Tag Archives: innovation

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.

A page from Babbage’s scribbling book with notes on his automaton for playing noughts and crosses or ‘tit tat to’, from a collection of over 20 notebooks held at the Science Museum Library & Archives in Wroughton.

The ingenious inventions of Mr Babbage!

By Cate Watson – Content Developer on the Babbage display

Although Charles Babbage is best known for his calculating engines, plans of which are now on display in the Computing gallery, he was a life long inventor with a passion for improvement.

As a 16 year old Babbage nearly drowned when he trialed his newly invented shoes for walking on water. This setback failed to discourage him and Babbage’s inventions ranged from designs for a locomotive ‘cow catcher’, an automaton for playing noughts and crosses, a ‘black box’ recorder for monitoring railway tracks and ‘speaking-tubes’ linking London and Liverpool among many other ideas.

Cartoon based on Babbage’s design for a ‘cow-catcher’.

Cartoon based on Babbage’s design for a ‘cow-catcher’. Image credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Babbage fervently believed that new inventions should be freely available to all – when he constructed the first known opthalmoscope in 1847 for internal eye examinations he refused to patent it. The credit went to Herman von Helmhotz 4 years later instead.

You can see another of Babbage’s inventions in the Museum – an occulting light mechanism to help with ship navigation. Ship captains used lights on shore to steer by but the increasing number of lights on the coast led to confusion. Babbage designed a light with mechanical shutters to create a unique flashing signal for ships.

A page from Babbage’s scribbling book with notes on his automaton for playing noughts and crosses or ‘tit tat to’, from a collection of over 20 notebooks held at the Science Museum Library & Archives in Wroughton.

Frustratingly for Babbage, this invention, like many of his ideas, found no favour at home. It did however sufficiently impress the Russians, who used the principle of his signalling lights against the British in the Crimean war.

Babbage’s foresight wasn’t limited to his inventions. He predicted the end of the coal mines and recommended tidal power instead, commenting that if posterity failed to find a substitute source of power it deserved to be ‘frostbitten’!

See more of Babbage’s inventive drawings in a new display in the Science Museum’s Computing gallery.

Purpose-built fuel cell motorbike

Make it in Great Britain: an update from our exhibitors

Have you taken the chance to visit Make it in Great Britain yet? The exhibition celebrates the importance and success of British manufacturing and features some of the most exciting British innovations happening today. Halfway through, some of our exhibitors review their experiences:

Geoff Bryant, Head of R&D, Mars Chocolate UK
‘The exhibition has given us the chance to showcase our ‘bean to bar’ story which captures every stage of the chocolate making process. It shows the journey from the Ivory Coast cocoa farms through to the state of the art production line at our Slough factory which produces 2.5 million Mars bars every day.

It would be easy to miss the scientific expertise that goes into food manufacturing whilst we tuck into our favourite chocolate treats. But you would be hard pressed to find a more diverse group of scientists and innovators.

There is a common misconception that the jobs available in science aren’t applied or interesting – this couldn’t be further from the truth, particularly within the food and drink industry; a sector continuously looking for solutions to challenges with raw ingredients and improving the nutritional credentials of its products. In 2010 we reduced the saturated fat content in Mars bars by 15% while maintaining the same great taste. We couldn’t have done this without the dedication and expertise of our R&D team, whose scientific and technical skills are so important to continually pushing product innovation and formulation development.’

The Mars Factory

Intelligent Energy
‘It was a great to be chosen as one of the companies in the exhibition, representing the best of British manufacturing, one of the most dynamic and important sectors in the UK economy.

Why were we chosen? Well, we design and develop fuel cell technologies at our Loughborough Headquarters, and then work with our partners and customers across the globe to manufacture and integrate that technology into their products. Our fuel cell systems power everything from consumer electronics, homes and other buildings, to a wide range of vehicles including the ENV motorbike and our fuel cell electric London taxis.

Our award winning ENV, which is on display in the exhibition, is the world’s first purpose built fuel cell motorbike. We chose to exhibit the ENV, partly because it is a world first, but mainly because we think it is very possibly the best looking example of fuel cell technology ever made!’

Purpose-built fuel cell motorbike

The Green Roof Tile Company
As you stroll around Make it in Great Britain you are instantly struck by the iconic brands: Jaguar Land Rover, BAE Systems, McLaren, Rolls-Royce, but in amongst these giants of industry there are examples of the small, innovative companies that provide employment for the bulk of the 2.5 million people involved in the UK manufacturing sector.

We are one such business – The Green Roof Tile Company. Established in 2007, we have designed, developed, worried about, manufactured and commercialised Envirotile – a roofing system manufactured from plastic containing over 70% recycled material.

In developing the groundbreaking design for Envirotile, we enlisted the help of the Caparo Innovation Centre at the University of Wolverhampton. Key features of the product include: rain water channels to facilitate run-off; drip water channels prevent rain water ingress under the tile and strengthening ribs and controlled variations in material thickness provide rigidity to the tiles.

Furthermore, the market potential for Envirotile is considerable. The export market for traditional roof tiles is virtually non-existent because weight and fragility makes it difficult to export, whereas a single Envirotile is 80% lighter than a traditional concrete rooftile and is virtually unbreakable.’

Make it in Great Britain Exhibition

Make it in Great Britain ends on 9 September and is free to enter. It was developed in collaboration with the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills

Follow the exhibition on Twitter and on the Science Museum Facebook page