The following people are considered by Pantheon to be the top 10 most legendary British Inventors of all time. This list of famous British Inventors is sorted by HPI (Historical Popularity Index), a metric that aggregates information on a biography’s online popularity. Visit the rankings page to view the entire list of British Inventors.
With an HPI of 86.42, James Watt is the most famous British Inventor. His biography has been translated into 132 different languages on wikipedia.
James Watt (; 30 January 1736 (19 January 1736 OS) – 25 August 1819) was a Scottish inventor, mechanical engineer, and chemist who improved on Thomas Newcomen's 1712 Newcomen steam engine with his Watt steam engine in 1776, which was fundamental to the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution in both his native Great Britain and the rest of the world. While working as an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, Watt became interested in the technology of steam engines. He realised that contemporary engine designs wasted a great deal of energy by repeatedly cooling and reheating the cylinder. Watt introduced a design enhancement, the separate condenser, which avoided this waste of energy and radically improved the power, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of steam engines. Eventually, he adapted his engine to produce rotary motion, greatly broadening its use beyond pumping water. Watt attempted to commercialise his invention, but experienced great financial difficulties until he entered a partnership with Matthew Boulton in 1775. The new firm of Boulton and Watt was eventually highly successful and Watt became a wealthy man. In his retirement, Watt continued to develop new inventions though none was as significant as his steam engine work. As Watt developed the concept of horsepower, the SI unit of power, the watt, was named after him.
With an HPI of 82.97, Alexander Graham Bell is the 2nd most famous British Inventor. His biography has been translated into 122 different languages.
Alexander Graham Bell (, born Alexander Bell; March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922) was a Scottish-born inventor, scientist and engineer who is credited with patenting the first practical telephone. He also co-founded the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) in 1885.Bell's father, grandfather, and brother had all been associated with work on elocution and speech, and both his mother and wife were deaf; profoundly influencing Bell's life's work. His research on hearing and speech further led him to experiment with hearing devices which eventually culminated in Bell being awarded the first U.S. patent for the telephone, on March 7, 1876. Bell considered his invention an intrusion on his real work as a scientist and refused to have a telephone in his study.Many other inventions marked Bell's later life, including groundbreaking work in optical telecommunications, hydrofoils, and aeronautics. Bell also had a strong influence on the National Geographic Society and its magazine while serving as the second president from January 7, 1898, until 1903. Beyond his work in engineering, Bell had a deep interest in the emerging science of heredity.
With an HPI of 77.95, Charles Babbage is the 3rd most famous British Inventor. His biography has been translated into 94 different languages.
Charles Babbage (; 26 December 1791 – 18 October 1871) was an English polymath. A mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer, Babbage originated the concept of a digital programmable computer.Babbage is considered by some to be "father of the computer". Babbage is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, that eventually led to more complex electronic designs, though all the essential ideas of modern computers are to be found in Babbage's Analytical Engine, programmed using a principle openly borrowed from the Jacquard loom. Babbage had a broad range of interests in addition to his work on computers covered in his book Economy of Manufactures and Machinery. His varied work in other fields has led him to be described as "pre-eminent" among the many polymaths of his century.Babbage, who died before the complete successful engineering of many of his designs, including his Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, remained a prominent figure in the ideating of computing. Parts of Babbage's incomplete mechanisms are on display in the Science Museum in London. In 1991, a functioning difference engine was constructed from Babbage's original plans. Built to tolerances achievable in the 19th century, the success of the finished engine indicated that Babbage's machine would have worked.
With an HPI of 74.92, George Stephenson is the 4th most famous British Inventor. His biography has been translated into 67 different languages.
George Stephenson (9 June 1781 – 12 August 1848) was a British civil engineer and mechanical engineer. Renowned as the "Father of Railways", Stephenson was considered by the Victorians a great example of diligent application and thirst for improvement. Self-help advocate Samuel Smiles particularly praised his achievements. His chosen rail gauge, sometimes called "Stephenson gauge", was the basis for the 4 feet 8+1⁄2 inches (1.435 m) standard gauge used by most of the world's railways. Pioneered by Stephenson, rail transport was one of the most important technological inventions of the 19th century and a key component of the Industrial Revolution. Built by George and his son Robert's company Robert Stephenson and Company, the Locomotion No. 1 was the first steam locomotive to carry passengers on a public rail line, the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825. George also built the first public inter-city railway line in the world to use locomotives, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which opened in 1830.
With an HPI of 72.45, John Logie Baird is the 5th most famous British Inventor. His biography has been translated into 72 different languages.
John Logie Baird FRSE (; 13 August 1888 – 14 June 1946) was a Scottish inventor, electrical engineer, and innovator who demonstrated the world's first live working television system on 26 January 1926. He went on to invent the first publicly demonstrated colour television system and the first viable purely electronic colour television picture tube.In 1928 the Baird Television Development Company achieved the first transatlantic television transmission. Baird's early technological successes and his role in the practical introduction of broadcast television for home entertainment have earned him a prominent place in television's history. In 2006, Baird was named as one of the 10 greatest Scottish scientists in history, having been listed in the National Library of Scotland's 'Scottish Science Hall of Fame'. In 2015 he was inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame. On 26 January 2017 – IEEE unveiled a bronze street plaque at 22 Frith Street (Bar Italia), London, dedicated to Baird and the invention of television. In 2021, the Royal Mint unveiled a John Logie Baird 50p coin commemorating the 75th anniversary of his death.
With an HPI of 71.14, Thomas Newcomen is the 6th most famous British Inventor. His biography has been translated into 52 different languages.
