17 world firsts from Hertfordshire
PUBLISHED: 09:53 18 December 2020 | UPDATED: 12:20 18 December 2020
European Space Agency
Inventions and ideas fostered and created in Hertfordshire have helped shape our world. From engineering to food and cutting-edge science, the county has been at the forefront of change
A new way of living
Social reformer Ebenezer Howard’s vision for an alternative to the sprawl and slums of Britain’s cities led to the world’s first garden city at Letchworth. His utopian ideas, combining the best of town and country living, are as relevant today as they were in 1903.
A favourite view of Josh Tidy, curator of The International Garden Cities Exhibition, housed in a beautiful Arts & Crafts building on Norton Way, is Rushby Walk, one of the country’s first cul-de-sacs.
Frogmore Paper Mill in Apsley near Hemel Hempstead opened in 1803 using the revolutionary new Fourdrinier paper press, powered by the river Gade.
Still a working mill, today it produces 10 tonnes of specialist grade paper on one of its two paper machines which are both over a century old. Paper was previously handmade and expensive. Frogmore Paper Mill led the way to cheap, plentiful paper; changing the world by opening up print in all its forms to the masses. Tours, workshops, events, art exhibitions and theatre are all held at this vibrant historic centre.
Jet airline travel
The de Havilland DH 106 Comet was designed and built at the de Havilland factory in Hatfield. The flight test hangar built for the project was at the time the biggest aluminium building of its kind in the world. The Comet took its first test flight in 1949 and in 1952 the first passenger service from London to Johannesburg was launched. Its aerodynamically clean design and modern passenger cabin unfortunately hid design flaws. A year after launching three broke up mid-air due to metal fatigue. A redesigned Comet Four series debuted in 1958 and was a commercial success, clocking up 30 years service.
You can go inside one of the first examples of a Comet at the de Havilland Aircraft Museum at London Colney. It’s the only one left in the world with the original square windows.
Sir Henry Bessemer, born in the village of Charlton near Hitchin, invented the first industrial process for mass producing steel. His technique, using a cold air blast to take out the impurities from molten iron, was a key contributor to the industrial revolution. Until 1856 steel was only made in small quantities. The cost-efficient ‘Bessemer converter’ quite literally changed the landscape, allowing skyscrapers to be built.
Well that’s a fine motorbike
A girl could feel special on any such like – so sang Richard Thompson of the mighty Vincent Black Lightning. Renowned for its design and speed, it is considered the world’s first superbike. A racing version of the Black Shadow, the 998cc bike was built by Vincent-HRD at its factory in Stevenage Old Town, now part of The Thomas Alleyne Academy. In 1948 it broke the US motorcycle land speed record, clocking an average 148.6 mph at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The factory closed in 1955 after 27 years. At auction last year a 1951 Black Lightning sold for a record $929,000 (£657,652).
First bite of the apple
When it came out, the Apple iPod revolutionised how we listen to music. But the concept was not developed in California but in Hitchin, by a 23-year-old. Kane Kramer built a prototype mp3 player, the IXI in 1979. The credit-card sized solid state digital recorder was designed with a rectangular screen and central menu button. It stored only 3.5 minutes of music but Kramer believed rightly that its capacity could improve. He took out a patent and set up a company to develop the idea but in 1988 was unable to fund the £60,000 to renew patents.
What’s the weather like up there?
Scientists at Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage developed the world’s first satellite to monitor the planet’s winds. The pioneering Aeolus, named after the guardian of wind in Greek mythology, was launched last August. Data collected will provide global wind profiles in near real time, improving the accuracy of forecasts and helping climatologists to better understand the climate, particularly in the tropics. It orbits Earth 15 times a day and has been hailed as ‘the world’s first weather space mission’.
Perhaps with the rise of cashless payments they will soon be obselete, but for decades the cash machine was a key part of everyday life. The world’s first was opened at a Barclays just across the county border in Enfield in 1967. The first person to use it? On The Buses actor Reg Varney. ‘Innit Marvelous,’ he might have said.
This Easter when you tuck into a delicious hot cross bun, spare a thought for a 14th century monk.
Brother Thomas Rocliffe of St Albans Abbey created a bun to feed the poor on Good Friday. In 2009 the Abbey campaigned (not surprisingly, unsuccesfully) for the return of its original name, the Alban bun, which has a cross cut into the top rather than piped on.
Our daily bread (for days)
The first long-life loaf was developed by British Baking Industries Research Association in Chorleywood in 1961. The Chorleywood bread process (CBP) may not fit too well alongside our taste for a freshly-baked sun-dried tomato and olive loaf, but it was a staple for decades and is still widely used today.
The dow nut
The Americans may claim the donut for themselves, which is disputed by the Dutch, but new research suggests this sweet treat originated in Hertford.
Dr Heather Falvey, historian for the Hertfordshire Record Society, found a recipe for ‘dow nuts’ in a recipe book written in 1800 by Baroness Dimsdale, wife of Thomas Dimsdale (famed for his small-pox innoculation work, incidently). Taken from a local cook, a Mrs Fordham, the recipe for sugar, eggs, nutmeg, butter and yeast made into a dough, rolled and cut into ‘nuts’ before deep frying in ‘hogs-lard’ and being covered in sugar, predates the previous earliest known doughnut recipe in America by nearly 50 years.
