10 of Essex’s most notable inventions

Guglielmo Marconi, surrounded by some of his paraphernalia in 1901 (photo: Google-hosted LIFE Photo Archive)

Guglielmo Marconi, surrounded by some of his paraphernalia in 1901 (photo: Google-hosted LIFE Photo Archive) - Credit: Archant

There is a unique place in the story of mankind for those that break new ground, and Essex has been blessed with both innovative inventors and diligent discoverers over the centuries. Here Stephen Roberts higlights some heroes of history we should be proud of

During my brief scientific phase at school, I boasted that I was going to invent a new type of rocket fuel. I didn’t of course. In fact, when quizzed about my apparent lack of progress on my pet project I tried to cover my tracks by claiming the launch had stalled after I blew a hole in my dad’s conservatory roof. No one believed me, my credibility was shot and I turned my attentions to the arts. However, an intrinsic respect for inventors and discoverers has never left me. These are people who have not just talked the talk, but walked the walk, and harnessed something new for the world. And Essex has been home to no small collection of exactly these characters who have left their mark on history forever. Let’s start in Saffron Walden.

Henry Winstanley: The Drinks Despenser (1696)

I know, you’d think this was a recent innovation, but it was actually engraver and engineer Henry Winstanley who invented the first hot and cold drinks dispenser in Saffron Walden. It was called The Wonderful Barrel and was shared with the world towards the end of the Stuart period. Winstanley also built the first Eddystone Lighthouse (1696-98), but was killed trying to effect repairs there during the Great Storm of 1703. One of his dispensers was installed in a garden in Piccadilly.

William Derham: Speed of Sound (1709)

William Derham, a clergyman-scientist, was the first person to publish a more precise measure of the speed of sound after using a telescope from the tower of St Laurence’s Church in Upminster to observe the flash of a distant shotgun, then measure the time it took before he heard the actual shot. He calculated the speed of sound to be 1,072 Parisian feet per second, which was reasonably accurate. He died in Upminster, aged 77.

William Bentall: The Goldhanger Plough (c1795)

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William Bentall invented the Goldhanger plough (named from the village near Maldon) around 1795. It was the first to have a modular design, which made it much more versatile and useful than previously. The plough was so state of the art that it remained in production until 1947. There was also the Bentall engine (1900), developed by William’s descendants, that had pioneering low-fuel consumption. Bentalls factory (located at Heybridge, Maldon) closed in 1984.

Thomas Darby and Robert Hasler: The Darby Steam-Digger (1879)

The Darby Digger pub in Wickford is named after this contraption, a steam-powered ploughing machine that covered an acre an hour without horses, so building on the work of William Bentall (mentioned above). Thomas Darby (a farmer) and Robert Hasler (the engineer/driver) were the men responsible. A light-traction engine that pre-dated the tractor, it began with futuristic ‘robotic’ legs before moving to wheels and was developed at a farm in Pleshey, near Chelmsford.

Francis Henry Crittall: Crittall Windows (1884)

Francis Henry Crittall designed steel-framed windows which ended up in some surprising places, including Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, Yale and Princeton, and even RMS Titanic. The company was founded in 1849, but it was the founder’s son, Francis Henry, who launched the steel-framed window in 1884, many of which would adorn the Art Deco and Modernist buildings of the early-20th century. The company is now based in Witham.

John William Strutt: Argon (1894)

Argon was discovered in 1894 at Terling Place, near Chelmsford, by John William Strutt (3rd Baron Rayleigh), who was born in Maldon, and Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay. Argon is an important gas that makes up 1% of the Earth’s atmosphere and has many applications today. Strutt and Ramsay were awarded the Nobel Physics Prize in 1904 for a discovery that occurred in Essex. Strutt died at Terling Place and was buried at All Saints’ Church, Terling.

Guglielmo Marconi: Entertainment Broadcasting (1920)

It would be remiss not to include Chelmsford and the Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi. On 15 June, 1920, Dame Nellie Melba sang via a wireless broadcast from Marconi’s works in New Street, Chelmsford. This was the world’s first radio broadcast purely for entertainment purposes, so we can justly say that entertainment broadcasting began in Essex. Writtle also had an experimental Marconi station (2MT) in the early-1920s.

Sir Charles Kao: Fibre Optics (1965)

The Internet and broadband rely on fibre optics. In 1965, Sir Charles Kao and George Hockham were the first to demonstrate how glass fibre could be used for transmitting information and this occurred in Harlow, where Kao worked and studied. Kao was another Nobel Prize winner in Physics (2009) and had a university technical college (UTC) named after him in Harlow, in 2014, which is now the BMAT STEM Academy. I can thank him for my ‘faster fibre’.

Sir Alan Sugar: Amstrad Computers (1968)

London-born entrepreneur Alan Sugar set up Amstrad on King’s Road in Brentwood back in 1968. The company’s flagship CPC (Colour Personal Computer) series was launched in 1984, beginning with the CPC464, designed by Ivor Spital, and became one of the best-selling PCs of the time with some three million of the CPC series being sold up to 1990. Amstrad became a part of Sky UK in 2007.

Michael Tompsett: Digital Colour Photography (1972)

We just take it for granted today, but it was in 1972, courtesy of experiments in Chelmsford, when digital colour photography arrived. Michael Tompsett published the first digital colour photograph using technology developed in the county town. I like the fact that the first picture he published was one of his wife, too. We do tend to be a bit blasé about our gadgetry nowadays, but Essex has certainly helped get us there.