A history of innovation

Transport, science and the beautiful game dominate Northern Ireland’s many and varied discoveries. Throw in water, chocolate and a bit of shopping and you’ve got an impressive line up of NI produced pioneers of industry and invention.

So hop on a tram or Routemaster, pour a hot cocoa (checking the temperature in Kelvins), bag a mail order bargain or watch classic penalty shoot-outs and know you’re honouring the groundbreaking work of the NI visionaries.


Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate

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Jay Rayner talks to Mark Spencer from the Natural History Museum and Food Historian Annie Gray on The One Show (BBC One, 2015).

Born in Killyleagh Co. Down, Hans Sloane was a Royal physician and eminent collector who bequeathed over 71,000 objects to the British Museum.

In the 1680s, Sloane spent 15 months in Jamaica as the governor’s physician and catalogued hundreds of botanical species including the cocoa bean. Locals mixed it with water to form a concoction Sloane described as "nauseous and hard of digestion". He boiled the cocoa with milk and sugar, inventing milk chocolate. Back in England, Sloane used his milk chocolate recipe to treat digestion and consumption (tuberculosis). More than 60 years later, Cadbury produced 'Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate'.

History: Hans Sloane


William Thomson and the Kelvin unit


Lord Kelvin's statue in Botanic Gardens, Belfast.

William Thomson, Baron Kelvin, was a Belfast-born mathematician and physicist whose name was given to the Kelvin unit of absolute temperature.

Thomson excelled at Glasgow and Cambridge Universities and, aged just 22, became Cambridge’s chair of natural philosophy (later physics). As well as his groundbreaking work in thermodynamics, Thomson invented the compass used by the British Navy and was instrumental in laying the first transatlantic cable. Thomson was knighted by Queen Victoria and the first British scientist to become a member of the House of Lords. He died in 1907 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Encyclopaedia Britannica: Lord Kelvin


John Stephenson's Streetcar


John Stephenson Company advert circa 1888.

In New York, a Co. Armagh born 22 year old designed the world’s first omnibus and streetcar.

John Stephenson emigrated to New York with his parents aged two and went on to open his own omnibus and streetcar manufacturing business. He successfully designed, built and exported streetcars until the Great Depression forced his company’s closure. Undeterred, Stephenson bounced back and repaid loans with interest, earning him the nickname ‘Honest John Stephenson’. His designs graced such cities as London, Lima, St Petersburg, Paris and Rio.

The John Stephenson Car Co.


AT Stewart and the world’s first discount department store and mail order business

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AT Stewart's retail store, Broadway and 10th Street, New York.

Born in Lisburn in 1803, Alexander Turney Stewart moved to New York aged 20 and spent a $3000 inheritance on Irish lace and linens.

With this he established a small store in Manhattan and built a retail empire on wholesale prices. Fashion shows and full length mirrors lured women to his second ‘Marble Palace’ store. And an innovative mail order business solidified his wealth. In 1847 during the Irish famine, Stewart sent a shipful of supplies to Belfast and returned it filled with immigrants whom he then employed. Stewart became America’s third richest person, accruing the largest individual fortune over a single lifetime.

The A.T. Stewart Department Store


John Getty McGee's Ulster overcoat - Sherlock's garment of choice

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The original Ulster overcoat style is worn by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. Sherlock (BBC One, 2010).

Named after the Irish province that includes Northern Ireland, the 'Ulster' overcoat is synonymous with a certain Mr Holmes.

Sherlock's indisputable silhouette can be attributed to this voluminous double-breasted garment cut from heavy Donegal Tweed. Pleats, pockets and a belt complete the sartorial standard, with the optional cape – made famous by Conan Doyle's fictional detective – appearing briefly in the 1880s. The coat's designer was John Getty McGee who owned McGee & Co. tailors on Belfast's High Street. The premises were later expanded and named the Ulster Overcoat Company in honour of his famous creation.

The Atlantic: Sherlock Holmes, unlikely style iconArthur Conan Doyle: 19 things you didn't know


The Traill brothers and the Electric Tramway

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Dunluce Castle & Giant's Causeway Tram circa 1890.

Co. Antrim brothers William and Anthony Traill invented the world's first electric tramway with the construction of the Giant's Causeway Tramway.

The three-foot narrow gauge line harnessed hydro-electric power and the first section, linking Bushmills with Portrush, opened on 29 January 1883. Four years later, a second section connected Bushmills with the Giant's Causeway. The line closed in 1949 due to reduced passenger numbers and high maintenance costs. Then, in 2002, the Giant's Causeway and Bushmills Railway revived two miles of the original line, spiriting visitors to this iconic attraction ever since.


John Dunlop's pneumatic tyres

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Dan Snow talks to Mark Kennedy from the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum on The One Show (BBC One, 2008).

Pre-pneumatic tyres, a combination of cobbled streets and wooden wheels practically guaranteed cyclists a bumpy ride.

Which makes Scots born, Belfast based, John Dunlop's air-filled tubes one of transportation's greatest inventions. Dunlop’s young son had asked him to make the tricycle’s solid rubber wheels more comfortable for Belfast’s bumpy thoroughfares. One pumped up garden hose later, and it was mission accomplished. Ireland’s cycle racing elite dominated with Dunlop tyres before automobiles drove them to global dominance.


William McCrum and the penalty kick

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David Barby talks to Stephen McManus from the Milford House Museum on Antiques Road Trip (BBC Two, 2011).

