National Science and Engineering Week

Science, Technology 2013-03-19

National Science and Engineering Week is upon us. Starting last Friday and until the weekend (so not really a week), is a jam-packed schedule of science, engineering and technology activities being organised up and down the UK. This year’s theme is “Invention and Discovery”.

Over the centuries there have been numerous inventions and discoveries. From our perspective here in Manchester, we have seen some groundbreaking science, engineering and technology. In honour of National Science and Engineering Week, here’s a brief recap of just a few inventions and discoveries made in the UK over the past 100 years.


Transplantation and Rejection

Peter Medawar’s research into tissue culture started at Oxford. During the Second World War, Medawar moved to Birmingham and his research extended to skin grafts and rejection. Medawar’s collaborations with Rupert Billingham and Leslie Brent were important for our understanding of transplantation and immune tolerance. However, it was Medawar’s work with Burnet in 1949 discovering that skin grafts are rejected by immunological processes that earned them both a Nobel Prize.

Dolly the sheep

In Scotland in 1996, the first cloned mammal from adult somatic cells was born. Dolly’s birth proved that the cellular differentiation process was reversible and mature cells could be ‘reprogrammed’ to their newly fertilised state. This discovery paved the way for research into many domains, including stem cell research.


Jet Engine

Frank Wittle entered the Royal Air Force in 1923 as an apprentice after his third attempt. He wrote a thesis arguing that air resistance is lower at high altitudes, enabling longer flight ranges and speeds. However, the engines and propellers used at the time were not suitable. Wittle went on to design and patent the gas turbine. Tests were carried out in 1941 and the jet engine was first used in planes in 1942 in the US and 1944 in the UK.


In 1938, the A4 class locomotive Mallard set the record for the fastest steam train in the world. Easily surpassing the 100mph mark, it attained 126mph. Mallard continued regular service until 1963.


The Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM)

In the 1940s, Frederic Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill built the SSEM (aka Baby) at the Victoria University of Manchester (now University of Manchester). The SSEM’s first program was run on the 21st June 1948. Following this achievement, the SSEM was adapted to give the protoype for the world’s first general-purpose computer.

Packet Switching

Packet switching enables data to be broken down into ‘packets’ and transmitted from one network to another (e.g over the Internet). The packets are transmitted individually and can take different paths. Packet switching is the basis for information exchange between computers. Donald Davies used htis concept to suggest sending data between networks. In the US, Paul Baron separately came up with the same idea.

While we now have an idea of the impact of the above inventions and discoveries, the impact more recent research will have remains elusive. One example is graphene. Graphene is only one atom of carbon thick, but is incredibly strong. It was isolated in 2004 by Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov, two scientists working at the University of Manchester. In 2010, both scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. While graphene’s properties mean that theoretically it could be used in many ways, only the future will reveal it’s true potential.

Though we have very briefly covered a few discoveries and inventions made in the UK, hundreds occured over the past hundred years (not to mention those before that). You can vote for your favourite from the past 100 years here.