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Quercus/Hachette, Rowman & Littlefield (USA)


HB Illus




384pp Hardback Illustrated Quercus May 2012



Terry Breverton’s book looks at Welsh-related inventions such as Telford’s Suspension Bridge at Menai, Trevithick’s high pressure steam engine and Grove’s fuel cell (illustrations of each)

Wales a Land of Inventions

My book challenges some of the accepted facts about the most important inventions and discoveries from the beginnings of history to the present time. For instance, one would think that the invention of buttons enabled us to develop today’s clothing, but in fact it was the unknown thirteenth-century inventor of the button-hole that allowed this. Even when we come to ‘known’ discoverers or inventors, sometimes they are ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ following on from a long line of original thinkers. In other case the wrong inventor has been attributed simply because he was better at innovating or marketing, or is simply better known.

In my book, you will surprisingly read about the Welshman Professor Daniel Merlin Price (1902-1976), of Troed-y-Rhiw, Glamorgan, and the discovery of Penicillium notatum mould in 1928, not Alexander Fleming, and of the men and women who developed penicillin, the antibiotic agent which has saved millions of lives. And it was the genius Nikola Tesla, carrying on the work of London-born Welshman David Hughes (1831-1900) who was responsible for the invention of radio in 1892 in America, not the more commonly attributed Marconi. Equally, Joseph Swan, not Thomas Edison, developed the electric light bulb. There are more than 20 great ideas which changed the world, which have been attributed in this text. Some entries are longer than others, such as those upon the prolific, but unknown David Hughes and Joseph Trevithick of Cornwall. This has usually been carried out in the interests of ‘putting the record straight.’

Wales was once the heart of the Industrial Revolution, where the world’s first steam locomotive ran on rails at Penydarren, Merthyr Tydfil, in 1804. Trevithick’s locomotive hauled ten tons of steel for over nine miles, a quarter of a century before Stephenson’s Rocket. Wales led the world in copper, coal, steel, iron and tin technologies. In North Wales, we can still see in operation the first modern suspension bridge in the world, Telford’s Menai suspension bridge of 1826. Also in North Wales, Richard Roberts of Llanymynech was responsible for the development of high precision machine tools from 1817. Roberts was possibly the world’s most important mechanical engineer of the nineteenth century. He invented and manufactured gas meters, water meters, gear cutters, metal planers, letterpresses, metal-turning lathes, screw-cutters, power looms, shapers, railway locomotives, milling machines, punches and engines.

The inventions and innovations of this uneducated man are astounding to anyone who appreciates mechanical engineering. His primary contribution was the introduction of improved machine tools and standard manufacturing techniques, without which high standards of accuracy could not be maintained. This laid the foundations of production engineering, leading to the interchangeability of standard parts and mass production.

Mail order and mail order techniques are always presented as an American invention, but Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones of Newtown was 11 years earlier in 1861. The advent of a national postal service in 1840, and the arrival of railways in Newtown from 1859, helped Pryce-Jones turn his flannel shop in Newtown into a global company. He decided to send out promotional leaflets, from which people could choose what they wanted, and Pryce-Jones would despatch them by post and train. By 1880, he had more than 100,000 customers, and Queen Victoria acknowledged his success in 1887 with a knighthood. His massive Royal Welsh warehouse still looms over Newtown. Pryce-Jones changed the nature of retailing and shopping across the world. Internet shopping has damaged catalogue shopping over the last decade or so, but the underlying principle of internet marketing is still the same. One of his thousands of products was the world’s first sleeping bag, an all-in-one rug, shawl, blanket and pillow. Records show that they were used in the Australian ‘Outback’, the Congo jungle, and by armies across Europe.

Again, few people realise that the steam engine was invented at Raglan Castle in 1641 by Lord Herbert, 2nd Marquess of Worcester. Unfortunately, his huge fortune was lost in supporting the Royalists in the Civil War, but there is evidence that he had a steam pub in operation before war broke out in 1641. He was later too impoverished to innovate his invention. ‘Worcester’s Engine’ was granted a patent in 1663, with Herbert calling it his ‘water commanding engine’, as its function was to raise water.  Herbert never made a penny from his machine, but the idea was taken up over a century later by Thomas Savery, who had probably read about it in Herbert’s 1655 book, and is usually accredited with being the inventor of the steam engine. The steam engine was the driving force of the Industrial Revolution across the world.

Also, in South Wales, Robert Recorde had invented the equals sign in 1557. A Doctor of Medicine, mathematician, merchant, navigator, teacher, metallurgist, cartographer, inventor and astronomer, Recorde’s textbooks and their translations were studied across the world. Other Welshmen who have made the world a different place include Swansea’s Sir William Grove (1811-1896), the inventor of the fuel cell in 1838. His battery had a much higher voltage, and with low internal resistance, a much higher current than any previous battery. Instead of harmful gases, ‘Grove cells’ produce water, and are being used in a new generation of hydrogen-powered cars, backed by US Government funding. Fuel cells were used by NASA to power onboard systems for its Apollo and Shuttle space programmes, and Grove is known as ‘The Father of the Fuel Cell,’ overseeing the genesis of a clean power source.

The previously mentioned David Edward Hughes invented the printing telegraph system (teleprinter), in 1856-59 and the carbon microphone vital to broadcasting and telephony in 1877. He invented the induction balance (1878), the metal detector (1878), the world’s first radio wave transmission (1879), and the technology of powder coating (1879). Hughes is the prime example of an unknown inventor, a polymath and the first man to transmit and receive radio waves. His inventions were vital to telephony and later to broadcasting and sound recording. Hughes refused to take out patents, but gave the inventions to the world.