The son of a wealthy Irish linen manufacturer, ‘Master Willie’ McCrum was more interested in sport than business.

He sold the family mill in Milford, Co. Armagh but remained in the model village built by his father. McCrum was goalkeeper for Milford FC, conceding 62 goals in the Irish Football League’s inaugural season. No fan of goalmouth foul play, McCrum devised the penalty kick to thwart such unsportsmanlike behaviour. The idea, known as the ‘Irishman's Motion’ and the ‘Death Penalty,’ was proposed in 1890 at an International Football Association Board and approved the following year.

BBC News: Fifa funding for penalty inventor's grave


William Mulholland's LA Aqueduct

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A crowd gathers to watch a re-enactment of the moment the Los Angeles Aqueduct gates were first opened 100 years ago, on 5 November 2013, California.

Born in Belfast to Dublin parents, William Mulholland spent four years in the Merchant Navy before settling in California in 1877, aged 22.

A self-taught engineer, Mulholland designed the 200-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct, bringing water to the fledgling city. Built over five years and opened in 1913, the colossal structure diverted water from Owens River and precipitated LA’s economic and cultural growth. Controversy dogged Mulholland with the subsequent California Water Wars and, later, the St Francis Dam disaster. However, LA's Mulholland Drive was named in his honour and Mulholland remains a pivotal figure in the city's history.

History: Los Angeles Aqueduct


Harry Ferguson and the modern tractor

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Dick Strawbridge on Coast (BBC Two, 2011).

Credited with inventing the modern tractor, Ferguson’s three-point linkage system has elevated the Co. Down engineer to agricultural immortality.

Previously, tractors and ploughs were two separate entities making them cumbersome and dangerous to operate. Harry Ferguson hitched the two together and used hydraulics to move the plough section, making farming safer and more cost effective. Aged 25, aviation enthusiast Ferguson also became the first Irishman to fly a plane, and the first UK citizen to both build and fly a plane. Ferguson died in 1960, but his legacy lives on with the Massey Ferguson agricultural manufacturing company.

Ferguson Family Museum


Sir James Martin's ejector seat

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Bailing out at zero feet by Pathe News (1955).

Co. Down born aircraft manufacturer Sir James Martin and Captain Valentine Baker founded the Martin-Baker Aircraft Company Ltd in 1934.

Eight years later, Baker was killed in a test flight and Martin redirected his attentions to flight safety. In WW2, Martin investigated pilot escape mechanisms for the Spitfire and devised an explosive charge to forcibly eject the seated pilot. The first static ejector seat test was conducted in 1945, and the first in-flight test a year later. Over 200 aircraft have Martin-Baker ejector seats and, to date, more than 7400 pilots have successfully ejected. Sir James Martin died in 1981, aged 87.

BBC Future: The rocket-powered rise of the ejector seat


Frank Pantridge and the portable defibrillator

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An early version of the Pantridge portable defibrillator.

Physician and cardiologist Professor Frank Pantridge was born in Co. Down and educated at Queen's University Belfast.

During WW2 he was a Japanese POW in Singapore. After the war, he studied cardiology in the US then returned to Belfast and became cardiac consultant at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Realising the need to urgently treat cardiac patients, Pantridge invented the portable defibrillator. These devices were used in ambulances and at the scene of cardiac arrest. His 'Pantridge Plan' has saved countless lives worldwide. Dubbed the 'Father of Emergency Medicine', Frank Pantridge died in 2004 aged 88.


Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell's pulsars

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Jocelyn Bell Burnell at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at Cambridge University (1968).

Dame Jocelyn Bell was born in Belfast in 1943, graduated in physics from the University of Glasgow and studied for a PhD at Cambridge University.

Bell identified four blips in 120m of paper produced from a telescope she helped build. The first resembled extraterrestrial activity and was dubbed LGM, or Little Green Men. Three more followed and pulsars or 'pulsing stars' were discovered. Her Cambridge advisors, Anthony Hewish and Sir Martin Ryle, won the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics but Bell’s pivotal role was overlooked. Nonetheless, Bell has received numerous honours, and her first pulse graces Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album.

BBC Science: Jocelyn Bell Burnell


Wrightbus and the new London Routemaster

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Reporter Kevin Magee on Newsline (BBC One Northern Ireland, 2011).

When London Mayor Boris Johnson wanted to replace the city’s iconic red double-decker Routemaster bus, Ballymena’s Wrightbus won the contract.

The Co. Antrim firm’s diesel-electric hybrid is a 21st Century take on the 1956 design classic, and 600 ‘Boris Buses’ have been commissioned from its Northern Ireland base for delivery by 2016. The New Routemaster took poll position in the 2011 'Great' Britain Campaign, with passengers Prince Harry and PM David Cameron hopping aboard for the New York launch of this global British promotional event.


Dr Steve Myers, CERN and the Large Hadron Collider

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Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh on GMT (BBC World News, 2015).

Belfast born and Queen’s University Belfast graduate Dr Steve Myers is regarded by his peers as "the man who made the Large Hadron Collider work”.

Myers is one of the scientists behind the recent discovery of Higgs Boson, the so-called 'God Particle'. He is director of accelerators and technology at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. Based near Geneva, this multinational scientific research facility collides particles in the 27km circumference tunnel at close to the speed of light to try to emulate the ‘Big Bang’. Data is recorded and analysed as scientists, led by Myers, seek to uncover the origins of the universe.

CERN: Large Hadron Collider