Survey finds that half of us don’t know British inventors like Sir Tim Berners-Lee


World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee speaks at the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association Investment Conference, at the EICC, Edinburgh. March 9 2016

Millions of Brits don’t know the world wide web, the colour television and jet engine are British inventions, a study commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering has found.

Despite playing a key role in our lives many of us have no idea the UK is behind some of the world’s most important high-tech creations. For example around half the population weren’t aware London’s Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web in 1989.

Similarly, 55 per cent didn’t realise John Logie Baird, who hailed from Dunbartonshire, was the first person to demonstrate a working colour television back in 1928.

And 51 per cent had no idea Sir Frank Whittle from Coventry made the very first jet engine having patented the invention in 1928. The research of 2,000 UK adults was commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering which will announce the finalists for its prestigious MacRobert Award in June.

The prize, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is awarded for UK engineering innovation and the winners will be announced on 11 July.

Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE, chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award Judging Panel, said:

“For the last 50 years the award has celebrated ground-breaking engineering innovations that have established the UK as a global leader.”

The research also found just a third of those polled had heard of London’s Ada Lovelace, the inventor of the computer algorithm. And only 12 per cent were familiar with the person responsible for the world’s first programmable computer, Tommy Flowers MBE, who was from London too.

Matthew James, 14, from Wokingham, shows off his state-of-the-art arm and hand after he contacted MercedesGP and asked if they could sponsor him to wear the iLIMB made by Touch Bionics.

Also nearly four in five of us (79 per cent) didn’t know the world’s first commercially available bionic hand was developed in the UK by Touch Bionics of Livingston, which won the MacRobert Award in 2008 (see pic above).

However, despite such gaps in our knowledge of British inventions and inventors, six in 10 said they are in no doubt the UK will make the next technological breakthrough. And 88 per cent said they are proud of the nation’s engineering achievements to date.

Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE added: “The UK has a rich engineering heritage and this poll suggests that people want to hear more about modern engineering developments.

“It is very encouraging to see that the public is positive about what the future holds for UK engineering and its importance to our economy.

“Celebrating current engineering excellence is crucial if the sector is to receive the support it needs and to inspire the next generation of engineers.”

Last year, Cambridge-based Owlstone Medical won the award for its ReCIVA Breath Sampler which can detect signs of cancer and other diseases in their infancy.

Chris Price