The tech innovations Brits take for granted
From phones to TVs, cameras to SD cards, the brands and products you see on sale are largely the same the world over. Yet each country still has plenty of little technological peculiarities – and the UK is no different.
Let’s say up front that this isn’t about us flying the flag for good old Blighty and saying we’re better than anyone else – we tried that for a couple of centuries and it wasn’t an unqualified success. Nor are we saying that the technologies below are truly unique to Britain; doubtless, they or similar technologies exist in other countries.
No, this is just about taking a minute to look at some of the technology that we use daily that we never appreciate and never think of as peculiarly British – that we never even notice.
Making tea is a Brit’s default reaction to everything from boredom to the news that the nukes are incoming, but the electric kettle you boil as part of this ritual isn’t a standard piece of kit the world over.
In the US, for example, it would be much more usual to use a stovetop kettle. That’s because the mains electricity there is at a much lower voltage than in the UK, translating into longer boil times. Next time you flick the switch on your kettle – perhaps during an ad break – give thanks that you’re not kept waiting longer for your cuppa.
In fact, while many of us would curse the UK mains plug itself – usually when trying to stuff the damned thing into a slim satchel – it’s actually a humble masterpiece of design. The earth pin, a notable safety feature in its own right, is longer so that it disengages shutters inside the mains socket to allow the live and neutral pins to connect to the electric circuit; this means it’s difficult for a child to jam a screwdriver into a plug socket and electrocute themselves.
Note too that, unlike with American plugs, if the plug is part-way out, you can’t accidentally touch the live pins. If the plug is far enough in that the earth pin has opened the shutters, the metal portions of the live and neutral pins are buried inside the socket, with only the insulated plastic portions remaining. (Not to mention that it’s much less likely for the plug to work its way out of the socket compared to the friction-grip US plugs.)
Even the wiring inside the plug is smart. If the cable gets tugged sharply away from the plug, the live and neutral cables – the ones that actually carry the dangerous current – will disconnect first, leaving the safety of the earth pin connected. Now, you could argue that many of these safety features wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t use such a high voltage here in the UK, but then we’d have to wait longer for tea. Priorities.
Especially in dense urban areas where space is at a premium, it’s common for flats in the UK to have a single big machine that both washes and dries your clothes. Well, “dries” might be a little ambitious, but washer-dryers certainly should get your clothes drier than a spin cycle in a regular washing machine might, so they should fully dry when hung on a drying rack or outside for a few hours. (Hanging your clothing outside is apparently unusual in the US too.)
And where might you buy a washer-dryer? Argos, which is a smart piece of technology in itself. Rather than having stores where customers browse shelves of products – requiring costly land and restocking – Argos stores are essentially warehouses with a tiny vestibule bolted on, where customers browse a catalogue of items. Once you’ve found what you want, you punch a reference number into a kiosk, pay for your item, then take your receipt to a collection desk where someone will bring it from the warehouse.
It’s actually a surprisingly pleasant and efficient way to shop.
Chip and PIN
The security feature of the card you’d pay for your goods with in Argos, or anywhere else in the UK, will be Chip and PIN, rather than the older swipe-and-sign system. The old standard was wildly less secure because the information on the card was encoded onto a magnetic strip, which was trivially easy to read and then burn onto a blank plastic card.
Now I appreciate Chip and PIN isn’t a UK-only thing, but even a decade after it became standard here, the US is only now beginning the switch – and still some retailers use the less secure “chip and signature” method.
Ironically, the US dragging its heels over Chip and PIN is one reason why it could leapfrog us with payment tech. Now that the payment infrastructure in the States is being replaced to accept Chip and PIN, retailers may as well install POS terminals that also include the contactless pads necessary for secure payment systems such as Apple Pay.
The UK has been pretty aggressive in exploiting contactless payment systems itself, not just on credit and debit cards but on dedicated cards such as Oyster for travel across the London transport network. It wasn’t the first to do this – that would be the South Korean Upass system, dating from 1996 – but it’s one of the more complex and technically accomplished systems, knitting together bus, Tube, tram, rail and more.
Even more impressively, now you don’t even have to use an Oyster card; instead, you can touch in at the ticket gates with your contactless credit or debit card, touch out at the end of your journey, and be automatically charged the correct amount; there are daily and weekly caps in place too; it’s clever and convenient. And when Apple Pay arrives in the UK in July, TfL will accept payments from your iPhone or Apple Watch too.
Another example of infrastructure technology we take for granted in the UK is the roundabout. Again, they’re not uniquely British – France has fully half the world’s roundabouts, and even the US, which is usually mocked for not using them, has 3,500 according to the rather wonderful roundaboutsusa.com – but they were standardised in their modern form here.
And they’re modern marvels. They’re comparatively cheap and maintenance-free (compared to signalled junctions), and they help keep traffic flowing much better than the alternatives – which in turn reduces fuel consumption and pollution. Studies have also shown big decreases in accidents, even if it often seems nobody else knows how to use the accursed things.
Toast n’ Bean
Okay, so I’ve caveated this article a little too often with “not uniquely British”, but here’s one I’m confident in: the Tefal Toast n’ Bean. This glorious contraption is a pop-up toaster with a little warming pan attached that can heat your baked beans at the same time. If that’s not a triumph for technology, I don’t know what is. Crack open a can of Guinness (with its little widget for that creamy head) and quite literally toast such ingenuity.
So there you go – a few of the things you might use every day if you live in the UK, but which you might never have given a second thought to. But I’m sure there are plenty more – all sorts of unsung little innovations in plumbing and infrastructure and transport and standards and food and more that we don’t celebrate enough. Tell me about them in the comments below!
And just to underscore the point about this not being a list of reasons for the UK being awesome and everyone else being lame, let’s end with a short list of the things Johnny Foreigner has that we covet.
The Disney MagicBand lives up to the hype of its name – it’s quite astonishing. And we still don’t have the full Google Wallet experience here.
Nor do we have high-speed maglev trains. (We were actually the first to have a maglev system – an airport shuttle in Birmingham – but it was nothing compared to what’s being done in Japan and Shanghai.) We can do without musical roads, mind you. There’s other stuff too that we envy – what about those Finnish baby boxes, for example?
Let’s have some more – what technology have you been amazed the UK doesn’t have when you’ve seen it on holiday?