The equals sign
Robert Recorde (c.1512-1558) led a busy, polymathic life. Born in Tenby, he attended Oxford and Cambridge universities, and became both physician to Edward VI and controller of the Royal Mint. His chief contribution to mathematics was inventing the equals sign (=), which he used in his 1557 book The Whetstone of Witte: ‘To avoid the tedious repetition of these words - is equal to - I will set a pair of parallels lines of one length, because no two things can be more equal.’
The Anglesey-born mathematician William Jones (1675-1749) didn’t invent pi, but he was the first to use symbol π to represent the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Jones was a close friend of Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Edmund Halley, and his son – also called William Jones - was the philologist who established links between Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, leading to the concept of the Indo-European language group.
The Carmarthen-based inventor and ironmaster Philip Vaughan patented the first design for a ball bearing in 1794. His design placed iron balls between the wheel and the axle of a carriage, allowing the carriage wheels to rotate freely by reducing friction. His design is fundamentally unchanged in all rotating machines and vehicles today.
The fuel cell
In the future, everyone may drive cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells – thanks to Sir William Grove (1811-1896). The Swansea-born scientist and judge invented the fuel cell in 1842, combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. A 3km-wide impact crater on the Moon is named Grove in his honour.
The ‘hot blast’ process – pre-heating the air before it’s pumped into a blast furnace – revolutionised iron-making. It was discovered independently by several ironworkers, including David Thomas (1794- 1882) at Ystradgynlais. Thomas took his process to Pennsylvania, where he played an important role in US industry, and became the first president of the American Society of Metallurgy.
David Edward Hughes (1831-1900) from Bala made several important advances in the fields of wireless telegraphy and microphones. It’s also likely that Hughes discovered radio waves a decade before Heinrich Hertz did in 1888. He didn’t patent his microphone design, believing that his work should be publicly available for other to develop. The Royal Society still awards the biennial Hughes Medal to pioneering scientists.
Medicine and social reform
Frances Hoggan (nee Morgan; 1843-1927) was only the second woman in Europe to earn a medical doctorate. She became a specialist in women’s and children’s diseases, and helped to establish a system of secondary schools for girls in Wales. She later became involved in education and social reforms in South Africa, the Middle East, India and the US. The Learned Society of Wales presents the annual Frances Hoggan Medal to recognise the contribution of outstanding women in science, technology, engineering, medicine or mathematics.
Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones (1834-1920) set up a drapery in his native Newtown, a major centre for wool. The advent of railways and postal services inspired Pryce-Jones to expand his horizons: he founded the UK’s first major mail-order business, eventually selling Welsh flannel to Europe, America and Australia. He’s also credited with inventing the sleeping bag, patented in 1876 as the Euklisia Rug.
Deep space photography
A farmer’s son from Denbighshire, Isaac Roberts (1829-1904) solved the problem of how to keep a camera pointing at faint celestial objects, which require very long exposures, while the earth is continuously rotating beneath us. He took the first picture of the spiral Andromeda Galaxy, which revealed its true form to astronomers for the first time.
Born in Beddgelert, Samuel ‘Golden Rule’ Jones (1846-1904) emigrated to the US and invented a new type of pumping rod for oil wells, but it’s his reputation as an employer that earned him his nickname. His factory workers received a living wage, paid holidays, profit-share, and subsidised meals. There was only one rule on the company noticeboard: ‘The golden rule: Do unto others as you would do unto yourself.’ In 1897 Jones was elected mayor of Toledo, Ohio, an office he held on similar enlightened principles.
Public health and politics
Born in Llandudno, Dr Martha Hughes Cannon (1857-1932) emigrated to the United States where she worked as a physician, suffragist and public health reformer. In 1896 she became the first female US state senator – running against, and defeating, her own husband. She proposed several legislative bills that revolutionized public health in Utah, where the present Department of Health building is named in her honour.
The spare wheel
Morris and Walter Davies opened an ironmongery shop in Llanelli’s Stepney Street in 1895. Early motor cars carried no spare tyres, so Morris Davies invented a spokeless wheel rim fitted with an inflatable tyre. By 1909 all London taxis carried the device, and their invention spread throughout the world. Even today, a spare wheel is commonly called a ‘stepney’ in many countries.
The son of a Swansea steelworker, Edward ‘Taffy’ Bowen (1911-1991) was a key figure in the development of radar. Bowen’s particular obsession was installing radar in aircraft, so that they could detect not only other aircraft but also hard-to-find targets like submarines. After the war, he became a pioneer of radio astronomy.
The workhorse of the world’s building sites, the Hymac is the familiar big yellow digger with tank-tracks, 360-degree swivelling cabin, and long digging arm. It was invented by Rhymney Engineering in Wales in the 1960s. The name ‘Hymac’ is derived from ‘hydraulic machine’.
Treorchy-born computer scientist Donald Davies (1924-2000) worked with Alan Turing on early British computers, but his 1965 breakthrough in ‘packet switching’ - dividing computer messages into packets that are routed independently across a network - is the most important founding principle of the internet.
In 1976 Lion Laboratories in Barry patented a breathalyser to help keep roads safe from drunk drivers. Today their products are still used by the UK police and in 70 countries worldwide.
Elaine Morgan (1920-2013) was an acclaimed TV scriptwriter, but in scientific circles is best known for her work on evolutionary anthropology, especially the aquatic ape hypothesis. She published several books on the subject, challenging the traditional male-centred view of human evolution.
A Cardiff University team did pioneering work in the 1990s on the emission of light during a chemical reaction. Their finding was later cited as one of the top 100 life-changing discoveries by UK universities, and has become an essential tool in medical analysis.