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Over many centuries, Wales has been in the forefront of scientific discoveries and technological developments. William Frost built a small powered airship which he flew on a Pembrokeshire beach seven years before the Wright Brothers 1903 flight in America. The first successful Welsh aircraft was built by the James brothers a few years after the American flight.
In 1897, Guglielmo Marconi successfully transmitted a radio signal across open sea for the first time. He was able to send a morse code message from the south coast of Wales to the island of Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel. Marconi later went on to establish radio transmitting stations in north Wales to communicate across the Atlantic Ocean.
The scientist Edward Bowen from Swansea was involved in the early development of radar. He was part of a team that set up radar stations at the start of the second world war to detect enemy aircraft. Bowen went on to develop radar equipment which could be fitted into aircraft. In 1937, he demonstrated that an aircraft flying over the sea in poor visibility could detect ships at a distance of several miles.
Welsh biologist Alfred Russel Wallace was a friend and colleague of Charles Darwin, and they worked together to develop the Theory of Evolution. Wallace went on to study the animals and plants of tropical regions, especially the islands of Malaysia. He was the first biologist to describe Wallace`s flying frog, which is now named after him. This frog lives in trees in the rain forest, but can glide down to the ground using its webbed feet as wings.
Isaac Roberts was an engineer who, in Victorian times, developed an interest in astronomy. He greatly improved the quality of photographs of the night sky by combining a powerful telescope and large camera. His most important picture was of the Andromeda Galaxy. For the first time, this showed the spiral structure of a galaxy and changed the theory of the formation and development of stars.
Welsh scientist Dr Lyn Evans was in charge of the building of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva in Switzerland. This huge machine runs in a circular tunnel. Particles are accelerated up to huge speeds then collide with a target, creating new types of subatomic particle. Dr Evans is now developing plans for an even larger machine, which will accelerate particles along a straight track of 30 miles in length. This will probably be built in Japan.
William Grove from Swansea was a Victorian scientist who invented the fuel cell. This is a device in which hydrogen and oxygen undergo a chemical reaction to produce electricity. The only waste product is water. Fuel cells are likely to be very important in the future, with many electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel.
Wales was in the forefront of developing methods for processing metals. In 1897 at Glasdir copper mine near Dolgellau, the brothers Frank and Stanley Elmore discovered a new and more efficient method of extracting copper minerals. The ore was crushed to a powder and mixed with water and oil. The copper particles attached themselves to the oil, which could then by separated. This method, called `froth floatation`, is now used all over the world.
In the 1880`s, Sidney Gilchrist-Thomas and his cousin Percy Gilchrist were working at the Blaenafon iron and steel works in south Wales. Much of the iron ore available locally contained phosphorous which made the steel brittle. Thomas and Gilchrist carried out experiments and discovered that the phosphorous could be removed by lining the blast furnace with bricks made from dolomite limestone. Their discovery went on to be used around the world.
The inventor Philip Vaughan of Carmarthen patented the first design for a ball bearing in 1794. His design shows iron balls placed between the wheel and the axle of a carriage, allowing the carriage wheels to rotate freely by reducing friction. The design is basically unchanged in the bearings used in vehicles and other machines at the present day.
Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones ran a clothing company in Newtown in central Wales. In the late 1800`s he created the first mail order business. Printed catalogues were distributed, and customers sent their orders by post. The warehouse was next to the railway station, so goods could be sent out quickly by train. Pryce-Jones` business idea was the forerunner of today`s large mail order companies such as Amazon.
Computer scientist Donald Davies from Treorchy worked with Alan Turing on the early development of computers. In 1965, Davies invented ‘packet switching’. Messages on a computer network are divided into small packets of data, which can be sent by different routes to the destination and then reassembled into the complete message. This is the basis for long distance computer communication, and has made the internet possible.