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How the ingenious Irish changed the world

John Philip Holland, invented the first successful submarine and changed the face of naval warfare

John Philip Holland, invented the first successful submarine and changed the face of naval warfare

Irish people have changed the world — we helped to put a man on the moon, changed the face of modern warfare, and revolutionised farming.  We are better known for our writers, yet we also have a rich tradition of invention, from medical devices to military matters, from big ideas, to small things.  Here are a few of my favourites.

We helped put a man on the moon! (And satellites into space) The Apollo missions could not have happened without a type of algebra invented in 1843 by William Rowan Hamilton.  Engineers use Hamilton’s “quaternions” to calculate an object’s position in space and time.  On the Apollo missions, one astronaut would be responsible for doing the quaternion calculations throughout the mission. These calculations are still used to orient spacecraft, and now also in 3D computer graphics.

We changed the face of modern warfare … by inventing the first commercial submarine.  Designed by John Philip Holland in the late 1800s.  Submarines changed the nature of naval battles forever.


Discover more Irish ideas and inventions on our regular Ingenious Dublin tours


We took away the pain: . . . when a Dublin doctor invented the hypodermic syringe at the Meath hospital in 1844.  Francis Rynd used it to deliver a local anaesthetic to a woman who had severe pain in her face.

We revolutionised farming: Harry Ferguson’s tractor was light, safe and manoeuvrable.  It replaced a horse and plough, and changed farming beyond recognition.

We electrified the world: Large-scale electricity power stations would not be possible, without the steam turbine invented by Charles Parsons of Birr Castle, in the 1880s, and still used in power stations around the world.  Without his turbine, we would not have been able to deliver widespread electricity and electrical appliances to everyone.  (if it weren’t for him we might still be using gas lights).

Other great Irish contributions to society include:

The ejector seat – Martin, Sir James (1893 – 1981)    Sir James Martin, an engineer from Co. Down, invented the world’s first ejector seat. His device was first tested using a crash dummy in 1945, and the following year Bernard Lynch became first person to participate in a live test. His invention was soon adopted by the RAF as a standard safety device.

The miner’s safety lamp… a Dr William Clanny, a couple of years before Sir Humphrey Davy

The humane hangman’s drop: geologist, Quaker and medical man, Samuel Haughton, who realised in the 1860s that a longer drop was needed if a condemned man was to break his neck and die quickly, rather than suffocate slowly at the end of a short rope.

The first effective radium treatment for cancer, developed in 1910 by John Joly and using the radon gas given off by radium, rather than the radium itself (which caused more harm than good)

Artificial fertiliser, invented in 1817 by a chemically minded physician, James Murray, who also invented Milk of Magnesia

The Beaufort Wind Scale, invented by rear Admiral Beaufort, who was born in Navan, County Meath: it was the first useful scale to quantify the force of the wind.

Milk chocolate, first created by Sir Hans Sloane, from County Down.  The chocolate he tasted in the Caribbean was too bitter, and he added milk to make it palatable, thus starting a taste revolution

Submarine periscopes: invented by telescope designer, Sir Howard Grubb, for John Philip Holland’s first submarine

Perforated stamps: invented in the 1840s by an Irish printer, Henry Archer (before that, people had to cut stamps individually from a sheet)

The modern stereo stethoscope, invented in 1850 by an Irish doctor Arthur Leared

The first effective endoscope: designed by Dublin physician Francis Cruise, in 1865

We also invented: the world’s first guided missile, the induction coil, flavoured potato crisps, Irish coffee, and even the bacon rasher.

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