Salbutamol was discovered in 1966 by a team led by David Jack at the Allen and Hanbury’s laboratory (a subsidiary of Glaxo) in Ware and was launched as Ventolin in 1969. Used in an inhaler it opens up the airways. It has not only improved the lives of asthmatics but saved countless lives.
Fish oil not from the ocean
Scientists at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden genetically engineered the seed of oil seed crop Camelina sativa (commonly known as false flax, below), to produce long-chain omega-3 fatty acids – crucial for nutrition and proven to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and type-2 diabetes. It’s the first land-grown plant to produce omega 3 LC PUFA, which is very similar to those normally found in oily fish. The aim of the project, begun in 2003, is to benefit health while reducing the demand for omega-3 supplements sourced from already depleted marine resources. Trials are underway to test the viability of ‘transgenic’ plants in the field (quite literally). Rothamsted said successful research findings ‘support the commercial cultivation’ of the crop.
‘Trial by newspaper’
In 1823, the murder of William Weare in Radlett became known as the first trial by newspaper. The accused, the Mayor of Norwich’s son, John Thurtell – a a notorious gambler – pleaded that the sensational newspaper coverage had prejudiced the court. He may have had a point – it only took 20 minutes of deliberation for the jury to sentence him to death by hanging.
Walter Rothschild created one of the largest private collections of natural history specimens in the world in a purpose-built museum at his home in Tring, now part of the Natural History Museum. Walter and his team of collectors discovered many new species.
Among them was the Queen Alexandra birdwing, the largest butterfly in the world. Walter was the first scientist to describe it, naming it after Alexandra of Denmark. The wingspan of this now endangered butterfly from Papua New Guinea can reach 25cm. You can discover more about it in a new display in the Rothschild Room at the museum. His younger brother Charles Rothschild founded the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves which went on to become The Wildlife Trust.
A near-superhuman feat was performed by James Acraman of Stevenage. The 21-year-old was the first to build a 171 cup pyramid (yes, it’s a thing) in under a minute. His record of 59.10 seconds involved stacking plastic cups in a specific sequence in the quickest time possible. The record time saw him balance nearly three cups per second, braking his previous record by 27 seconds. James said, ‘It was a great way to celebrate my 21st birthday.’
And the first person to eat 88 blueberries in a minute? Luke Roberts of Watford of course. His dream was to become a Guiness World Record holder, and he loved blueberries, so combined the two. He took the record last year.
Hitchin can claim the country’s (and probably the world’s) first football museum. The collection began in 1952 and was officially opened at Hitchin Town FC home ground, Top Field, in 1956. The museum was given all kinds of unique items, including Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann’s neckbrace (he broke his neck in the 1956 FA Cup Final and played on to secure victory), Stanley Matthews’ football boots and what is thought to be the oldest football trophy in existence (the Aubrey Cup).
The collection is now owned by North Hertfordshire Museum and items will be available to view this summer when the new site opens in Hitchin.
And Herts’ UK and English firsts...
In a roundabout way
Letchworth led the way with the UK’s first ‘gyratory traffic flow system’ on Broadway. It’s hard to believe that the revolutionary roundabout, dating from about 1909 and named Sollershott Circus, had heavy traffic flow, but the system was rolled out across the country.
Hemel Hempstead’s ‘magic roundabout’ is near-legendary. It’s ‘ring junction’ system was among the first in the early 1970s, allowing drivers to go the ‘wrong’ way round. It continues to terrify/bemuse drivers today.
Take its Toll
The first turnpike road in Britain was a section of the Great North Road, north of Ware. In 1663 Wadesmill became the point where tolls for road upkeep were first levied. The name turnpike refers to a pike (a long weapon) used to bar the road; it was then turned to the side to allow journeys to continue after payment.
Town called Steve
Stevenage was the UK’s first New Town, built under the New Town Act of 1946. Three year’s later it would be the first in the country to have a completely pedestrianised town centre.
Verulamium, today’s St Albans, was the first municipium in Britain. A municipium was a town of special rank in the Roman era, allowing leading citizens to become full Roman citizens, with the right to vote. On the downside, Roman citizens were also liable to be taxed.
Alfred Hitchcock made the first full-length British ‘talkie’ movie in Hertfordshire in 1929. Blackmail was shot using a purpose-built sound stage at British and Dominions Imperial Studios in Borehamwood, the first of its kind in Europe. A silent version was also distributed as not all cinemas could play sound.
Eddie Veale of Stevenage designed the UK’s first professional home recording studio for Beatle John Lennon at his home in Ascot. It was finished in 1970 for the recording of Lennon’s first solo album, Imagine.
We bought a pub
The Red Lion in Preston was the UK’s first community-owned pub. It was bought by the villagers from Whitbread in the early 1980s and is still at the centre of village life today. Campaign for Real Ale estimates there are now well over 100 in Britain.
An abbey with the largest nave in Europe is built where he was killed and he has a city named after him. Yes, Alban was the first British Saint. A pagan living in Roman Verulamium, he sheltered a fugitive Christian cleric in the third century by changing cloaks – getting himself arrested. Impressed by his charge’s devotion he declared himself a Christian before a judge and was duly beheaded.
Royston golf course is believed to be the first 18-hole course in England. It was set out in 1869 by Andrew Murray and George Gosset. The Cambridge students identified Therfield Heath as the perfect place for a golf links. There are records dating back to 1624 showing James VI of Scotland played golf on the heath.