Cambridge has been at the heart of word-changing discoveries for centuries; today it remains a city of innovation where knowledge is readily exchanged and where great minds, thinkers, writers, and researchers continue their quest to improve the world that we live in, for us and for our future generations…

Here we take an eclectic and light-hearted look at ten inventions that you may not have known came from Cambridge!

1. The Cat Flap

Isaac Newton is often credited as the inventor of the cat flap. The stories tell us that he had a hole cut in a door after being interrupted by his cat but how true that is, we’ll never know. Fast forward a few years though and we do know that Cambridge physicist, Dr Nick Hill invented the microchip cat flap!  The idea came to him after several neighbourhood cats kept inviting themselves into his home via his own cat, Flipper’s cat flap.

2. The Webcam

Never have we needed something so much!  It is true, the webcam was invented in the city when scientists working at the University of Cambridge had the bright idea of setting up a camera next to the coffee pot to check if there was coffee in the pot before they left their desk! If the webcam had not been invented then, would we have had the video calling technology we have now…?

3. The Vacuum Flask

James Dewar, a scientist at Cambridge University invented the vacuum insulated flask for storing liquified gases. Dewar did not patent his invention though and in 1904 Reinhold Burger, a German glass blower, registered the trademark Thermos for his invention of what is now a common household item, the Thermos flask. Today many scientists still refer to the flask as the Dewar flask.

4. Hovercraft

Sir Christopher Cockerell, born and raised in Cambridge and a student at the University of Cambridge unveiled his invention, an early version of what we now call a Hovercraft in 1955. Four years later he took his first voyage; a two-hour crossing from Calais to Dover. This protype lead the way for future development of the craft which is now used throughout the world by both military and humanitarian organisations amongst others.

5. Video Games

Cambridge has a very vibrant tech community, in fact, the first computer game to incorporate graphics, OXO, was created in Cambridge in 1952 by Sandy Douglas who reproduced the paper-based game of noughts and crosses on the University of Cambridge’s EDSAC computer – one of the first stored programme computers in the world.

The tradition continues to this day with many video game developers making the city home: Jagex who created the popular game RuneScape have been in Cambridge for over 20 years. 

6. Iris Recognition

Once considered as something straight out of a James Bond movie, John Daugman, Professor at the Department of Computer Science and Technology created algorithms for the process of Iris Recognition. By analysing the random patterns that are visible in the iris of an eye, technology can determine a person’s identity. The expertise is now being used in security systems across the world.

7. Heart Transplants

In 1979 Sir Terence English performed the very first successful heart transplant at Papworth Hospital, now the Royal Papworth Hospital, in Cambridgeshire. Since then, the Royal Papworth Hospital has been world-leading in transplants and in 2019 surgeons performed the World’s first DCD heart-lung transplant.

8. IVF

Sir Robert Edwards, a Nobel Prize winner and Dr Patrick Steptoe developed ‘in vitro fertilisation’ (IVF) in Cambridge. After many years of research and work the first test tube baby was born in 1978. Just two years later the world’s first IVF clinic, Bourn Hall, was founded and has since helped thousands of people to become parents.

9. The ARM Processor

If you own a mobile phone or if you have a digital TV then you are likely to own an ARM processor! Sophie Mary Wilson is one of the most important women in tech history. She designed a micro-computer during a break in her Cambridge studies and later joined Acorn Computers, a Cambridge-based organisation which became ARM.  Her technology was developed further and today the processor is the most widely used throughout the world.

10. The Flushing Toilet

Sir John Harrington, a student at King’s College invented the flushing toilet around 1599. Godson of Queen Elizabeth I, it is said that the Queen tried it and was impressed but it took a few hundred years more before people would eventually give up use of chamber pots!

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