London’s top 10 remarkable inventions you never knew about


Whiff-Whaff, roller skating, and artificial writing machines – London’s greatest contributions

Look out of the window at London bathed in gentle mid-September sunlight. It is a vision of serenity.

House prices may be soaring, and rent may be becoming increasingly unaffordable, but look at the majestic spires, the streets steeped in history. Where else would you go?

There is a big bucket of reasons why London is still top dog. One thing London has consistently done for our species is provided an environment where spectacular ideas are turned into reality.

It’s fair to argue that London’s inventions hold our planet together. I mean, can you imagine going into a public loo that doesn’t lock? Or whiling away an afternoon without a jigsaw puzzle to entertain you?

It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Here are just a tiny handful of London’s greatest hits. Take it away you smoky old genius.


Rooney England Football World Cup

No point starting small. Bloody football – the biggest game on earth – the thing that replaced gladiatorial combat and organised shin kicking contests – was officially born in London. Yep, the modern game was first codified in London in 1863. Where? Long Acre in Covent Garden. Back of the net.

Bog roll

Bog roll

Yes, it’s true. London is where sh*t tickets were first engineered. In 1941, the Luftwaffe were raining down bombs on the city, but in Walthamstow, engineers were working on a secret project to bring soft two-ply bum-paper to the war-torn country, providing much needed comfort during difficult times. Bombs away.

Tin can

Baked bean cans

You will have come across tin cans in the supermarket, in a cupboard at home or perhaps in an Andy Warhol painting. Usually they contain baked beans or tomato soup. The world’s first commercial canning factory opened in 1813 on Southwark Park Road in London – the process was initially dreamed up by French chap, Nicholas Appert, but he sold it to two English chaps, who patented the idea and started putting food in cans for the Navy. Can you dig it?

Traffic lights

Traffic Lights London

This crazy idea got the green light in 1868 and the first set of lights was installed in Parliament Square. They were apparently 22 feet high and featured semaphore arms. In the early days nobody gave a damn about them and carried on ploughing their horses and carts about the place like contestants in some great chariot race. The gas powered lamps eventually exploded, seriously injuring a policeman. After a bit of stop and start the rest was history.

Roller skating

Roller skating

Sometimes it is astonishing what the Romans failed to come up with. After all, they had roads, wheels, viaducts, olive oil, and all-conquering armies. Yet they failed miserably when it came to auto-locomotive inventions. They never made any form of bike or trike, and humanity had to wait until 1743 for the genius of an unknown Londoner to demonstrate the first roller skate.

By 1857, the roller skating craze had swept across Europe and America, but it remained largest in London, where the first public roller skating rink opened on the Strand.

The jigsaw puzzle

Jigsaw puzzle couple

Before the invention of the camera, untalented artists had little opportunity to recreate reality in a two-dimensional form. But in London, in 1760, a brilliant solution was found by the engraver and cartographer John Spilsbury.

Spilsbury created what he called “dissections” of the maps he made mounted onto hardwood, with removable pieces to aid the teaching of geography in the classroom. This was the foundation for the modern jigsaw puzzle. A way of life was born.


Typewriter man typing

Before Microsoft Word, but after hand writing, came the typewriter. Beloved by the beat generation, and famous for their clickety-clack no turning back indelible mistake recording, type writers revolutionised our relationship with the printed word.

The first patent was given to Henry Mill, by the Rolls Chapel in London in 1714. The patent itself is a thing of glory, and reads as though the official can barely believe the technology they have witnessed. It says that Mills, “hath by his great study and paines & expence invented and brought to perfection an artificial machine or method for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another, as in writing.”

Mill died at his house on The Strand in 1771.

Postage stamps

Penny Black Stamp

Until the Penny Black hit the letter flaps in 1840, pre-payment for postage had been voluntary and the poor postmen would waste half their time trying to get paid by recipients.

The revolutionary lick-and-stick stamp was pioneered by Rowland Hill. The result? A far more efficient and dependable postal service. Usage shot up from about 76 million letters being sent every year to over 400 million. For a country with a population of about 30 million at the time, we sure liked to write letters. You get our stamp of approval Rowland!

Coin operated bog

Station toilet

I for one am not proud to come from the first city on earth to charge you for taking a dump. But perhaps some of you out there are. I mean, it does indicate the ruthless and degrading lengths some people in London will go to in order to make a profit.

John Nevil Maskelyne is the man who got there first though. He was apparently a Victorian inventor and part-time stage magician and is credited with creating the first coin operated khazi, which led to the term “spending a penny”.

Table tennis

Table tennis drunkards

Table Tennis: The other beautiful game

Those crazy Victorians, you could not stop them from having fun. Table tennis originated in London when a craze for after-dinner “whiff-whaff” took the city by storm. This involved clearing the dining table, arranging books on their sides to form a net, grabbing a golf ball, and batting it back and forth with two more books for bats.

Eventually it was trademarked as “ping-pong” by J. Jaques and Son in 1901. London then hosted the first world championship in 1926. Take the egg my son.

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