4th April 2017
People may scoff at the idea that the North East of England can complete in terms of technological innovation with London, San Francisco or Cambridge. But historically, inventions that helped change the world have been developed in the North East. Some of the earliest inventors include William Wouldhave, who developed the first cork buoyed lifeboat in 1789 and John Walker, who invented the striking safety match in 1824.
This begs the question, why can’t future ground-breaking technology be developed here too?
Ken Smith is a historian and former journalist. He speaks of coal being, “the fundamental bedrock of the development of the North East industrial industry.”
The growth of the coal industry in the 19th century not only brought great wealth to the region but also exposed the need for better infrastructure.
Although the steam locomotive was invented by Richard Trevithick in Cornwall, it was Tyneside born and bred George Stephenson who is credited with realising its commercial value.
“George Stephenson honed the steam locomotive into a workable and practical form,” says Ken. “He was a key figure along with his son Robert. The pair founded a locomotive works in Newcastle behind Central Station [Stephenson Works].”
Ken also cites the importance of the North East in bringing electricity to the world’s attention.
Despite Thomas Edison often stealing the glory, it was Joseph Swan – who was born in Sunderland and lived much of his life in Gateshead – that invented the first incandescent filament lightbulb in 1879.
“In 1880, Newcastle’s Mosley Street became the first street in the world to be lit by electricity and a year later Swan opened a factory in South Benwell to manufacture the electric lamp – the first of its kind in Europe,” Ken adds.
Another notable North East invention during Victorian times was the hydraulic crane by William Armstrong in 1845. He was later responsible for inventing hydroelectric power and installing it at his Cragside home.
A seminal innovation that had huge global impact was the steam turbine engine by Charles Parsons.
“It led to cheap and efficient generation of electric power and so was extremely important,” Ken says. “Parsons first developed the engine in 1884 when he was a junior partner at Gateshead ship equipment manufacturer Clarke, Chapman and Co before he set up his own works on the banks of the Tyne.”
Parsons also developed a marine version of his engine to take advantage of the burgeoning shipbuilding industry, which would become one of great industries on Tyneside and Wearside.
“The North East reached its zenith in the late 19th and early 20th century in terms of innovation,” Ken says. “It was the steel shipbuilding industry that made Tyneside and Wearside world renowned. The ship yards were very versatile and could turn out almost any type of ship from cargo steamers to oil tankers to ice breakers to war ships.”
At the time, Teesside was also building a strong steel industry. “Much of the iron ore was mined in the Cleveland hills and smelted in Middlesbourgh,” Ken explains.
Increasing international competition in the 1930s, however, began to see a decline in the region’s shipbuilding stronghold and despite a
brief upturn during and immediately after World War II, it again faltered and was almost completely obliterated by the late 1980s.
This, alongside the collapse of the coal industry, caused devastating economic decline in the North East and, with it, much of the capability, resource, talent and will for technological innovation declined too.
The growth of public services in the 1990s helped to revive the fortunes of the region, as did the Nissan plant on Wearside which has grown to be the largest automotive manufacturing site in Europe.
But it has been the growth of the digital sector in the past decade or so – built in the slipstream of FTSE 100 company Sage – that has shown most promise in returning technological innovation to the North East.
Support organisations such as Sunderland Software City, Digital City, Tech North, Campus North and Dynamo, plus an increase in venture capital and seed investment by Northstar Ventures, Ignite and others, have helped grow a strong tech cluster which spans startups, scale-ups and corporates.
Amid such strong competition from other UK regions that all see digital as cash cows to regional economic growth it is now widely recognised that the North East must specialise in certain areas, with data, gaming, healthcare technologies, BIM and financial technologies all recognised.
Hans Moller, innovation director for the North East LEP, reflects: “According to the latest Tech Nation 2017 report [a major annual review of the UK tech sector], the North East digital industry is one of the fastest growing in the UK and in terms of being the place where new innovations can be created, in many ways, we are already there.”
He continues: “We don’t have the recognition internationally for being an innovation hotspot but that’s more about marketing. We must shout louder and profile ourselves more.”
Hans believes 2018’s Great Exhibition of the North will be a good way to profile the region, and national centres in data, ageing,
chemical formulations, photonics and electronics are key facilitators in the technological advancement of the North East.
The wealth and innovation associated with coal and shipbuilding may be long gone but the spirit of invention hasn’t deserted the North East and its digital sector is now carrying the mantle.
However, a savvy and targeted digital strategy and a creative solution to the skills gap are needed if the region is to compete on a national and international level.
If history has taught us anything, though, it’s that globally impactful innovation is no stranger to the North East and we must draw on this heritage to have the confidence and belief to develop ideas. Who knows, the next big game changer may be sitting in the mind of a North Easterner right now. We just have to help them unlock it.