Inventors, inventions and great ideas

The collections at RAMM represent thousands of years of human ingenuity. From handaxes to spacecraft, new innovations have revolutionised the way we live, think and behave. Men and women from Devon are responsible for some of these inventions. Explore their ideas, and those from further afield, through objects.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Night-time map

Inuit hunters needed to find their way in the dark long before smart phones and GPS. This 3-dimensional map of the coast is made from caribou antler and is read by touch, not sight. The shape represents both landmarks and distance.

Solar watch

A pocket azimuth sundial is essentially a portable solar watch. Invented by Charles Bloud in France, pocket sundials became a particularly popular device for timekeeping in the 15-19th centuries. As well as helping to keep busy people on schedule, these objects had symbolic value, projecting the tastes and wealth of their owners.

Keeping baby safe

During the Second World War the British government wanted to take precautions and protect the public against potential gas attacks. All different types of civilian type respirators were designed – not only for adults and children but also for animals.


Handaxes might be most successful innovation ever. Ones like this were in use all over the world for hundreds of thousands of years. These tools could be used for chopping, cutting, crushing, digging and much more.

Transporting plants

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward figured out that plants can thrive in sealed environments. He designed what came to be known as the ‘Wardian case’. The Victorian craze for ferns and orchids meant that Wardian cases became a popular addition to people’s homes. They were also used to safely transport plants around the world even with weeks at sea. His design inspired the first aquaria. RAMM holds plant specimens collected by Ward.

Father of the marine aquarium

Pioneering marine biologist Philip Henry Gosse wasn’t quite the first to keep aquatic animals alive in glass tanks. It was Anna Thynne who achieved this first. But he did invent the word aquarium however, because ‘aquatic vivarium’ was too much of a mouthful. He helped create the first public aquarium in Regent’s Park in London and his books are partly responsible for the aquarium craze that gripped Victorian England. RAMM cares for a collection of his drawings.

On the move

On two wheels

Penny farthing bicycles were popular in the 1880s. The nickname comes from their slightly comic appearance – the large front wheel is compared to a penny and the small rear wheel to a farthing coin. These machines were actually the first to be called ‘bicycles’.


Thomas Gray was a visionary whose ideas failed to achieve fruition in his own lifetime. In 1820 he published Observations on a General Iron Railway. In this work he argues that horse drawn transport will eventually be superseded by steam traction. Later he also added detailed plans for a national rail network connecting the principal towns of England and Ireland. It’s very likely that his proposals significantly influence on the the work of William James and the Stephensons –considered by many to be the Fathers of the Railways, alongside Brunel.

Mission to Mars

Tiverton based firm Heathcoat Fabrics Limited played a crucial role in NASA’s 2020 Perseverance mission to Mars. They designed and manufactured fabric for the lander’s parachute. It can withstand huge extremes of temperature. At the point of parachute deployment it was travelling at 20,000km/h per hour (16 times the speed of sound). The single parachute reduced Perseverance’s speed by 98.4%.

A Heathcoat’s engineer described it as ‘the strongest, lightest and most heat resistant parachute fabric ever produced’.

Medical Inventions

An example of a species of seaweed "Griffithsia setacea ", featuring pink fronds and brown stems.

Amelia Griffiths was a local Victorian seaweed collector. Today her name is familar around the world. In 2005 the National Cancer Institute discovered that ‘griffithsin’ found in Griffithsia algae (named in her honour) has powerful anti-viral properties. It is heralded as one of the most potent compounds discovered in the fight against HIV spread.

The ‘Exeter Hip’

An implant designed in Exeter is the gold standard for hip replacements. Orthopaedic surgeon Professor Robin Ling and engineer Professor Clive Lee took a revolutionary collaborative approach to its design. It was the first collarless, polished and tapered hip stem which helped to significantly reduce implant loosening and the need for revision surgeries. Over the past 50 years the work of Ling, Lee and their team has enhanced the lives of over 2 million people worldwide.

Protection from smallpox

Edward Jenner (1749-1823) was a British doctor and scientist who is best known for pioneering vaccination. He invented the smallpox vaccine in 1798, after discovering that injecting patients with cowpox pus (a similar, but much less serious disease than smallpox), could protect them against smallpox infections in the future.

Dr Thomas Glass (1709-86) was among several Exeter physicians who were early advocates for the use of variolation to inoculate against smallpox. However, as with many new medical practices, it was initially viewed with suspicion by some Exeter residents. Often, physicians would have to inoculate their patients under the cover of darkness to avoid the stigma.

Great minds


Exeter’s Sir John Bowring (1792-1872) invented the Florin. The Florin is a coin worth 2 shillings (10 pence). Bowring was a keen supporter of a decimal coin system, a full 100 years before decimalisation. He was a founding member of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Arts and was its first President in 1862.

Colour photograph of a coin. It is a Victoria Florin

Evolution by natural selection

Colour photograph of specimens associated with Alfred Russel Wallace on a white background. Five are snail shells, six are butterflies and one is a bird.

Alfred Russel Wallace was a British naturalist, geographer and explorer. His research includes warning colouration in animals and geographic distribution of species. Most significantly he co-discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection. But it is usually Charles Darwin who receives all the credit. RAMM cares for some of the specimens he collected while travelling in Indonesia.

Going to print

A first in flowers

William Keble Martin devoted his life to two things – the church and a passion for botany. At the age of 88 he became a best selling author. The ‘The Concise British Flora in Colour’ was the first fully illustrated and easy to use guide to British flowers. Many of the specimens he worked from for his drawings are now at RAMM.

Coloured photographs

The Crystoleum process involved adding colour to an albumen print. First the print was pasted face down inside a piece of glass and once dry the paper backing was rubbed away leaving transparent emulsion on the glass. Someone would then paint the image by hand with oil paints. This process was popular between 1880 – 1910.

Art and design

Charlotte Treadwin was an Exeter lacemaker and businesswoman. Her great skill earned her a Royal warrant in 1848. She experimented with different techniques including using fillings instead of the normal ground. This delicate piece of ‘fleurette’ lace is an early sample of a patented design by Charlotte Treadwin.

Colour photograph of a piece of white lace on red backing fabric. The lace incorporates flowers, leaves and a lattice design.

Keeping your silver safe

Henry Ellis’s Exeter firm invented the ‘Patent Safety Chain Brooch’ in 1847. The catch is completely secure ensuring ensures the brooch can not fall off. His showed his innovative design at the Great Exhibition of 1851

They manufactured many using silver from the Combe Martin mines on Exmoor. Clarks of Birmingham produced some brooches under licence.

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