Ireland has always been a land of saints and scholars. But there’s much more to us than that. We’re also a land of inventors, engineers, explorers, entrepreneurs and great thinkers. Just take a look at these game-changing Irish inventions and discoveries.
One of our earliest gifts to the world dates back to the eighth century and was a direct result of our terrible weather. As it was too cold to grow grapes on our fair isle, we couldn’t indulge in wine like the Europeans. An alternative had to be found – and it was, thanks to Irish monks. After learning how to distill perfume while travelling in Europe and the East, they applied the same method to distilling grain and water. Ingenious.
However, there’s some dispute about the exact origins of the water of life: Scotland or Ireland. A Scottish document dating from 1494 records that eight “bolls of malt… wherewith to make aqua vitae’ belonged to one Friar Jon Cor. But there is an earlier reference from an Irish monastery. The Annals of Clonmacnoise record that in 1405 the head of a clan died after “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae’. It appears we were always prone to overdoing it.
We can thank Irishman Henry Denny for this mouth-watering invention dating back to 1820. The innovative Waterford butcher patented a number of bacon-curing techniques. Until 1820, bacon was cured by soaking large chunks of meat in brine, but Denny used long flat pieces of meat and salt. This did wonders for both the quality of the bacon and its shelf life. And let’s face it: what would the full Irish be without a delicious rasher or two.
A Frenchman called Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794) is generally known as the father of modern chemistry. But, of course, there was an earlier Irish version: Robert Boyle (1627-1691). Born in Waterford to a well-off family and educated in England and Europe, he set up his own laboratory in 1649.
At that time, people still practiced alchemy (an ancient art that base metals into gold and finding the fabled elixir of life). Modern chemistry developed from alchemy and Boyle himself studied the art. However, he saw science as separate to alchemy. In his scientific pursuits, Boyle followed in the footsteps of Francis Bacon. He built on Bacon’s guidelines for scientific experimentation and firmly established the scientific method.
Boyle’s most famous contribution to science was Boyle’s Law. It describes the relationship between a gas and its pressure. He also demonstrated the role that air plays in combustion, breathing and the transmission of sound. He clearly distinguished between mixtures and compounds, was the first chemist to collect a sample of gas, and even coined the term analysis.
The best beer in the world, and probably the most famous Irish invention of them all. Arthur Guinness. 1759. Now brewed in fifty countries and sold in every corner of the world. Need we say more?
The word boycott comes from a dispute during the Irish Land War of the late 19th century. Captain Charles Boycott was an agent for an absentee landlord at Lough Mask House near Ballinrobe in County Mayo. In 1880, following his attempts to evict tenants from the estate, locals refused to work there and businesses refused to serve him. Even the postman stopped delivering his mail.
Boycott recruited Ulstermen to harvest his crops. They were escorted under police protection to the estate but the entire effort exceeded the return on the crops. The word boycott soon made it into common parlance as explained by the Oxford English Dictionary.
Kerry-born Richard Cantillon (circa 1680-1734) wrote one of the earliest essays on modern economics. Cantillon spent much of his life in France and operated as a financier. He made a fortune from the collapse of John Law’s Mississippi Scheme (an investment bubble which sold overpriced shares to people investing money in the New World).
Cantillon’s contribution to modern economics was his Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en Général (Essay on the Nature of Trade in General). It included theories about wages, prices, interest, currency circulation, and more. It even influenced Adam Smith, the father of economics. Poor Cantillon came to a rather unfortunate end, however. A disgruntled former employee murdered him before robbing and setting fire to his house.
FIRST SIGHTING OF ANTARCTICA
The existence of the Antarctic continent wasn’t always certain. In fact, it was disputed until the first sighting was made on 30th January 1820. The expedition was led by Irish-born navigator Edward Bransfield (1785-1852) from Ballincurra in Co Cork. He discovered part of the Antarctic Peninsula which he named Trinity Land. One of Bransfield’s junior officers, Midshipman Poynter, wrote in his journal:
We can positively assert that we saw land in 64° S still trending to the Eastward….Our theme of conversation was the idea of having… found what might possibly lead to the discovering of the long contested existence of a Southern Continent.”
The Remembering Edward Bransfield Project aims to raise awareness of this explorer and to erect a monument in memory of the 200th anniversary of his discovery next year.
Robert Mallet (1810-1881) graduated in science and maths at the University of Dublin. He inherited his father’s iron foundry business and built it into a major engineering works. His company carried out many engineering projects, including steam-driven printing plants, bridges, hydraulic presses, ventilators and heaters, brewery machinery, railroads, dock gates, viaducts, lighthouses, and coal mines. In 1841, he devised a plan to supply Dublin with water from six reservoirs on the Dodder, and even carried out the survey at his own expense.
Mallet, who had an interest in science since childhood, managed to find time for research on top of his professional work. He wrote many scientific papers. He presented one such paper, called “On the Dynamics of Earthquakes’ in 1846 to the Royal Irish Academy. At the time, there was no proper scientific explanation for earthquakes. Mallet’s paper became the foundation of modern seismology. He even coined the words ‘seismology’ and ‘epicentre’.
