By Michael Cape
When William would have came up with the idea of a copper ship buoyed by cork to create the world’s first lifeboat back in 1789, he not only went on to save a multitude of souls at sea but set the scene for the North East of England as the home of world beating innovators.
Not to be outdone, Sunderland born inventor Sir William Mills subsequently went on to make the lifeboat even more effective by designing a handling davit. The builder of the first aluminium smelter in the UK to produce golf clubs, he will likely be best remembered for designing the Mills bomb used by the British Army from 1915 up to the 1960s.
Probably the best known of all North East inventors was George Stephenson, recognized as the father of railways which, in turn, effectively kept the industrial revolution on track.
What few people know about Stephenson though is that in 1815 he invented a safety lamp for miners before the better-known Davy lamp which significantly reduced the number of major pit disasters which plagued the industry in the mid 1800s. Known as the “Geordie” lamp, it involved a mechanism which would extinguish the flame when gas levels became too high. And the “Geordie” Lamp itself followed a simpler device consisting of a candle in a glass surround which was the brainchild of William Reid Clanny whilst working as a clinician in Sunderland in response to the Felling Mine Disaster of 1812.
George Stephenson subsequently went on be appointed engineer for the Stockton to Darlington railway in the North East, the first public railway in the world which resulted in him being shunted into the post of engineer for the Liverpool to Manchester railway, again a world first as an inter-city line.
Nor does his entry in the Guinness Book of Records end there. Father and son team George and Robert Stephenson created the first railroad locomotive to carry passengers on a public line. And then of course they turned their attention to the “Rocket”, though not the first steam locomotive, it was so advanced for the time that it became the template for steam engines for the next 150 years all over the world.
Though his fame did not match that of Stephenson, North East native John Walker invented the safety match in 1824. A chemist, he cooked up pastes which could be ignited when attached to a match head and rubbed against a rough surface.
Some two decades later, Newcastle born innovator William Armstrong is thought to have done more for the reputation of the North East than any other Englishman. Among his worldchanging inventions he developed the hydraulic crane which was inspired by Armstrong’s love of fishing. He went on to influence the American Civil War by inventing the Armstrong Gun which saw him named as the father of modern artillery, a title he admitted later that he had come to regret.
It is claimed that a house in Gateshead in the North East was the first in the world to be lit by a light bulb which was invented by its owner Joseph Swan in 1860. However, this is disputed as there are a number of similar claimants one of course being Thomas Edison.
Edison, who patented his bulb in 1879, essentially improved on a design that Joseph Swan had patented 10 years earlier. Edison’s improvements made the product much longer lasting and, therefore, was the first to successfully commercialize the invention and bring it to the masses.
After Swan sued and won against another manufacturer for patent infringement, Edison decided to enter negotiations rather than risk court proceedings, eventually leading to a merger and the formation of the Edison & Swan Electric Light Company.
Meanwhile Joseph Swan’s inventions didn’t end with the light bulb moment. He was also instrumental in developing the dry photographic plate. This was a major breakthrough in the field of photography and put society on track to the invention of modern film. It was an apprentice to and engineering firm in Newcastle who developed the first steam turbine engine in 1884. Charles Parsons went on to set up CA Parsons and Co., which would manufacture his design of turbo-generators and produce the fastest turbine-driven battleships in existence.
And the flow of innovations from the North East continued well into the 20th century.
In 1908, Gladstone Evans was driving home in the snow from a Newcastle United football game when he realized that something needed to be done about visibility. Hence the windscreen wiper arrived.
A year later, a self-taught North East pilot decided he’s had enough of not being able to control the yawl, roll and pitch of his aircraft. So he came up with an innovation that has given the aircraft passenger a relatively smooth ride ever since – the joystick.
Entering the millenium saw a graduate from Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University) have a major impact on the world tech scene which is today resonating in the North East.
Jonathan Ive went on to become Chief Design Officer for Apple and become the driving force behind products ranging from the MacBook to the iPad and the iPhone, with the late Steve Jobs decribing him as his “spiritual partner.”
Innovation transforms industry for 21st century
The North East of England, until relatively recently was the most deprived region in the UK, but has now bounced back thanks in part to its burgeoning tech cluster.
With the coal and shipbuilding industry that once dominated the North East suffering a marked decline during the second half of the 20th century, the region had no option but to return to innovation to drag itself up by its well-worn bootstraps once again.
Today, it is not only making its mark in digital technology but is also famed as an international centre of art and culture and scientific research especially in healthcare and biotechnology.
The five major universities have led the revival with Newcastle University for one not only producing a pool of talent for the tech sector but also leading the way in stem cell technology, being the first in the United Kingdom and the second institution in Europe to obtain a licence to do such work.
Overall, the region’s economy is now dominated by Nissan’s European car manufacturing facility and supply chain which is also leading that company’s development of electric vehicles.
However, new sectors are very much on the march linked to the digital economy with games design prominent.
“We have successfully moved from coal to code,” insists Guy Currey of Invest in the North East.