Tag Archives: Great British Innovation Vote

Quantum dots can be ‘tuned’ to release photons of light at a given frequency.

2000s: Quantum Dots

On the last day of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovations – we pick one innovation which could shape our future: Quantum dots

Quantum dots, tiny nanometre-sized particles, have some rather unique properties that we are only just starting to explore. “This particular innovation is so exciting partly because we’ve yet to see what exciting new developments it’ll lead to,” explains Professor Jim Al-Khalili.  “Quantum dots are going to change the world. Everything from new types of smart materials, solar cells, medical imaging, to potentially building a quantum computer.”

Quantum dots can be ‘tuned’ to release photons of light at a given frequency.

Quantum dots can be ‘tuned’ to release photons of light at a given frequency. Image credit: Nanoco Industries Ltd.

Made of cadmium or zinc-based semiconducting materials, it is the small size of the dot (made up of about 50 atoms, just a few nanometres across) that leads to unusual quantum behaviours. Quantum dots have a range of practical applications including in clothing dyes, flat-screen displays and medical imaging.

Click here to vote for Quantum dots as the British innovation most likely to shape our future.

Tim Berners-Lee demonstrates the World Wide Web in 1991.

1990s: World Wide Web

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 1990s, it’s the turn of the World Wide Web.

“No technology has been so pervasive so quickly as the internet. Twenty-five years ago it was a mystery to most people and now several billion of us use it everyday, several times a day.”  Brian Eno on why you should vote for the the World Wide Web.

“What made the internet really viable, the blood in it veins if you like, was the brilliant invention of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web. What made that so universal was the decision to make it free. So, to brilliance, add generosity.”

Born out of a need for scientists at CERN to share data more efficiently, computer scientists Tim Berners-Lee and Belgian Robert Cailliau created a system of linked ‘hypertext’ documents accessible through a global computer network.

Tim Berners-Lee demonstrates the World Wide Web in 1991.

Tim Berners-Lee demonstrates the World Wide Web in 1991. Image credit: CERN

Described at the time as ‘vague but exciting’ by his boss, Berners-Lee went on to host the first web page in December 1990, and today over 2.4 billion people – more than a third of the population of Earth – have access to over a trillion web pages which make up the World Wide Web.

Click here to vote for the World Wide Web as the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years. 

Concorde on the runway, Feb 1977. Image credit: Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

1970s: Concorde

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 1970s, it’s the turn of Concorde.

With the end of WWII came new aviation technologies, with advances in jet engine design and aerodynamic shapes allowing passengers to fly further and faster around the globe.

By 1962 the British and French governments had agreed to build a passenger aircraft able to fly at twice the speed of sound – Mach 2.0. Seven years of detailed design work later, the British prototype Concorde 002 had its maiden flight, with the aircraft reaching Mach 2.0 in November 1969. Concorde entered regular service in 1976, crossing the Atlantic in just 3 hours 50 minutes, before retiring in 2003 after 27 years of service.

Concorde on the runway, Feb 1977. Image credit: Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Concorde on the runway. Image credit: Science & Society Picture Library

 

To this day, Concorde is regarded by many as an aviation icon and triumph of engineering. Journalist Samira Ahmed explains here why Concorde should get your vote as the greatest British Innovation of the past 100 years:

“It had style and streamline space-age beauty. Those delta wings, that beautifully sharp, dipping nose-cone for improved pilot visibility, and Concorde was a product of Anglo-French cooperation. What could be more futuristic than that?”

Jocelyn Bell photographed in 1968 outside the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at the University of Cambridge.

1960: Discovery of Pulsars

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 1960s, the discovery of Pulsars.

“In 1967, a twenty-four year old post graduate student made one of the greatest astronomical discoveries in living memory,” explains TV presenter and writer Gia Milinovich, who is championing the discovery of pulsars as the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years.

When analysing three miles of radio telescope data by hand in 1967 at the University of Cambridge, Jocelyn Bell identified a regular pulse of radiowaves. Seemingly too regular to be anything but man-made, months of further research led Jocelyn to discover the origin of the signal was over 200 light-years away.

Jocelyn Bell photographed in 1968 outside the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at the University of Cambridge.

Jocelyn Bell photographed in 1968 outside the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at the University of Cambridge.
Credit: National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Known now as pulsars, these rapidly spinning, very dense dead stars produce beams of radiowaves which are periodically directed at the Earth. Astronomers have since detected more than 1800 pulsars, and their precise nature make them useful tools for astronomical observations.

In the past Jocelyn’s work has been over looked – the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to her PhD supervisor Anthony Hewish without any mention of Jocelyn – but she is now rightly remembered for her discovery. Vote here for the discovery of Pulsars.

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model from 1953. Image credit: Science Museum

1950s: Double Helix

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 1950s, Double Helix: Discovering the structure of DNA.

Almost all frontiers of biological research in the 21st century owe their origins to the work of two Cambridge scientists (James Watson and Francis Crick) and their contemporaries at King’s College London (Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins).

Watson and Crick’s collaboration began in 1951, drawing on a range of evidence – including chemical techniques and X-ray crystallography – to determine the elusive structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). A breakthrough arrived when Watson was shown Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray crystallography photos of DNA, which clearly suggested a helical structure. As Watson wrote in his memoir: ‘The instant I saw the picture, my mouth fell open and my heart began to race’.

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model from 1953. Image credit: Science Museum

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model from 1953. Image credit: Science Museum

Understanding the structure of DNA, particularly how a sequence of simple nucleotides (A, C, G & T) can encode genetic information, has revealed ‘the secret of life’ – as Francis Crick announced in a Cambridge pub in 1953. A decade later, Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work (Franklin missed out as Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously).

Listen here to broadcaster and writer, Judith Hann, explain why deciphering the structure of DNA should get your vote, and click here to see a reconstruction of Watson and Crick’s DNA model in the Museum.

Alan Turing

1930s: Turing’s Universal Machine

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 1930s, Turing’s Universal Machine.

Did you know that the blueprint for the modern computer was laid down as long ago as 1936?

That was the year that mathematical pioneer Alan Turing imagined a ‘universal machine’ in his paper ‘On Computable Numbers.’ Turing described a machine that could read symbols on a tape and proposed that the tape be used to program the machine. However it was not until many years later that Turing’s ideas were realised as practical machines.

Alan Turing

A Portrait of Alan Turing from the National Physical Laboratory archive

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Turing became head of a codebreaking unit at Bletchley Park, where he used his mathematical skills to design a series of codebreaking machines known as ‘bombes’. After the war, he moved to the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. Here he devised one of the first practical designs for a stored-program computer, revisiting his original ideas proposed in 1936, called the Automatic Computing Engine or ‘ACE’.

Stephen Fry, explained why he was voting for Turing’s Universal Machine via an audioboo, saying, “Turing had an idea of a machine to solve an intellectual problem and then had that rare ability amongst mathematicians to push it through to building machines, which he did in the codebreaking, and then he moved on later, in Manchester to the idea of this Universal Machine, which is the first programmable computer.”

Without Turing’s Universal Machine, we would not have the computers that we take for granted today, which is why it deserves your vote as the Greatest British Innovation. Cast your vote here.

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.