British Breakthroughs: The Most Innovative People Our Fair Isles Have Ever Seen

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The British Empire may not be what it was, with Brand Britannia shrinking in size and content like a supermarket multipack chocolate bar over recent decades, but there’s no denying what we once had. We invented some cool things and produced some of the planet’s greatest innovators. We'll always be a footnote in history.

We may also have unfortunately failed to commercialise our past creations as well as the more aggressive capitalist nations, but not even the overseas equivalents of Ukip could deny that British talent had led in the fields of inventions, technology and science, ever since modern man first emerged from the woods with a questioning look in his eye.

Here we pick our five choices for the best of British Brains, the people who changed not just this country, but the world at large – and made life, products and everything better for us all.


Isambard Kingdom Brunel

He has a name a bit like a foreigner, but don't panic Nigel; he was a Portsmouth lad whose dad worked in a factory. Brunel did it all – ships, tunnels, bridges, railways – and much of his design work is still standing across the UK today, all while the shoddy remnants of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s crumble before his indestructible infrastructure.

You may have sat in traffic on one of his creations just this morning, in fact, cursing how the country has since failed to come up with better, wider structures than the ones Brunel pioneered. Imagine still being the best at making and doing something 150 years after you've died. Like Concorde, he was a thing from the past that’s better than what we struggle with now.


Stephen Hawking

(Image Credit:  Hawking / Shutterstock)

He’s done everything. Been on The Simpsons. Starred in a film and written complicated books, with all of his achievements magnified thanks to having to spell them out through what must be quite a tedious input system. Just imagine having to communicate entirely by predictive text. It’s a wonder he’s not given up and just watches telly all day.

Aside from punctuating pop culture like no scientist since Einstein, Hawking has also had some of his biggest ideas proven correct. It was Hawking who postulated the laws of black hole mechanics, also doing much to put the “singularity” theory of how the universe was formed from nothing into the public eye. And he was on The Simpsons.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

(Image Credit: Paul Clarke / Wikipedia)

He had one idea. One little idea, about how to assemble various internet technologies into a new system that could have a graphical interface – the World Wide Web. Before this invention in 1989, the internet still existed, just not in the easy, clickable, visual way that we all use today to enrich our lives by looking at photos of dogs with cocktail sausages balanced on their noses.

By 1991, Tim had built the first web site, and within minutes people were leaving comments saying it was rubbish and he was an ugly nerd loser (not really, people liked it and it did quite well). Imagine a world without Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, news, weather, photos of celebrities in clothes. That was what 1989 was like, before Tim had his world-changing flash of inspiration that made staying in fun. If you’re old enough to remember 1989, you wouldn't want to go back there.

Jony Ive

It’s perhaps a bit controversial to choose someone’s who’s currently making his name by earning trillions of dollars for an American tech supergiant (via Luxembourg and Ireland), but still: Ive’s fingers have changed the tech world over the last few years. His tenure at Apple started in 1992, when the company was in a bit of a slump from its early 1980s heyday. It’s taken off quite a bit since then, which is probably not a coincidence.

Sure, he’s presided over some bizarre stinkers in his time, but for leading the external designs of the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad, while making Apple’s recent laptops so glossy and adorable to the touch, he’s rewritten the rules on how to make stuff. Much to the annoyance of his Korean competitors.

He’s the man who took tablets from being a niche productivity laughing stock to a global force even your mum owns now. And he’s started on watches. Before you know it he'll be revolutionising the clock radio and Teasmaid, adding a few more billions to Apple’s offshore savings account.


Alan Turing

He pioneered being a little bit too much into computers way back before it was fashionable. As well as his immortalisation as the man who helped crack the German codes during the Second World War, Turing had his fingers in plenty of other tech fields –with the ramifications of his creations still in place today.

He designed the ACE hardware in the late 1940s, a computer that paved the way for other computer tech that was to come, helping ensure the people of today would never be far way from an interactive screen of fun. Imagine not having a computerised thing to look at all day. What joys you have given to us, Alan.

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Lead image credit: Brunel  from Shutterstock