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In an age of burgeoning artificial intelligence technology, London has established itself as a global hub for technological and scientific innovation.
Though the city has long been regarded as one of the most important in the world, much of its reputation was built off the back of its political, royal, and cultural influence.
To dig into the history books however, you discover that there has always been far more to the city than just its famous writers and monarchs. Over the past few centuries London and its smartest residents have been responsible for a host of life-changing “A-ha!” moments.
Here are a few of the more significant breakthroughs to take place in the city, technological and otherwise:
Nowadays London’s subterranean transit system might be a little rough around the edges, but back when it was first opened in 1863, the “Tube” represented a true feat of engineering, and a bold step into the future.
Despite being small-scale in the beginning – the only route was between Paddington and Farringdon Street, and it took some time to flourish into the sprawling network it is currently – the London Tube was the first underground railway in the world.
There are now approximately 180 underground train systems across the world, all of which have London’s pioneering system to thank for leading the way.
For a few hundred years prior to the advent of computing, the typewriter was the standard for word processing.
From the perspective of modern day technology, the typewriter was clunky, inefficient, and offered little room for error. But when it was first introduced during the 18th century, our typing machine was nothing short of revolutionary.
Exactly when the first typewriter came into existence is up for debate – there were printing machines dating back to the 1500’s. The general consensus however is that the equipment most resembling what we know as a typewriter was first developed and patented by Londoner Henry Mill in 1714.
Many variations of typing machines followed, including the Fitch Typewriter in 1891 – a creation of London’s Fitch Typewriter Company. The model was one of the first of its kind to allow for easy corrections of mistakes – a real typewriting gamechanger!
Once upon a time, in the days before card payments became the norm, people relied on cash.
In a cash society, simultaneously keeping your money secure and accessing it with ease, was kind of a nuisance. Doing so required frequent trips to the bank and one too many hours standing in line (of course Brits do love a good queue).
That is until 1967, when the world’s first ATM was made available at the Enfield branch of Barclays Bank. The story has it that engineer John Shepherd-Barron – frustrated with the current banking system – took inspiration from chocolate vending machines, and posed the question: why can’t we do this with money? And so he helped create the first ever “hole in the wall” cash dispenser.
This original model was unsurprisingly primitive compared to the ATMs that we’ve become used to in the digital age. Even so, the self-service banking tech quickly overcame security fears to spread to cities and towns worldwide.
There were several iterations and projections of televisual-like technology throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, but it was Scottish inventor John Logie Baird who brought the concept into reality in March 1925.
Despite almost killing himself with a 1000 watt electric shock and being branded as a lunatic by the news editor of a major British newspaper (as is still common), Baird successfully built upon the earlier Nipkow Disk to make a machine capable of producing live, moving, greyscale images.
Where did he choose to show off his groundbreaking piece of technology? London, of course. Specifically at Selfridges in Oxford Street, where over the course of three weeks Baird demonstrated the first TV prototype (and that he wasn’t in fact a lunatic).
Thereafter Baird continued to work on his device at his laboratory in Soho, eventually performing international broadcasts, and paving the way for the evolution of one of the most influential pieces of technology of the past century.
ACE (Automatic Computing Engine) and Pilot ACE
The ACE and Pilot ACE computers might not have touched the hearts and minds of the general public like the aforementioned inventions, but they still represented important technological feats for society.
Designed by Maida Vale-born supergenius Alan Turing, the ACE was never actually built due to lack of expertise and resources at the National Physics Laboratory, where Turing worked.
His efforts weren’t in vain however – although Turing left the project, plans for the ACE were eventually used in the development of the Pilot ACE, an extension of the original machine (that never existed).
The Pilot ACE ran its first program in May 1950, and by 1952 it was the fastest computer in the world. Needless to say, the ACE machines were a significant step in the evolution of computing.
A timezone isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when discussing inventions, but the establishment of GMT was an important juncture for domestic and international timekeeping.
Prior to the 1800s, time was kept locally in most places across the world. This resulted in time discrepancies, which presented challenges for amongst other things, railways and maritime transportation. Essentially there was no singular reference point for timekeeping, and that caused confusion amongst cities and towns.
The idea of a timezone framework was proposed by Canadian Sir Sandford Fleming in 1878, but it wasn’t until 1884 that the concept was put into practice. At the prime meridian conference in Washington DC, Greenwich was established as 0 degrees longitude, 24 time zones were created, and GMT became the official centre of global timekeeping.
Word Wide Web
It would be somewhere between controversial and a straight up lie to say that the web was invented in London, but the city had at least some part to play in the creation of this transformative technology.
How? By way of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a London born-and-bred computer scientist who is credited with creating the World Wide Web while working at CERN (that’s in Switzerland, I’m afraid) in 1989.
Berners-Lee’s initial version of the web was developed for employees of CERN, but once the endless possibilities of his creation became apparent, the world wide web quickly reached the wider internet.
The rest, as they say, is history.