The Irish people are famous for many reasons, but inventing things isn’t usually one of them. Our ingenuity often goes unacknowledged, but over the centuries some of the world’s most important inventions in science, engineering and medicine have had Irish men to thank for their existence. Of course, we’re also responsible for plenty of weird and wacky (but nonetheless useful) inventions too.
Here’s a list of 17 weird, wonderful, and downright wacky inventions thought up in the brains of the Irish.
1. Modern Chemistry
Waterford born Robert Boyle is regarded as the father of modern chemistry and founder of Boyle’s law (or in other words, how the pressure of gas decreases as its volume increases). His book, ‘The Sceptical Chymist, set in motion the detailed study of chemistry as an academic subject, beginning with a group of unrecognised investigators who called themselves the ‘Invisible College’. Boyle wasn’t all that enamoured with Ireland however when he returned to live here in 1652. He described his homeland in a letter as ‘a barbarous country where chemical spirits were so misunderstood and chemical instruments so unprocurable that it was hard to have any Hermetic thoughts in it.’ Ouch!
2. Chocolate Milk
Chocolate milk is definitely not something that’s associated with Ireland too often. However, the man who first thought of combining these two delicious ingredients was Hans Sloane, noted physician and collector who was born and raised in Killyleagh, county Down in the 17th century. While studying in Jamaica, he noted the natives mixing cocoa with water and drinking it. He tried the drink and found it nauseating, but later mixed it with milk instead and found it infinitely more palatable. When he returned to England he brought the recipe with him and sold it to apothecaries as medicine. By the 19th century, it had become a confectionary drink made by Cadbury’s.
Usually thought of as a quintessentially English game, croquet in fact originated on the west coast of Ireland. The Archbishop of Tuam in county Galway hosted croquet tournaments as far back as the 1830s. By the late 1840s it had spread nationwide, and became popular across the water in Britain by 1852. Its popularity soared among the British gentry, and it quickly became a sport synonymous with the upper classes along with polo and tennis. In fact, Wimbledon began as the All England Croquet Club before it transformed into the tennis behemoth we know it as today!
4. Tattoo Machines
The modern tattoo machine was invented by an Irishman in New York in 1891. Not much is known about Samuel O’Reilly’s early life, but in 1875 he had made a name for himself as a tattoo artist with his own shop at number 11, Chatham Square. His cousin Tom O’Reilly was also a well known tattoo artist while future stars such as Charles Wagner also studied at his studio. His rotary tattoo machine was the first to run off electricity and was based on the same technology used by Thomas Edison’s autographic printing pen. The basic mechanisms of tattoo machines today are still mostly the same as O’Reilly’s original.
5. Portable Defibrillators
James Francis Partridge, another county Down native, was a physician and cardiologist responsible for transforming emergency and paramedic medicine into the life saving service we know it as today. After serving in the Second World War and working as a pathology lecturer in Belfast’s Queens University, he established a world famous specialist cardiology unit in the Royal Victoria Hospital, introduced the modern system of CPR, and developed the portable defibrillator. His first model in 1965 weighed 70kg and operated on car batteries, but in just three years he had redesigned it to an instrument weighing just 3kg, leading to countless lives being saved since.
6. Ejection Seats
Another engineering marvel was invented by – you guessed it – a county Down brainbox by the name of James Martin. Together with Captain Valentine Baker, he founded the Martin-Baker aircraft company in 1934 which is the still the leading producer of their greatest achievement today; the aircraft ejection seat. In an unfortunate twist to the tale, while testing their third version of the invention in 1934, Baker took the role of test pilot and was killed. Nonetheless, the design was perfected and saved many soldiers’ lives during the war. Martin himself lived to the ripe old age of 87, dying in 1981.
7. Colour Photography
Offaly born physicist John Joly has a number of inventions under his belt, of which colour photography isn’t even the most significant. As well as developing radiotherapy as a treatment for cancer, he also invented a photometer for measuring light intensity, a meldometer for measuring mineral melting points, and a constant-volume gas thermometer. Although many people were simultaneously attempting to produce colour photographs around the same time as Joly, he was the first person to create a successful process for doing so, aptly named the Joly Colour Process.
