As Nissan in Sunderland prepares to start production of the UK’s first mass market electric car, we celebrate the achievements of some North-East pioneers and inventors.


Henry Greathead of South Shields was credited with building the first lifeboat in Britain after public outrage at an incident in 1789 when a ship called The Adventure ran ashore during a storm in the River Tyne.

Crowds watched helplessly as the crew drowned. Later, there was call for a lifeboat service and Greathead constructed his first vessel, designed with William Woodhave, a parish clerk. It served on the Tyne for 40 years.

Safety match

In 1826, John Walker, chemist and druggist on Stockton High Street, invented matches, which he called friction lights.

His hobby was creating explosives for guns and pistols, and his discovery of the friction match was an accident.

He happened to rub a stick coated with chemicals on the hearth at his home in Cleveland Row, The Quayside (now demolished), overlooking the River Tees. When he accidentally dragged the stick across the coarse surface of the hearth, it burst into flames. Walker was astute enough to realise what had happened and what potential it possessed. He developed his friction lights so they could be ignited by pulling them through a piece of folded sandpaper.

Walker only produced friction lights for three years, and it fell to Samuel Jones, in his shop in The Strand, London, to copy the idea and become the first truly commercial matchseller. It was only after Walker’s death in 1859 that he was given credit for inventing the match.

Engineering and armaments

In 1847, a former pupil of Bishop Auckland Grammar School bought a fiveand- a-half-acre plot on the north bank of the River Tyne and started a company that changed the world.

Pioneering industrialist William George Armstrong, later Lord Armstrong, established the Elswick works to build his invention, the hydraulic crane.

The Northern Echo:
William George Armstrong

The factory later made one of the engineering wonders of its age, Newcastle’s Swing Bridge, whose pivoting action opened a gateway to the sea.

Armstrong’s factory also made the hydraulic mechanism that operated London’s Tower Bridge until 1974.

Following the Crimean War the Government called on the company’s expertise to boost British Army firepower.

Development of an accurate and mobile breech-loading field gun, which became a weapon of mass destruction in the mid-Victorian age, saw Armstrong receive a knighthood.

In 1884, the firm opened a shipyard capable of building and equipping a warship from start to finish.


The energy drink originally called Glucozade was invented in Newcastle by chemist William Walker Hunter in 1927.

He was worried about his daughter’s jaundice and tried to produce a tasty glucose drink to aid her recovery. For 11 years, Hunter’s formula was a North-East secret until Beecham’s bought the chemist out and promoted it with the advertising line: “Get Lucozade, it is so energising and palatable.”

Windscreen wipers

Gladstone Adams was driving home from London in wintry weather after watching Newcastle United lose to Wolves in the 1908 FA Cup final on April 25.

The Northern Echo:
Gladstone Adams

His Darracq, like all cars at that time, had its windscreen cleared of rain and snow by hand – either the driver’s or passenger’s. Why, he thought, couldn’t a simple, mechanicallyoperated blade be devised to move over the typical flat windscreen on his Darracq and solve the problem? It was a eureka moment that quickly resulted in the production of a working model and the lodging of its design with the Liverpool Patent Office.

Not only did Adams come up with the idea for the windscreen wiper, but he was a successful commercial photographer.

After setting up in business in Whitley Bay, in 1904, he became a photographic officer in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, a role which incidentally involved him in another date with history – the organisation of the funeral of the famous air ace the Red Baron. He returned to civilian life to be appointed first official photographer to Newcastle United Football Club.

The original designs, patent and first working model of his windscreen wiper are on display in the Discovery Museum, in Newcastle.

Steam ship

Sir Charles Parsons. Born in 1854, he was a Londoner who moved to Tyneside in 1877 as an apprentice. In 1884, he was the first man to patent an economically successful, high-powered steam turbine.

He went on to build the Turbinia, the world’s first steam turbine ship and, at the time, the fastest ship in the world.


Thomas Bell’s flour business in Newcastle was noted for its bestselling baking soda and self-raising flour, marketed as “Bell’s Royal”, at the turn of the century. Because it was illegal to use the word “royal” commercially in the reign of Edward VII, B e l l changed the product’s name to Be-Ro.

The rest was culinary history.


The North-East is regarded as the birthplace of the railway.

George Stephenson, of Wylam, in Northumberland, is known as the father of the locomotive and Darlington’s Edward Pease is remembered as the father of the railways.

The Northern Echo:
Edward Pease

The two came together to create the Stockton and Darlington Railway which is regarded as the world’s first publicly- owned steam-powered passenger railway – the first railway as we understand the term today.

Funded by Pease it opened in September 1825.

The following year Stephenson was made engineer for the Liverpool to Manchester line. In October 1829, the railway’s owners staged a competition at Rainhill to find the best kind of locomotive to pull heavy loads over long distances. Thousands came to watch.

Stephenson’s locomotive Rocket was the winner, achieving a record speed of 36mph.

By the time George Stephenson died in 1848, its new railways had helped make Britain the richest country in the world.


THE lightbulb, relied upon by millions of people every day, was invented by Sunderland-born Joseph Swan.

The Northern Echo:
Joseph Swan

Born in Bishopwearmouth, close to the site of the Stadium of Light, in 1828, Swan left school at 12 and aged 14, became an apprentice chemist with John Mawson in Newcastle.

His formative years were lived through periods where people used gaslights and electric arc lights, which were unreliable and dangerous.

However, 19th Century scientists were working on creating a safer incandescent bulb, one in which a filament was heated so that it created light but did not burn away.

In 1860, Swan thought he had cracked it by coating a fine piece of paper with carbon and put a current through it, but it only glowed red hot.

Choosing instead to concentrate on pioneering photography, he returned to lightbulb creation in the 1870s as vacuum-making technology advanced.

A vacuum was crucial to the lightbulb because if you can remove all the oxygen then the filament cannot burn away.

On December 18, 1878, Joseph proudly demonstrated his new lightbulb to the Newcastle Chemical Society.

He’d made a carbon-coated filament out of a cotton fibre and placed it inside a glass vacuum.

On October 20, 1880, he arrived at the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, asked for the 70 gasjets to be turned down and replaced their light with 20 of his lightbulbs.

In the US, Thomas Edison had independently used the same cotton technique to create light and although Swan had patented his idea a year before Edison, the pair battled over lawsuits before joining together.

The company became Edi-Swan.

However, two years later, Swan sold all his rights to the American and went back to photography.


John Bird, of Bishop Auckland, was a brilliant creator of octants, sextants, quadrants, barometers, thermometers and telescopes without whom Captain James Cook would have been lost.

For the Greenwich Royal Observatory, he built the first mural quadrant entirely of brass. These were huge, wall-mounted affairs that were used in conjunction with a clock to work out the position of the stars and so the location of the quadrant itself.

Before Bird used all brass, quadrants had been on an iron frame and so the two metals expanded and contracted at different rates, making their readings inaccurate. The Greenwich quadrant took him three years to complete.

It had a radius of 40in, weighed 800kg and contained 2,000 screws. Because of the enormity of the quadrant, Bird turned his attention to something more portable.

In 1759, with Captain John Campbell, he built the first marine sextant.

Sailors could now use the stars to tell them precisely where they were in the world. Navigation was revolutionized.

Capt Cook took one with him on the Endeavour on his first expedition in 1768.