London Did It First


Competition between cities is a funny thing. I remembered a terrible, pointless staged TV debate between two young men extolling the virtues of New York and London respectively. The New Yorker went into long intelligently reasoned argument, honed from years of being in debating societies, as to why New York was the ‘better’ city. The Londoner just stared him down and told him to f**k off.

So, for the record, here are a few random achievements from Londinium, offered for debate.

The first underground trains; the Metropolitan line opened in 1863, running for almost four miles between Paddington and Farringdon Street.

The first ATM; The comic actor Reg Varney opened the first cash machine in 1967.

The first miniskirt; the fashion designer Mary Quant first displayed them at her King’s Road boutique ‘Bazaar’.

The first Scotch egg: They’re only Scotch because that’s where the beef came from, but they were invented by Fortnum & Mason in 1738.

The first jigsaw puzzle; invented in 1766 by John Spilsbury, an engraver and mapmaker.

The electric telegraph; invented by Francis Ronalds in 1816, who offered his world-changing invention free to the British government. Typically, they turned him down.

The first tuxedo; Made for the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, who wanted a casual dinner suit.

The first handheld computer; that arrived in 1984 from PSION, and started the trend for pocketable electronic devices.

The first neon light; In 1898 William Ramsey wasn’t aware that his invention would eventually become an essential disco requirement.

The vacuum cleaner; in 1901 Hubert Booth was inspired to create this after watching cleaners at St Pancras Station.

Also discovered, invented or created in this fair city; the machine gun, the nuclear chain reaction, the expresso martini, the CT scan, penicillin, the toothbrush, the fire extinguisher, stamps, Christmas cards, rubber bands, the bowler hat, weather forecasts, the pop-up restaurant (1827!), magazines and coin-operated toilets.

36 comments on “London Did It First”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    It would also be interesting to know of the inventions/discoveries that failed to make the grade, and sank without trace after some years of excited enthusiasm. Each time my smartphone or my iPad and I fall out with each other, and my tech-savvy daughter has to arbitrate, I wonder about inventions, progress etc. There are times when I really do see where Arthur Bryant is coming from.

  2. Joel says:

    The great thing about London is that we always have something new to discover. We don’t really have one ‘city’ but a collection of villages which sprawl and congest, over-running into each other.

    Grid-based cities and those which grew up without having to overcome vested land-owning interests (this excludes colonisers over-running locals’ interests) are too planned, too characterless. Our Borough boundaries often reflect earlier land ownerships: these created indirect routes, and bends to peek around to see what’s there. Exceptions need one or more of hills, irregular sea shores, nearby country, preserved history from various eras to bring them alive, make them different.

    My London (born in Bethnal Green, still live nearby) beats most other cities I’ve seen (I was in BOAC and British Airways so travelled a fair bit, admittedly only as a visitor, so I saw them differently to a resident), apart from Aussie Sydney, which has a massive curiosity value, despite the ‘Aboriginals’ being displaced to make way for it.

  3. Paul C says:

    Liz – there’s a wonderful book about inventions that just failed to catch on : Banvard’s Folly – Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World. A marvellous collection of eccentrics and rogues by PAUL COLLINS.

    He has also written some classy true crime books : The Murder of the Century, Duel with the Devil, Blood & Ivy.

  4. Peter T says:

    If that’s the best that London has achieved, areas like the Black Country should abandon their modesty.

    Should I start with the anchor chain of the Titanic?

  5. Adam says:

    Go for it, Peter T. I’ll also add that the Black Country has produced far better pop/rock bands than London and Liverpool combined…

  6. snowy says:

    [I see the ‘side hustle’ with the London Tourist Board is still running.]

    *Dons Pedant-O-Hat – Patent Pending*

    Many of the things that upstart London claims for itself, belong properly to the historic county of Middlesex.

    First miniskirt, had a look at any Greek or Roman pottery?

    First ATM, doubtful there were lots of similar devices in development throughout the UK, US and Japan in the 1960s each solved a part of the problem with dispensing cash, paying in cheques etc, the fully formed ATM is an amalgam of parts from each.

    Scotch Egg, there was a fashion among chefs for renaming old dishes with dubious regional names, see Scotch Woodcock, [Scrambled eggs on toast with fish butter].

    Machine guns seem to be surrounded by strangeness, the Puckle Gun had a choice of bullets, round for shooting Christians, square for Muslims. [And the later story of the disappearance of William Cantelo remains a mystery to this day].

    Things that came and went in quite short order:

    Turtle soup, made from the flesh of Atlantic turtles, before stocks were entirely fished out.

    Boiled sweets containing large quantities of Whale oil, ditto.

    The fire grenade, which worked but had several distinct disadvantages: only worked in confined spaces, which when used first filled the entire room first with thousands of pieces of glass shrapnel and then rendered the atmosphere fatally un-breathable.

    The topless dress or at least the 60s version, [see Greek urns again for prior incarnations].

    The various doings of Alexis Soyer, of which his stove was the most successful.

    And finally the ‘Temple of Hymen’, in Pall Mall a very long story that involves Benjamin Franklin, the Duchess of Devonshire, Emma Hamilton and Hugh Walpole.

