For centuries, the United Kingdom has been a driving force in pioneering global discoveries, revolutionary scientific breakthroughs, and groundbreaking means of change. Providing a ceaseless supply of generational masterminds, from Sir Isaac Newton to Professor Stephen Hawking, the UK has produced some of the greatest minds the world has ever seen. What’s more, this isn’t a trait reserved purely for the scientific field. For example, the list of musical trailblazers who have called Britain their home is a veritable who’s who of music, from The Beatles and Queen to Elton John and Kate Bush.
However, for every world-renowned innovator, there is a litany of pioneers left unheralded. While names like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk may be globally recognised in the world of technology, Britain’s Tim Berners-Lee is unquestionably less celebrated, despite laying the foundation for what we know today as the internet. Nevertheless, while Berners-Lee may not be a household name in the average British home, he is still a well-respected figure within his industry.
Sadly, many innovative Brits cannot boast such a claim and, despite their impact on the world around them, there are countless individuals that have largely seen their names confined to historical obscurity. A prime example of this is Peter Durand, the man who patented the humble tin can – the ultimate food-preserving container – in 1810, changing the way that food is stored forever. While his invention still remains a kitchen staple to this day, his fame proved to be altogether less enduring. Similarly, Dorset-born Mary Anning is a name unfamiliar to many despite her scientific significance. Within the world of palaeontology, she is regarded as one of the most important fossil hunters in history and is credited with being the first to discover a number of different Jurassic species, including the pterodactyl in 1828.
While some names may have merely faded into obscurity and others have simply been forgotten in favour of the invention itself, there are countless more revolutionary characters who saw their contributions go unappreciated and diminished. In some cases, they were silenced altogether and factors such as gender and race were undeniable roadblocks for many of these men and women in generations gone by.
Fortunately, racial and sexual equality has come on leaps and bounds in the decades and centuries since, allowing many of these individuals to finally receive the adulation they so rightly deserve, including people like Walter Tull, the first black officer to lead white British soldiers into battle, who has finally been applauded for his historic achievements.
Meanwhile, female innovators such as Rosalind Franklin, a key contributor behind the molecular understanding of DNA, and Ada Lovelace, an 1800s mathematician often nicknamed ‘the first computer programmer’, are also receiving a new lease of life in the history books.
While the list of pioneering men and women whose contributions have been unfairly forgotten is long and varied, they all share one attribute that binds them together – an unwavering spirit of innovation, which we are proud to celebrate with our flagship Britannia coin in 2021.