In 1849 and 1850, Mallet and his son carried out experiments at Killiney Beach and Dalkey Island in Dublin. They buried kegs of gunpowder in the sand and detonated them to investigate the speed at which energy could pass through different materials. These landmark studies in the scientific study of earthquakes are commemorated by a plaque on Killiney beach.
Joesph Haughton invented the cream cracker at his home in Dublin, but a famous pair of Irish brothers introduced it to the world. William and Robert Jacobs began making cream crackers in 1885. The brothers had been manufacturing biscuits since they opened their first factory in Waterford in 1851. Two years later they opened a Dublin bakery and eventually closed the Waterford premises.
And just in case you were wondering, there’s no cream involved. According to Jacobs, the name refers to the method in which the mixture is creamed during the manufacturing process.
John Joly (1857-1933) a scientist from Co Offaly, developed the first effective radiation treatment for cancer. A graduate of Trinity College, he later worked there as a lecturer and contributed several scientific papers to the Royal Dublin Society. In 1903 he introduced the idea of carbon dating to determine the age of the earth. He also invented several useful instruments, including a photometer for measuring the intensity of light and a calorimeter for the measurement of heat energy. The Joly Colour process, a system of colour photography was another of his inventions.
In 1914, Joly was working as governor of Dr Steeven’s Hospital in Dublin. While there, he collaborated with Dr Walter Stevenson to develop a method of extracting radium for the treatment of cancer. This led to the establishment of the Irish Radium Institute by the Royal Dublin Society in 1914. It was there that the ‘Dublin Method’ was developed. This method has been used to treat cancer all over the world.
THE MODERN TRACTOR
Of course the modern tractor was an Irish invention! Harry Ferguson (1884-1960) came from a farming family in Co Down. He left school at 14 to work on the family farm, later moving to Belfast to work as a mechanic in his brother’s garage. He developed an interest in aviation and wanted to build and fly his own plane. Harry and his brother Joe worked together to build their plane and in 1909 Harry made the first recorded flight over Ireland.
During World War I, Harry designed farm machinery to compensate for the loss of manpower to the frontlines. Early tractors would capsize if the plough became trapped in soil and Ferguson came up with a solution. In 1926 he patented a design which allowed the plough to be raised or lowered from inside the cab.
In 1938, Ferguson made a deal with Henry Ford under which 300,000 tractors were produced in the United States. After Henry Ford’s death in 1947, the agreement was terminated by Ford’s son. Ferguson eventually received a settlement, although it was less than he wanted. In 1953, Ferguson sold his company to Massey-Harris. Today it’s the Massey-Ferguson brand we know and love so well.
It might be hard to believe but before 1954 crisps were only flavoured with salt. Thankfully, Joe ‘Spud’ Murphy came along to save us from an eternity of bland snack foods. He set up his own crisp factory in Dublin’s Moore Street, inventing the first ever flavoured crisps (cheese and onion) and the Tayto brand. Originally the crisps were hand-packed in greaseproof paper and delivered to retailers in an airtight tin to help maintain their freshness.
Although today there are many pretenders to the throne, Irish people know that a packet of Tayto is the true king of the snacks. Irish emigrants all over the world thank the gods for this clever invention.
This life-saving device was invented by cardiologist Frank Pantridge (1916-2004) from Hillsborough, County Down. He was expelled from school several times, but eventually completed secondary school before qualifying in medicine at Queen’s University in 1939. During World War II, Pantridge served in the Far East as a medical officer. Following capture in 1942, he worked as a prisoner of war on the Burma Railway. After the war, he was awarded the Military Cross.
In 1950, Pantridge was appointed to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. At that time, coronary heart disease was a serious problem. Pantridge suggested that a portable device could supply the required life-saving electric shock to the chest. In 1965, with the help of John Geddes and Alfred Mawhinney, Pantridge invented the world’s first portable defibrillator, using car batteries for the current. Uptake on the portable defibrillator wasn’t as immediate as you might think. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1990s that all ambulances carried this equipment.
DISCOVERY OF PULSARS
Not strictly an Irish invention, but an important discovery nonetheless. Belfast astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967. She made her discovery while using her advisor’s radio telescope to search for quasars.
Despite Bell Burnell’s input, credit for the find went to her advisor, Anthony Hewish and his colleague, Sir Martin Ryle. In fact, they were even awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974. Thankfully the situation was put to rights last year when, almost 50 years later, Bell Burnell was awarded the $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for her discovery.
Pulsars are the dead remnants of massive stars that give out pulses of radiation at regular intervals. A pulsar is all that’s left behind after the massive supernova explosion that destroys a star. Although scientists had theorised about their existence, they had no proof before 1967. The discovery of pulsars was crucial in helping scientists to understand more about the nature of stars. It also enabled them to make important tests of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
So, there you have it, a small selection of Irish geniuses and their ground-breaking inventions. And there’s plenty more where they came from. We also gave the world submarines, the hypodermic syringe, colour photography, the binaural stethoscope, the induction coil and the ejector seat! If anyone needs me, I’ll be in the shed working on my latest invention.