  7. Peter T says:

    Adam, The rock music can be taken as read (well I had). Rob Plant was a year or so above me at school.

  8. Peter T says:

    The Barclays ATM was rather basic as I recall. They sent customers something like an airline boarding card with a fixed value on it every week. The customer put the card in the machine, which had a wind up display, like the destination display on a bus of that time. The display would wind up and down, the customer push buttons, and eventually, if nothing jammed, a £5 note might appear.

    The Lloyds cashpoint machine that arrived a couple of years later was surprisingly modern by comparison: electronic display, plastic pin card, choice of withdrawal amount. They were first installed in Brentwood, which for many of is more or less London?

  9. Cathy Adamson says:

    Och aye the noo! Scotland and the Scots have by far the best track record of inventions – too many to list, but the chances of some important thing you do having being thought of first by a Scot are high!…

  10. Peter T says:

    I hate to mention it, but how those Scots, such as Watt, Murdoch, McDonald…., blossomed after they moved to the Black Country. Yikes, initially I was joking, but I’m beginning to convince myself.

  11. Don says:

    @ Peter T “Should I start with the anchor chain of the Titanic?” Go on then, go and get it 😉

  12. Brooke says:

    Inventiveness is fine but you need resources, especially capital and a decent workforce. I recall reading somewhere that even before the industrial revolution, the area we call the Black Country had wealth and resources; it was “proto-industrial.” Such areas attract inventors. Peter T., make of it what you will.

  13. Wulfruna says:

    Good to hear someone praising the Black Country, thank you Peter T.

  14. Peter Dixon says:

    Light bulb (Joseph Swan) Newcastle. First street with electric light – Newcastle, Hydraulic crane – Newcastle, windscreen wipers – Newcastle, First house powered by hydro-electricity including electricity and a lift – Rothbury (12 miles north of Newcastle), Plasticene – North Shields (5 miles east of Newcastle), the first lifeboat – South Shields (5 miles east of Newcastle), Newcastle Brown Ale – self evident, the first steam turbine( the basis of all turbine engines) – Newcastle, the first steam locomotive- Killingworth, a suburb of Newcastle, the established railway gauge throughout the world – Killingworth, In the eighteenth century, many north-east shipowners came together to form small mutual insurance clubs. They all began their policies on 20 February each year, which is when sailing ships were traditionally taken from their winter lay-ups and made ready for trade with the ice-free ports in the Baltic. All 13 clubs in the International Group of P&I Clubs (the whole world) still collectively renew their member and reinsurance policies on this date. There trade is worth hundreds of billions of pounds worldwide and originated in – you’ve guessed it – Newcastle.

    I’ve hardly rolled my sleeves up yet.

    I would throw back at London the phrase given by the Londoner to the New Yorker – with several extra epithets thrown in for good measure.

  15. Liz Thompson says:

    Dearie dearie me! Such historical rivalries! But thanks Peter Dixon and Paul Graham for standing up for us northerners. Not sure if Leeds was ever first with anything, although I noticed with approval the reference to the bowl of dripping riot in Leeds in Oranges and Lemons. Think that might be a first. Anywhere else claim a riot over whether the cook has a legal entitlement to a bowl of dripping?

  16. Mike Hill says:

    Hang on – how about Dorset? Especially the Bournemouth/Poole/Christchurch conurbation. We gave the World the Lava Lamp and the Bailey Bridge! Not to mention Tony Blackburn.

  17. snowy says:

    A little light looking up reveals Leeds lays claim to Cluedo, Sooty and Sweep, the Little Nipper mouse trap, the first motion pictures and Jelly Tots.

    Dorset turns up a bit of a blank, but somebody will know.

  18. Jan says:

    Peter Dixon I must admit I was really surprised to find out Newcastle was the home of Britains (or was it Europe’s or possibly worldwide) street lit by electricity.

    Cragside in Rotherbury is even more extraordinary in that William Armstrong the first engineer ever to be enobled in the UK got dams and lakes built in its extensive grounds to power this home which had
    A the first form of dishwasher
    B it was the first home to have vacuum cleaners
    C also the 1st to have an electric rotisserie type oven.
    There’s a whole list of firsts from this place. Cragside was extended to designs by Norman Shaw. A wonderful place in an absolutely extraordinary setting.

    It was an incredible achievement really. Armstrong’s background was in armaments he was the inventor of the Armstrong gun and the main supplier of ordnance to the government in the Crimean war and his company was also a large supplier in the first world war.

    Armstrong was also the inventor of the world’s first hydraulic crane. His wife was a scientist in her own right. He was brought up in Newcastle but spent much of his childhood out at Rotherbury because of the purer cleaner air he did have health issues.. Armstrong spent a few years in London before returning north and meeting his future Mrs.

  19. Brian says:

    Good grief! I see Don has entered the fray. Very brave of him after having been denied entry to Tesco’s for not wearing a mask – or was he? All in the eye of the beholder it would seem.

  20. Michael Pitcher says:

    Just finished the latest Bryant and May best one yet ! new character sidney should have a spin off book to herself with Bryant and May popping up as cameos, brilliant, looking forward to the next one already

  21. Peter T says:

    Indeed, whatever view one takes on armaments, Armstrong is someone who should be remembered and celebrated.

