British inventions have changed our world as we know it, again and again. The Brits claims to fame includes chemists like Neils Bohr, biologists like Charles Darwin, and physicists like Michael Faraday. These people are among the vast crowd of inventors from the United Kingdom who not only moved their own country forward but made an impact on the world at large.
In this article i chose to focus on some more recent inventions with British origins. They might have not changed the world, and their impact is not that revolutionary, but they are the result of innovative thinking and bring a solution to everyday problems we can all relate to.
Jeffrey Woolf has inventing in his blood. His grandfather, Stanley Wagner, invented the Jif lemon container (and came up with the original idea of selling lemon juice in a plastic container), and his mother, Valerie Woolf, invented calendar and accounting systems. He started his inventing career in 1979 in the field of holography, but his most famous invention, the Micromap was in a completely different area.
Woolf developed the MicroMap, a device that contains credit card-sized maps fully viewable on a movable magnifier. The concept came out of his will to overcome the cumbersomeness of paper maps during skiing, and has later evolved into looking for a product that will solve the problem that using any map while being outdoors poses. If you were ever faced with the difficulty of pursuing a map while being outdoors, carrying, opening and managing it while trying to read it – you understand the problem Woolf tried to solve.
Jeffrey Woolf was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2000, where Queen Elizabeth II herself told him that he was a “very clever man”.
Unlike Jeffrey, there are a lot of inventors and innovators who don’t initially look at inventing as their lifelong career. Michael Pritchard came up with a literally life-saving product while watching images of the Tsunami devastation on television. The thought of people dying because they lack clean drinking water agitated him. He tried to address the problem but postponed the process of inventing because of his work.
Hurricane Katrina came next and he was yet again devastated by the idea that it took five full days to provide clean drinking water to those who were left stranded at the Superdome in New Orleans. He decided that what the world needed is a solution to the problem of clean drinking water, but one that does not require the use of electricity or access to chemicals.
LifeSaver, his product, is described as the world’s first portable nano-filtration technology. It is simply a water jug with a built-in filtration device designed to help people during calamities. Currently, LifeSaver, like other British inventions, is also used in the military and for leisure activities – like traveling and camping trips.
Mike Briton is a Formula 1 racer. Like Michael Pritchard, he was stricken by a problem. One day, he saw a trendy young man in an old-fashioned wheelchair. The wheelchair seemed ‘old word’ and not very comfortable or convenient. In addition, the wheelchair was painted purple, which Briton described as a failed attempt to jazz it up. That was when he came up with the “Trikinetic Wheelchair” despite having no background in the field, whatsoever.
One key to innovation is to notice the real problem and then address it – in a way that hasn’t been done before. Mike Briton’s wheelchair addressed most of the problems that were encountered in wheelchairs. The trikinetic wheelchair has only three wheels, and is designed for stability and movability. It can be used on the road and off the road. It does not tip backwards when it accelerates. It absorbs shock. It has a built-in automatic umbrella and it is very strong and comfortable.
A pet-lover named Natalie Ellis was nearly arrested for “dangerous driving” when she was trying to help her dog drink water, whilst driving. Several times she has attempted to give water to her dog on hot journeys, with the least spill possible – without success. Pouring some water to the palm of her hand was the only thing that seemed to work with the least spillage and mess. That’s how she came up with the idea of a spill-free dog bowl.
Like Mike Briton, Natalie had little knowledge of the pet industry. It wasn’t enough that she loved pets. She knew she had to study the market and learn more about its potential. She read market research reports and pet industry information at The British Library and as a result came up with a lot of ideas for innovative pet products but most of them failed.
Natalie’s product is the best example of “trial and error” among the other mentioned British inventions. She built the prototype in her kitchen while waiting for food to cook. Like other inventions and innovations, the first was a failure but Natalie didn’t stop improving the prototypes. The final product, the Road Refresher, reduced the slobber from dogs attempting to drink from it, by up to 90%.
The product generated interest at a trade show and encouraged her to enter a women’s invention competition where she received three awards. Her product was featured on BBC news and on the reality television show, “Dragons Den”.
When Natalie revealed her plans of marketing the Road Refresh to America, the show’s host, James Caan, told her that the United States was the “graveyard of British business”. She failed to secure investment from the show, among other reasons due to her plan to expand to America. But the bad review on the show didn’t stop her. She picked herself up and ignored James Caan’s advice. Road Refresher then became the fastest selling dog bowl in America on Amazon.com. President Barack Obama even owns one.
Lessons learned: sometimes it’s worth pursuing what you believe in – even in the face of criticism.
Like Natalie, Jim Shaikh wasn’t hit on the head with an idea of a self- heating baby bottle. Jim came up with the identified need, while going through a mundane daily experience himself – feeding his premature baby at night. He kept getting the temperature of the bottle wrong – heating, cooling and re-heating.
Like other innovators mentioned above, Jim’s idea was a refined through time, trial and error and many failed attempts. The majority of the time, people build ideas through careful research and experimentation. Jim’s concept was no exception. It took a year to conceive and took another six years to develop. At the end, his product idea hit the shelves: he came up with a self-heating baby bottle.
It took Jim four prototypes to finally get the product right and the rest as they say is awesome British inventions history.
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