The design of the modern submarine is all down to an Irish man by the name of John Philip Holland, born in Liscannor, county Clare. Holland was a native Irish speaker, only learning English when he began attending primary school, eventually emigrating to the United States in 1873. There, while working as a teacher, he researched the American Civil War and came up with an innovative new design for a submarine ship that could attack boats from underwater. Although initially refusing his proposals, after several revisions and a lot of outside funding, the US Navy bought his submarine prototype, the Holland 1, in 1900. Holland later designed two more prototypes for the Navy, dedicating his life to task, and died in 1914 at the age of 74.
The act of deliberately abstaining from using or buying products and services or dealing with certain people or organizations - otherwise known as boycotting – was first invented by some disgruntled Irish villagers in Mayo. During the ‘land war’ of the late 19th century, where tenants struggled to gain fair rights to their land, the tenants of Boycott’s estate protested against meagre reductions in rent and threatened evictions after a poor harvest. Rather than turning to violence, they instead shunned him by refusing to work in his fields or stables, refusing to deliver his mail and refusing to do any sort of trade with him. After spending thousands on imported workers to harvest his crops, Boycott eventually left Ireland.
Seismology, otherwise known as the Science of Earthquakes, has an Irish man to credit for its existence. Robert Mallet was born in Dublin in 1810 and educated in Trinity College, graduating at the very young age of 20 with a degree in science and mathematics. After an earthquake devastated Padula in Italy in 1857, causing 11,000 deaths, Mallet travelled to the area to record and investigate the damage. The resulting volume, ‘The First Principles of Observational Seismology’, is widely regarded as a cornerstone of the subject.
Winston Churchill himself commissioned Dublin man Walter Gordon to build a vehicle ‘capable of resisting bullets and shrapnel, crossing trenches, flattening barbed wire, and negotiating the mud of no-man’s land’, which eventually became the armoured tank. Although modern tanks don’t look anything like his initial creation, the basic design and engineering principles are still the same. It’s safe to say that Gordon’s technology changed how the World Wars were fought, moving men from shooting in trenches to other innovative forms of defense.
Although not directly related to Ireland, the man credited with inventing Wi-Fi was an Irish-Australian by the name of John O’Sullivan. Discovered completely by accident, wireless internet was actually a by-product of a CSIRO research project – in other words, a ‘failed experiment to detect exploding mini black holes the size of an atomic particle’. Twenty years later, and its presence is everywhere, keeping us all constantly connected to each other – a far cry from the black holes and atomic particles it was originally intended for!
13. Potato Crisps
That’s right, everyone’s favourite snack food (or at least a lot of people’s favourite), the humble potato crisp, is an Irish invention. Enterprising Dubliner Joe Murphy set up Ireland’s most loved brand, Tayto, in 1954 in two rented rooms of Moore Street. Initially with just four flavours – Plain Golden, Cheese, Onion, and Cheese & Onion, Tayto crisps shot to superstardom and Murphy sold his technology to a company in America, making his nifty idea an instant worldwide success. Tayto crisps are still a regular on Irish supermarket shelves today, and its mascot Mr. Tayto even has a theme park dedicated to him in Ireland.
14. Sparkling Water
Trinity College Professor Robert Percival is the man who ‘invented’ sparkling water in 1800. For some unknown reason, he initially thought it would be a cure for scurvy, and provided the crew of Captain Cook’s second voyage to the South Seas with his method so they could drink all they liked. He may have missed the boat on exploiting the commercial potential of his invention, however; J.J Schweppe soon made a fortune from Percival’s formula by setting up a business selling it as a medicine.
With such a booming agriculture industry, it’s no surprise that the modern tractor is an Irish invention. County Down mechanic Harry Ferguson patented the basic design still used today in 1926, and co-founded the Massey Ferguson company to build them. He also invented his own motorcycle, formula one car, and airplane, and was the Irish man to fly!
16. Rubber Soles
A young man from Skibbereen in county Cork by the name of Humphrey O’Sullivan is credited with inventing rubber soles for shoes. Humphrey moved to New York where he worked as a printer. His job involved standing on hard stone floors for long hours, so to ease his aching feet, he bought a rubber mat to stand on. When his fellow employees kept stealing his mat, he cut out some heel shaped pieces and nailed them to his shoes. He found them to be surprisingly comfortable and the pain in his feet virtually disappeared, so he began making them full time and selling them to local shoemakers, eventually patenting the idea.
17. Perforated Stamps
In the early days of the postal system, stamps were printed out in big sheets of paper and had to be individually cut for use. That all changed when Henry Archer came along with his miracle invention - a postage stamp perforation machine, patented in 1848. If you’ve ever wondered why stamps have a wavy outline, Irish born Archer is the answer!
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