10 famous things you may not know were invented in Berkshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 June 2020
If truth be told I’m a frustrated inventor. There are gadgets and conveniences out there I wanted to be mine: the speed camera (seriously); Roberts’ Thesaurus (not Roget’s); the flushable loo (convenient); and the tiered cake stand (genius). I’m working on a patent for my ‘EWAJ’ (Early Warning of Approaching Jogger) system, which would have been useful for pedestrians during the recent crisis. This got me pondering Berkshire and its inventors
The Zebra Crossing
I’m not a fan of cars, well, to be fair, it’s not the cars, it’s the drivers... So, I’m happy about the invention of the Zebra Crossing, as anything stopping a motorist in his tracks is beneficent in my book. The Road Research Lab was established in Langley (1946), its brief to create a pedestrian crossing that stood out ‘in all conditions’ and the ‘Slough Experiment’, as it was dubbed, had all manner of crossings
pop up around the town to the inconvenience of pesky motorists. The original Zebra Crossing (1951) is sadly no more, the road having been pedestrianised, but the Transport Research Lab (TRL), as it is today, is still based in Berkshire in Wokingham.
Now, Slough has sometimes had a bad name. John Betjeman wanted it bombed and The Office parodied it. And yet, the town has more to offer in terms of inventiveness than almost anywhere else in the UK. I’ll start with Thunderbirds, which I loved when I was a nipper. It seemed cutting-edge with lots of explosions and a Bond-villain to boot (the Hood). The 1960s series was made on Slough Trading Estate, which was about as far removed from Tracy Island, with its collapsing palms, as could be imagined.
Gerry Anderson moved to Slough in 1959 and I guess the rest, as they say, was mere puppetry (sorry, history).
The Mars Bar
I’m quite partial to a Mars Bar. I used to like the catchy ‘Work, rest and play’ ditty, which suggested you could sort out your work/life balance by scoffing a choccie bar. Funny how the nomenclature of confectionary bars often have a stellar theme (Galaxy, Milky Way). Founder Frank Mars gave his son, Forrest (Mars not Gump), the dosh to invest in his own chocolate company (1932) and the lad ended up in Slough. Yes, Slough again. It was here that he conjured up the nougat and caramel offering.
The Mars company also came up with the Starburst, made by subsidiary Wrigley, which sounds galactic again.
The Humble Wheelie Bin
I love recycling, so I get a real buzz out of lobbing ‘stuff’ in my bin and putting it out every fortnight. It’s better than scoring a goal. I also have two more wheelies, for general waste and garden gubbins. The story goes, according to Biffa (a leading light in this field), that the unprepossessing wheelie bin (modern plastic version) was developed in Slough (surely not) in 1968 for the rather prosaic purpose of moving waste around a moulding company’s factory.
It was allegedly a Slough Borough Council health inspector who saw the bin’s potential for reducing back injuries. Come the late-1980s the reign of the wheelie bin was upon us as bin lorries with auto mechanisms to pick up and empty the wheelies began rolling out (as it were).
A Le Mans 24 Hour race winner no less, so a tad sporty this one. Back on the Slough Trading Estate, which we should never view as mundane or humdrum ever again, they weren’t just toying with Thunderbirds but thunder cars, namely the Ford GT40. The racer that would win the famous Le Mans four times in a row (1966-69) was developed and assembled here, the Mk I, II and III all Slough-born.
In fact, the Berkshire town was something of a motor sport Mecca, as McLaren was based here from 1965 and the late Sterling Moss also cut his teeth around the town’s housing estates, but no doubt religiously observing all the speed limits. I’d like to think so.
I know what you’re thinking. Jethro Tull, that’s a rock band of Blackpool 1967 vintage that’s still going strong today, albeit after a five-year hiatus in the 2010s. Correct. I liked the album, Thick as a Brick, or at least, I liked the name. It’s a group that’s been dubbed ‘eccentric’. But the Jethro Tull I’m interested in was of an earlier vintage (1674–1741), an agriculturist, born in Basildon, Berkshire.
The rock group’s possibly eccentric antecedent, Tull was educated at Oxford and went on to invent a horse-drawn seed drill (1700) that planted in neat rows, and introduced other, improved farming methods into his native county, including a horse-drawn hoe. He was the author of the spiffingly-good bedtime read, The Horse-Hoing Husbandry (1733).
I love a biscuit. My evening ritual consists of a cuppa at about 9.00pm accompanied by three assorted biscuits. I’d like to say I remove these from a biscuit tin, however, it’s more of a tub, and a large one at that. Huntley and Palmers is, of course, a famous firm of biscuit makers, originally from Reading. However, I’m more interested in their tins as the earliest decorated biscuit tin on record was courtesy of H&P, which commissioned it in 1868.
Joseph Huntley (1775–1857) founded the biscuit-making business and the practice of placing biscuits in tins, so they hopefully survived bumpy coach journeys, but it was his youngest son, another Joseph, who’d establish a firm of biscuit tin manufacturers.
Sometimes inventors literally leave their mark. In the case of Barry Pacey, a Hungerford-based entrepreneur, it was those white line markings we all take for granted on our roads. Well, that’s today perhaps, but in the past they were a pain as they took ages to lay down, particularly in inclement weather.
What Barry came up with 40-odd years ago was a quicker, more efficient way of painting the lines. As often seems the case, Barry’s eureka moment came whilst staring out of a window, in his case his office window, while a traffic jam ensued for three days outside.Having consulted the patent, the invention appears to have been a machine that laid down ‘pads’ or ‘strips’ but also had a ‘presser’ to achieve good adhesion. Simples.
Sir Neville Chamberlain
A story of pockets and balls (as it were), snooker also originated in Slough, or at least the man who invented it did. You’re probably thinking by now that I’m making this up like a perfectly executed 147 break. Sir Neville Chamberlain (1856-1944) was the man. He’s not to be confused with the other Neville Chamberlain, the PM and proponent of Appeasement before World War II.
Our Sir Neville was born in Upton Park, one of Slough’s earliest planned estates, dating to 1842. A British Army officer, Chamberlain is said to have invented the game of snooker whilst in India, in 1875, before he’d attained the age of 20. It’s said that he ingeniously combined two different games of pocket billiards. Army slang for a novice cadet is apparently a ‘snooker’.
And finally, a good one to finish with. Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) lived on Whyteladyes Lane, Cookham, from where he reputedly conducted ‘experimental transmissions’ in 1897. The Italian-born inventor and electrical engineer is well known for his pioneering work into long-distance radio transmission and is oft-lauded as the ‘inventor of radio’.
He founded The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company (later the Marconi Company) in the same year he was dabbling in Cookham. He sent signals across the Atlantic in 1901 and also won a Nobel Prize in 1909 (Physics). 20 years later, Marconi was ennobled back in his home country. I await a similar honour for services to literature.