the Great British Innovations

Voting Opens for the Greatest British Innovation

Today, we’re inviting you to decide on the greatest British innovation of the last hundred years – from crystallography to quantum dots – and the innovation most likely to shape our future.

Alexander Fleming in his Lab, December 1943.

Penicillin, one of the Great British Innovations.
Image Credit: Credit © Daily Herald Archive/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

British innovations are all around us. In the words of Prof Stephen Hawking (himself shortlisted for two innovations), “I am passionate about British innovations. They’ve kept me alive, enabled me to communicate and transported me around the world.”

With over a hundred innovations for you to choose from, we called in some favours and asked a few famous faces from the world of science (and beyond) what they would pick and why. We’ll be sharing these over the next week here on the blog, Twitter and Facebook, covering a decade’s worth of innovation each day.

Perhaps you agree with Stephen Fry that Alan Turing’s Universal Machine is our greatest innovation… listen to ‘Stephen Fry’ on Audioboo

Or do you believe Sir Paul Nurse is correct in championing the discovery of Penicillin? listen to ‘Sir Paul Nurse ’ on Audioboo

Or maybe you are convinced that Brian Eno is right to celebrate the World Wide Web? listen to ‘Brian Eno’ on Audioboo

Vote here for these innovations and more from today, and throughout National Science and Engineering Week, until 24th March.

You can even celebrate your favourite innovation via twitter using #GreatVote.

The Great British Innovation Vote, a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the last 100 years, was devised by the GREAT Britain campaign, the Science Museum Group, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, British Science Association, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Engineering UK.