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Royal Mail today announced the launch of the ‘Inventive Britain’ Special Stamp set, issued to mark a long and rich history of Britain as an inventive nation.
The stamps depict striking photographs and computer-generated interpretations of inventions created by British inventors over the last century: Colossus computer, World Wide Web, Catseyes, Fibre Optics, Stainless Steel, Carbon Fibre, DNA Sequencing and the i-limb.
The Colossus stamp featured in the set has a close association with Royal Mail. It was designed and built by GPO employee, Tommy Flowers.
The machine was built during the Second World War to decipher messages being sent between high-ranking officials in Germany and army commanders in the field. The Lorenz cypher encrypted these strategic communications and the principles to decipher it had been discovered in 1942. The following year, GPO engineer Tommy Flowers was set the task of developing an efficient device to rapidly speed up the decryption process.
His proposal for Colossus, which involved the use of large numbers of thermionic valves, was initially met with much scepticism, but he persevered. Based at the GPO Research Station in Dollis Hill, Flowers worked with a dedicated team of engineers, scientists and technicians. By December 1943, they had completed the first 5-tonne Colossus machine. This became operational at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park.
It took decades for the information to be declassified. Only then, was Colossus acknowledged as the world’s first electronic, digital and programmable computer, and the work of Tommy Flowers and his team was finally recognised. The new stamp includes a representation of the ticker tape that inputted data, and on it is the symbolic word ‘PEACE’.
Rhys Morgan, Director of Education at The Royal Academy of Engineering said: "This excellent collection of stamps shows British innovation and engineering at its best. It is truly an inspiring set of innovations that have had a global impact."
Andrew Hammond, Royal Mail Director of Stamps and Collectibles, said, “Great Britain has a long and proud history of developing world-changing innovations. From the splitting of the atom to the discovery of penicillin to the invention of the jet engine, Britain’s creative and resourceful spirit has not been restricted to any particular field, crossing the breadth of science and technology, engineering and medicine. The eight inventions featured on the stamps comprise only a handful of the transformative great British inventions from the century.”
In addition to the stamps, Royal Mail will also be issuing special ‘Inventive Britain’ postmarks across the country from 20-28 February. Post across the country will (except Sunday) will be stamped with a message dedicated to one of the inventions.
Also, in locations where there are strong links to the inventors, Royal Mail vans will feature an image of the relevant stamp from the ‘Inventive Britain’ issue. They are; Halifax; Epsom; Sheffield; Edinburgh; Cirencester; Dumfries; Docklands and Mortlake.
Computers used to be isolated devices that did not communicate with one another. Nowadays, about a third of the world’s population uses the World Wide Web to gather knowledge, keep in touch, be entertained, build businesses and exchange ideas.
During the 1980s, while working at CERN, the large particle physics laboratory in Switzerland, British software engineer Tim Berners-Lee became aware that CERN’s visiting scientists were limited in the ways they could share information. He realised that the Internet had potential to host a data-sharing system.
By 1990, he had developed the technologies that form the basis of the World Wide Web: protocols to define page location (Uniform Resource Identifier) and allow page retrieval (HyperText Transfer Protocol) and a computer language to create and link the pages (HyperText Markup Language). The Web was made available to all in 1993.
The Web and the Internet are not the same entity. Designed in the 1960s, the Internet is the global system of interconnected computer networks. The Web is a huge collection of documents and resources, connected to one another, that are accessible via the Internet.
With millions of contributors, the Web is the biggest-ever collaborative project. With no patents, royalties, centralised control or paymaster, it has been able to grow and flourish – in Berners-Lee’s own words, “This is for everyone”.
Catseye roadstuds comprise four glass beads, each with a reflective coating applied, embedded within a rubber housing encased in a cast-iron base. Simple, but ingenious, these night-time road guides are fit for all weathers and their robust nature withstands even the heaviest traffic. The flexibility of the rubber protects the reflectors by allowing them to sink down inside the rubber when compressed, cleaning their surfaces in the process by using the rainwater that collects in the metal base.
Percy Shaw had his own road-surfacing business at the time he developed and patented the ‘Catseye’ reflecting roadstud in 1934. Despite its brilliance, it took a decade for its merits to be fully realised; Second World War blackouts would lead to the widespread implementation of Catseyes in Britain.
