Gaelic Tech: Top Irish Contributions to Science and Industry

Think Ireland is all about the Guinness, Corned Beef & Potatoes? How about Color Photography, Seismology and Submarines?
By Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
1 of 11 Jason Perlow/ZDNET

Erin Go Bragh!

It's St. Paddy's Day again, my Irish friends. While Ireland is most often recognized for its Guinness, Whiskey, Corned Beef, a distinctive style of folk dancing, leprechauns, drinking songs and firey Red-haired women, it's also often overlooked as a source of some key developments in Science and Industry.

Let's take a look at the top contributions to tech from the Emerald Isle.

2 of 11 Jason Perlow/ZDNET

Color Photography: John Joly

One of Ireland’s most prolific inventors, John Joly was responsible for the invention of the meldometer, which measures the melting points of minerals, the steam calorimeter for measuring specific heats, and the photometer for measuring light intensity and use of radiation for cancer treatment.

However, what he is most known for is color photography. In 1894 this Irish genius from County Offaly found a successful way of producing color photographs from a single plate. He changed the way we see the world.

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Long Distance Telecommunication: The Lord Kelvin William Thomson

The forerunner to the modern Internet came just over 100 years later in 1969, but it was an Irishman who was knighted for his work in establishing the Atlantic Telegraph Cable in 1865. William Thomson, the Lord Kelvin, helped to lay the cable that stretched from Newfoundland to Valentia in County Cork.

He also had a very keen interest in the measurement of temperature and thermodynamics, which led to the scale of temperature, “The Kelvin Scale.”

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Submarines: John Philip Holland

John Philip Holland, an Irish-American immigrant, was the first person to successfully launch a submarine. The first sub was named the “Fenian Ram.” By 1900 the U.S. Navy was formally commissioning the production of submarines based on Holland's design.

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Cars, Tanks, Guided Missiles, Monorails & Helicopters: Sir Winston Churchill & Louis Brennan

During the First World War, Dublin-raised Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary of Great Britain, commissioned the design of a vehicle “capable of resisting bullets and shrapnel, crossing trenches, flattening barbed wire, and negotiating the mud of no-man’s land.”

That design become the precursor to the modern tank.

Another Irishman, Louis Brennan, came up with the design for the first guided missile system for coastal defense (essentially a steerable torpedo), the first functional helicopter, monorail trains and also the ejector seat. Another Irishman and engineer, James Martin, co-founded the Martin-Baker company, which to his very day produces ejector seats for military aircraft.

We probably also shouldn't forget Henry Ford, who was the American-born son of an Irishman, and invented the means of mass-producing automobiles, as well as pretty much everything else in the modern industrial age that uses an assembly line.

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Columnar Distillation: Aeneas Coffey

Aeneas Coffey may be Ireland's and also St. Paddy's Day's greatest legacy. You see, prior to the invention of the columnar distillation process, the manufacturing of distilled alcoholic beverages — whiskeys, vodkas, gins, rums, brandies, tequilas, you name it — all were done with "pot stills," or small-scale production processes which were not economically feasible for mass production of these boozy libations.

So when you're having your Irish Coffee the day after St. Pat's to bring you out of your hangover, thank another Coffey: Mr. Aeneas, for allowing whiskey to be consumed by Irish and hard drinkers the world over.

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Atom Smashing: Ernest Walton

Before there was a Large Hadron Accelerator to validate the existence of the Higgs Boson, before the Atomic Bomb, before the first Atomic pile built by Enrico Fermi, there was the Cockcroft-Walton Generator, an early form of the particle accelerator. It was co-developed by Irishman Ernest Walton and John Cockcroft at Cambridge University during the 1930s, and made Walton the first man to artificially split the atom and the only Irishman to ever win a Nobel Prize in Science.

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Ship Building: Belfast

Some of the world's most famous ocean-going vessels, including the RMS Titanic and both of its sister vessels, Olympic and Britannic, were built at the shipyards in Belfast, in Northern Ireland.

Among the most prolific of shipbuilders during the Gilded Age was Harland & Wolff, which is still in business today, but now focuses much of its efforts on offshore renewable energy. In addition to the Olympic class vessels, the modern ocean liners Southern Cross and Canberra, the company built a number of the UK's aircraft carriers and cruisers.

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Seismology: Robert Mallet

We often think of Silicon Valley as the cradle of American technological innovation. Intel, Apple, Oracle, Cisco, Hewlett Packard — just to name a few, are all headquartered there.

But Silicon Valley, as well as the entire San Francisco Bay Area and many parts of the world that are susceptible to siesmic activity, would have no understanding of earthquakes and how to anticipate and record their activity, and the entire science of earthquake-proofing buildings and other structures would not have come to fruition, if it were not for the development of Instrumental Seismology in the 1840s, which was invented by Robert Mallet, an Irishman.

10 of 11 Jason Perlow/ZDNET

Time Machines: DeLorean Motor Company

Ok, maybe the DeLorean DMC-12 can't really travel through time, but the iconic vehicle that became famous in the Back to the Future trilogy was originally made and manufactured at a facility in Dunmurry, a suburb of Belfast, Northern Ireland.

For a brief period from 1981 to 1982, approximately 9,000 DMC-12 cars were built before the company had massive financial issues and had to cease operations.

Today, there is a new DeLorean Motor Company based in Texas which supplies parts to the owners of over 6,500 DMC-12 cars still in operation, and plans to resume production on an updated car using a combination of surplus parts and new fabrication.

11 of 11 Jason Perlow/ZDNET

Starting your Car and basically Doing Anything: Nicholas Callan

The Induction Coil sounds like a buzzword piece of technology that might be thrown around as techno-garble on a classic episode of Star Trek. But actually, without it, your car would not start.

Induction coils are a type of discharge coil which are used to create high-voltage pulses from low-voltage direct (DC) current.

Invented in 1836 by Irish priest Nicholas Callan, it was an early type of transformer that led the way towards modern electrical transformer technology, which in turn enabled AC current to be transmitted and distributed over high-tension wires over long distances, thus enabling all modern forms of electrical consumption as well as electricity used in many types of consumer applications.

Without the transformer and the pioneering work of Nicholas Callan, there would have been no Edison, no Nikola Tesla, no Westinghouse.

Induction Coils were widely used in X-Ray machines, radio transmitters, and arc lighting from the 1880s to the 1920s. Today they are used almost exclusively in ignition systems for internal combustion engines.

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