Thomas Newcomen (; February 1664 – 5 August 1729) was an English inventor who created the atmospheric engine, the first practical fuel-burning engine in 1712. He was an ironmonger by trade and a Baptist lay preacher by calling. He was born in Dartmouth, in Devon, England, to a merchant family and baptised at St. Saviour's Church on 28 February 1664. In those days flooding in coal and tin mines was a major problem. Newcomen was soon engaged in trying to improve ways to pump out the water from such mines. His ironmonger's business specialised in designing, manufacturing and selling tools for the mining industry.
With an HPI of 68.25, Richard Trevithick is the 7th most famous British Inventor. His biography has been translated into 51 different languages.
Richard Trevithick (13 April 1771 – 22 April 1833) was a British inventor and mining engineer. The son of a mining captain, and born in the mining heartland of Cornwall, Trevithick was immersed in mining and engineering from an early age. He was an early pioneer of steam-powered road and rail transport, and his most significant contributions were the development of the first high-pressure steam engine and the first working railway steam locomotive. The world's first locomotive-hauled railway journey took place on 21 February 1804, when Trevithick's unnamed steam locomotive hauled a train along the tramway of the Penydarren Ironworks, in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales.Turning his interests abroad Trevithick also worked as a mining consultant in Peru and later explored parts of Costa Rica. Throughout his professional career he went through many ups and downs and at one point faced financial ruin, also suffering from the strong rivalry of many mining and steam engineers of the day. During the prime of his career he was a well-known and highly respected figure in mining and engineering, but near the end of his life he fell out of the public eye.
With an HPI of 67.79, John Herschel is the 8th most famous British Inventor. His biography has been translated into 69 different languages.
Sir John Frederick William Herschel, 1st Baronet (; 7 March 1792 – 11 May 1871) was an English polymath active as a mathematician, astronomer, chemist, inventor, experimental photographer who invented the blueprint and did botanical work.Herschel originated the use of the Julian day system in astronomy. He named seven moons of Saturn and four moons of Uranus – the seventh planet, discovered by his father Sir William Herschel. He made many contributions to the science of photography, and investigated colour blindness and the chemical power of ultraviolet rays. His Preliminary Discourse (1831), which advocated an inductive approach to scientific experiment and theory-building, was an important contribution to the philosophy of science.
With an HPI of 66.90, John Boyd Dunlop is the 9th most famous British Inventor. His biography has been translated into 49 different languages.
John Boyd Dunlop (5 February 1840 – 23 October 1921) was a Scottish inventor and veterinary surgeon who spent most of his career in Ireland. Familiar with making rubber devices, he invented the first practical pneumatic tyres for his child's tricycle and developed them for use in cycle racing. He sold his rights to the pneumatic tyres to a company he formed with the president of the Irish Cyclists' Association, Harvey Du Cros, for a small cash sum and a small shareholding in their pneumatic tyre business. Dunlop withdrew in 1896. The company that bore his name, Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company, was not incorporated until later using the name well known to the public, but it was Du Cros's creation.
With an HPI of 66.20, Frank Whittle is the 10th most famous British Inventor. His biography has been translated into 36 different languages.
Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, (1 June 1907 – 8 August 1996) was an English engineer, inventor and Royal Air Force (RAF) air officer. He is credited with inventing the turbojet engine. A patent was submitted by Maxime Guillaume in 1921 for a similar invention which was technically unfeasible at the time. Whittle's jet engines were developed some years earlier than those of Germany's Hans von Ohain, who designed the first-to-fly (but never operational) turbojet engine. Whittle demonstrated an aptitude for engineering and an interest in flying from an early age. At first he was turned down by the RAF but, determined to join the force, he overcame his physical limitations and was accepted and sent to No. 2 School of Technical Training to join No 1 Squadron of Cranwell Aircraft Apprentices. He was taught the theory of aircraft engines and gained practical experience in the engineering workshops. His academic and practical abilities as an Aircraft Apprentice earned him a place on the officer training course at Cranwell. He excelled in his studies and became an accomplished pilot. While writing his thesis he formulated the fundamental concepts that led to the creation of the turbojet engine, taking out a patent on his design in 1930. His performance on an officers' engineering course earned him a place on a further course at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he graduated with a First.Without Air Ministry support, he and two retired RAF servicemen formed Power Jets Ltd to build his engine with assistance from the firm of British Thomson-Houston. Despite limited funding, a prototype was created, which first ran in 1937. Official interest was forthcoming following this success, with contracts being placed to develop further engines, but the continuing stress seriously affected Whittle's health, eventually resulting in a nervous breakdown in 1940. In 1944 when Power Jets was nationalised he again suffered a nervous breakdown, and resigned from the board in 1946.In 1948, Whittle retired from the RAF and received a knighthood. He joined BOAC as a technical advisor before working as an engineering specialist with Shell, followed by a position with Bristol Aero Engines. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1976 he accepted the position of NAVAIR Research Professor at the United States Naval Academy from 1977 to 1979. In August 1996, Whittle died of lung cancer at his home in Columbia, Maryland. In 2002, Whittle was ranked number 42 in the BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
Pantheon has 61 people classified as inventors born between 1625 and 1947. Of these 61, 3 (4.92%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living inventors include James Dyson, John Barnard, and Roger C. Field. The most famous deceased inventors include James Watt, Alexander Graham Bell, and Charles Babbage. As of April 2022, 1 new inventors have been added to Pantheon including Sidney Gilchrist Thomas.
1736 - 1819
1847 - 1922
1791 - 1871
1781 - 1848
1888 - 1946
1663 - 1729
1771 - 1833
1792 - 1871
1840 - 1921
1907 - 1996
1800 - 1877
1650 - 1715
Which Inventors were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 25 most globally memorable Inventors since 1700.