Shaw’s entrepreneurial drive translated his idea into a commercial product that was manufactured in great numbers and became invaluable to the wider world. Since that time, Catseyes have never fundamentally changed in their functionality, demonstrating the excellence of the original design.
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.
In 1966, at Harlow’s Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL), Charles Kao and George Hockham published research results that first demonstrated the potential of fibre-optic communication. Despite early backing from the Post Office and Ministry of Defence, Kao spent years convincing sceptics of the viability of optical fibres.
The technology has since given rise to a worldwide digital revolution and a whole new industry – and changed the way we communicate for ever.
The Catseyes and Fibre Optic stamps are Royal Mail’s contribution to the UN International Year of Light – a year-long international celebration of light-based technologies.
Stainless steel is a highly versatile metallic alloy with a suite of useful properties. From the smallest artificial heart valves to the tallest of buildings, it is used in a vast array of products and structures. It is made predominantly from iron, which gives it strength, but the addition of the metal chromium – comprising at least 11 per cent by weight – makes steel become ‘stainless’.
In 1913, Sheffield-born Harry Brearley originally set out to produce a steel to use in gun manufacturing that was resistant to erosion and instead created one that was resistant to corrosion, which he originally named ‘rustless steel’. While others before him had researched iron–chromium alloys, it was Brearley who capitalised on his discovery, recognising its value to industry.
Stainless steel can be made to withstand a wide range of environments, such as extreme cold or intense heat. With its bright reflective gloss an important feature, it is fully recyclable, durable and can be cut, welded, machined, rolled, moulded and fabricated for a multitude of uses, from car exhausts to the cladding of Canary Wharf Tower.
Carbon fibres are thin filaments that are incorporated into resin and baked to create a reinforced plastic that is significantly stronger but considerably lighter than metal. This ‘composite’ material can be moulded into the required shape and is used in a wide range of machines and objects, such as military and commercial aeroplanes, spacecraft, hi-tech sports equipment, wind turbines and Formula One cars. To produce the fibres, a substance containing carbon is heated to extremely high temperatures (1000–3000°C) in an atmosphere containing no oxygen. Under such conditions, the carbon atoms join together to form structures that are extremely tough and stiff without being brittle.
In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers in the USA were working hard to uncover the secrets of producing carbon fibres. However, it was not until 1964 that Edinburgh-born William Watt, working at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, Hampshire, produced a superior version of the fibres and the technology really flourished.
Watt and his team discovered that creating fibrous carbon from ‘PAN’ (polyacrylonitrile – a textile fibre similar to that used for making carpets) produced a material much more suited for structural use. This formula for creating carbon fibres is still the most popular in use today, 50 years later. As carbon-fibre production becomes more cost-effective, this wonder material will doubtless be used across an even greater variety of applications.
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the chemical code inside cells which bears the instructions for synthesising all the different protein molecules that are needed to build humans, animals and plants. DNA is an extremely long molecule that is made up of individual building blocks, called nucleotides, arranged in a particular order known as the DNA sequence, which actually carries the code for making proteins.
Early attempts to work out different DNA sequences were slow and labour-intensive. Then, in the 1970s, biochemist Dr Frederick Sanger, working in a research laboratory in Cambridge, pioneered new methods for DNA sequencing. This was a major breakthrough, enabling long pieces of DNA to be rapidly and accurately sequenced.
The so-called ‘Sanger Method’ was fundamental in the sequencing of all the DNA in the human genome, made up of billions of nucleotides, which was announced at the start of this century. Since then genomes of thousands of organisms have been sequenced, including the chicken, dog, cucumber, banana, gorilla, tiger and spider.
The ability to sequence DNA has revolutionised biological research and is set to transform medicine and human health. Sanger was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his technique.
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.
The i-limb is a revolutionary 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.
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.
For 50 years Royal Mail’s Special Stamp programme has commemorated and celebrated events and anniversaries pertinent to UK heritage and life. Today, there are an estimated 2.5 million stamp collectors and gifters in the UK and millions worldwide. Her Majesty the Queen approves all UK stamp designs before they are printed.
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