  22. snowy says:

    Dorset’s more difficult than one would expect: Britain’s first fossil shop, Trivial Pursuit, first radio station, [slightly dubious Marconi got about quite a bit, at least 3 other places also claim this distinction], something called ‘The Internet’, [can’t see that catching on] and a very old Postbox.

  23. Dawn Andrews says:

    Belfast has the rest of the Titanic to its credit, Peter, Irish inventiveness tends to focus on stream of consciousness writing, poetry, comedians, music, Guinness and epic brawls throughout history that would make Game of Thrones seem tame.

  24. Allan Lloyd says:

    I don’t think we invented anything in Herefordshire except sheep, more sheep and, of course, Hereford cattle. It is more in the character of Hereford people to retreat into our shells and complain about all of other people’s innovations that will disrupt our lives.

  25. Liz Thompson says:

    Cluedo, yes, I have a feeling that Leeds is or was home to one of the major boxed games manufacturers, including Monopoly and its themed variants. Not sure I’d want to claim Sooty and Sweep, I grew up in that era and remember them from black and white TV only too well.
    Did your light looking up mention the dripping riot, Snowy?

  26. Peter Dixon says:

    Armstrong was pretty much the Tony Stark of his day. Multi millionaire arms manufacturer with the most advanced home in the world, nestled in the hills of Northumberland. At the start of WW1 he had supplied most of the warships for the British, German and Japanese navies.

    Meanwhile the entire of London relied on its domestic coals from – where was it? Oh yes, Wallsend, Newcastle.

  27. Jan says:

    Sorry Peter – got to say it – and Wallsend was of course named for being at the end of Hadrians Wall.

    It’s funny all the attention is focussed on Hadrians wall but far less attention is paid to the defences at the ends of the
    Curtain wall. especially the shore defences which extend along the Cumbrian coast and up towards the Solway. This series of Mile fortresses “fortlets” (which is a bit of a misnomer really ) is very interesting.

    The defences run South toward Maryport ending at Rise How and up to Bowness on Solway. It’s funny once the Romans eliminate the Druids from the picture there does seem to have been to some extent an intermingling of ideas Celtic local deities become in some quite odd ways mixed in with Roman mystery cults. Sorry wandering well off topic here.

  28. snowy says:

    Not as a first Liz, but beyond the headline the story of the Leeds Dripping Riot is sadly much like a supermarket ‘Pie’, all crust and no meat, very disappointing.

    There may be a bigger story behind it, but no one seems to have carried out any research into the characters and circumstances. Was he just a nasty old sod that nobody liked? Was she always trying it on? Were they involved in an ‘extra-domestic’ relationship that went sour? Did he have an excessively mean disposition? Was she fiddling the household books? Had either of them been involved in legal proceedings before etc.

    Leeds has a history of being a bit riot-y, there is even an interactive website: LeedsRiotMap.

  29. Ian Luck says:

    Surely, Dorset gave us Thomas Hardy, who gave the world the idea of grinding suicidal misery in beautiful surroundings. Cheers, Tom.

  30. Helen Martin says:

    There are so many local animals developed and which still carry their points of origin: Dorset sheep, Angus cattle, Jersey cows (the prettiest cows of all), the Dartmoor and Shetland ponies, the Clydesdale and Shire horses (although I don’t know which Shire it was). Did you know there is a Canadian horse? true. Haven’t even started on pigs and chickens.

  31. snowy says:

    ‘Shire horse’ is a modern confection, coined by ‘them’ up ‘that London’ in 1884.

    The role of The English Great horse popular with toffs in tin suits in the 12thC, changed over the centuries, from War horse, to Plough horse, Cart horse and last saw widespread commercial use pulling beer drays. A few are still used in a niche role in Forestry.

  32. Paul C says:

    Liz – you may not believe it but films were invented in Leeds by Louis le Prince in Roundhay in 1888 :

    ‘The world’s earliest surviving motion-picture film, showing actual consecutive action is called Roundhay Garden Scene’.

    It’s still better than anything with Chevy Chase……………

  33. admin says:

    This is one of the funniest and most informative threads I’ve yet followed on my own site!

  34. Jan says:

    Read about this before how the earliest films were created in Leeds and because the quality of the light is pretty good some early films were made in West Yorkshire towns and villages. Some wag theorised what might have happened if the film industry had stayed close to its point of origin. What if films had remained centred on places like Bingley, Ilkley, Pudsey or Batley. It’s could so easily have been “Hurray for Halifax” and rolling out the red carpet somewhere close to Bradford. Imagine the major film studios based around Sowerby Bridge and
    all the nation’s beautiful folk heading toward these places to break into movies.

  35. Paul C says:

    Jan / Liz – there’s a terrific book about the invention of film in Leeds :

    THE MISSING REEL: The Untold Story of the Lost Inventor of Moving Pictures by Rawlence, Christopher

    A dazzling book for anyone interested in early film – I really like the old Town Hall building in Leeds and Samuel Smith pubs – fabulous beer !

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