8 key British inventions of the last century

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i-limb

The human hand has many grips and movements, all carried out with the appropriate force, speed and precision. Replicating its form and function has been a major engineering challenge. Thats why the i-limb is so revolutionary.

Its bionic hand with a rotatable thumb and articulated fingers, each one individually powered by its own miniature motor and gearbox. Users need only think about moving their hand to send an electrical signal from their brain to contract the muscles in the remaining portion of their arm. Electrical pulses from the muscles are then captured by an electrode and sent to a computer inside the hand that triggers the movement.

While other manufacturers were producing pincer-like devices that simply opened or closed, i-limb inventor and engineer David Gow had bigger ideas. A former employee of the NHS, he set up a spin-out company, Touch Bionics, in Scotland and the i-limb was launched in 2007.

Read more about the i-limb:

Capable of a powerful grip as well as the lightest of touches, the i-limb enables users to carry out everyday tasks, whether basic or complicated, completely independently. As with all the best innovations, it is the difference made to people’s lives that makes the i-limb so significant.

It was in his second job, working at Edinburgh University, that he started researching control systems in artificial hands.

This was an area which had fascinated me for a long time,” he said. I had seen an incredible Tomorrows World programme which looked at the fitting of electric hands on pre-school children and I was delighted to get the job as I could see the potential of this work.

I then moved to the Health Board and started to get involved with limb development which meant I was working directly with patients. Hands and wrists became my focus, but around the mid 90s funding was starting to run out and I had to make practical plans on moving forward with my research.

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Fibre optics

In the 1960s, at Harlow’s Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL), Charles Kuen Kao discovered the various properties of glass. At the time it was believed that glass was an unsuitable conductor of information because of light scattering. 

When George Hockham, the theorist of the group, realised that impure glass was no use, Kao took up the challenge of purifying the glass and manufacturing small fibres capable of carrying heaps of information.

Their aim was to replace cooper wires for telecommunication, even if everyone said it was hopeless to replace the medium.

Kao and Hockham published research results in 1966 that demonstrated the potential of fibre-optic communication. But despite early backing from the Post Office and Ministry of Defence, Kao spent years convincing sceptics of the viability of optical fibres.

In 2015, a network of millions of kilometres of optical cables extends across the world, transmitting vast quantities of data at incredible speeds. Each cable is made up of bundles of optical fibres very thin pipes of purified glass through which pulses of laser light travel, carrying the digital information. The first trans-Pacific copper cable was limited to fewer than 100 phone calls, but today’s optical fibre system has the capacity for over a billion simultaneous calls and forms the technological backbone of the Internet and cable television.

The technology has since given rise to a worldwide digital revolution and a whole new industry and changed the way we communicate for ever.

Next on the list: Catseyes and stainless steel…

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