Shamefully, modern historians still attribute the Origin of the Species theory to Darwin, but Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) of Usk near Monmouth was the true discoverer. Darwin quickly used Wallace’s theory as the framework for his own research. Ebbw Vale’s George Parry invented the ‘basic Bessemer process’ of steel production in 1856, selling the patent to Henry Bessemer. In 1877, Sidney Gilchrist Thomas (1850-1885) and his cousin Percy Gilchrist (1851-1935) invented the ‘Thomas Process’ at Blaenavon. This was later sold to Carnegie and renamed the ‘Carnegie Process’, revolutionising steel production across the world. In 1896 the world’s first powered flight was carried out by Bill Frost of Saundersfoot (1848-1935), several years before the Orville Wright flight. Frost desperately and unsuccessfully sought government funding for his patented aircraft, understanding its potential. We can see that over the centuries, the Welsh have made a substantial contribution to scientific development and discovery.

WESTERN MAIL 9 June 2012 Author’s Notes 2-page illustrated spread


Did you know that the Welshman Price, not Fleming, discovered penicillin? That the English Swan, not Edison, invented the electric light? And it was the Welshman Wallace, not Darwin, who first advanced the Theory of Evolution?

Whenever I write a new book, in a series of almost 40, I seem to move in another direction. However, I can just about see a logic in my work, a consistency about all things that make me curious. It started in school – there was no television or indoor gaming in the 1950s and curiosity about the world replaced the spoon-fed entertainment of the present day. If the weather was good, you were playing games or out in the countryside, gathering edible chestnuts, hazelnuts, mushrooms, blackberries, watercress and the like. Primroses and bluebells also used to be welcome in the house. If the weather was bad, Barry Library had an unlimited amount of books. Because of the library, I realised that some teachers in Barry Grammar School were going through the motions.

In history, we were taught Bishop Stubbs’ Germanic version where Wales did not matter. He started his account of British history with the Germanic Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, to satisfy his Hanoverian masters. The biology master was teaching photosynthesis, and I asked him why some plants, like coleus (which my father grew in his backyard greenhouse), had no green in them. He told me that all plants had green chlorophyll. So I’ve always been curious about the truth, and discovered at an early age that it can be an elusive concept.

I left Wales for university and afterwards worked all over the world, but when I returned I found no books which told my children why I was so proud to be Welsh. So I started writing and publishing books upon Wales to fill a gap, because so many books were written from an English perspective of Wales and the Welsh. Books on Wales and the Welsh led me in many different research directions, into developing a genre of ‘interesting’ non-fiction.

The book takes us from the earliest tool, the knife in 2,600,000BCE in Ethiopia, to Wikipedia in 2001, and I learnt a lot in writing it. For instance, one would think that the invention of buttons enabled us to develop today’s clothing, but in fact it was the unknown 13thcentury inventor of the buttonhole which allowed this. Buttons used to be mere sewn-on decorations. My favourite drink has always been Cardiff’s Brains Light, Dark or SA, depending on moods, so I love the fact that the oldest written story, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, from around 4,500 years ago, tells us that the evolution from primitive to cultured man involved the drinking of beer.

However, Thomas Doner wrote a book published in Illinois in 1878, the title of which reads: Eleven Years a Drunkard or the Life of Thomas Doner, Having Lost Both Arms Through Intemperance, He Wrote this Book with His Teeth as a Warning to Others.

I always try to bring a Welsh angle into a book. Beer was invented around 6000BCE in Mesopotamia, and I ad to its invention an entry upon Bessie’s pub in the Gwaun Valley, the unspoilt Duffryn Arms, which I’ve known for almost 50 years. Well into her 80s, Bessie still pours beer from a barrel into a jug into a pint glass.

And our Welsh longbow comes from the invention of the bow and arrow around 8000BCE, so I illustrate its power throughout history with a story from Giraldus Cambrensis’ A Journey Through Wales (1191), where an arrow went through a Norman’s armoured thigh, saddle and into his horse, killing it and pinning him to the dead animal.

Of specific Welsh inventions in the book, Sir William Grove, of Swansea, invented the fuel cell, and Bill Frost, of Saundersfoot, was the first man to achieve powered flight. Lord Edward Herbert invented the working steam engine, his designed being copied 50 years later by Thomas Savery. David Hughes’ telegraph was internationally used until the 1930s, and his microphone is the forerunner of all the carbon microphones now in use. Hughes was the first man to transmit and receive radio waves.

Richard Roberts of Llanymynech was probably the most important mechanical engineer of the 19th century, and was responsible for the development of high precision machine tools from 1817. This laid the foundations of production engineering, leading to the interchangeability of standard parts and mass production. Roberts died in poverty, unknown.

Again, the birth of mail order has been wrongly attributed to Montgomery Ward in Chicago in 1872, but Sir William Pryce Pryce-Jones, of Newtown, began it in 1861. Welsh inventors were responsible for the Bessemer and Carnegie processes which transformed the steel industry. In 1928, Professor Daniel Merlin Pryce discovered penicillin in Alexander Fleming’s lab – the book is full of the real people responsible for changing the world, not those who have been wrongly attributed. But to return to the beginning – we should never, ever, accept what we read or are told. That way politicians manipulate us for their own ends.


Forty Books of the Year: Did you know that the Welshman Price, not Fleming, discovered penicillin? That the English Swan, not Edison, invented the electric light? And it was the Welshman Wallace, not Darwin, who first advanced the Theory of Evolution? The ever-curious Breverton springs even more surprises on us in his Encyclopaedia of Inventions.

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