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A guided tour of Manchester’s illustrious STEM history

A guided tour of Manchester’s illustrious STEM history

Science. Technology. Engineering. Mathematics. These four core subjects are the building blocks on which our lives exist. Over the course of history, pioneers have mastered these vastly complicated topics to forge a strong future for humanity. It only stands to reason then that so many champion the value of STEM, even to this day.

Without this innovation, we wouldn’t have cars, trains, medicine, computers, or thousands of other developments. And some of these were brought to life here in Greater Manchester. The region has a deep and illustrious history with the STEM fields; some of our advancements you might know, some you might not.

Let’s dive into Greater Manchester’s history with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the pioneers who called it home, and the good it brought to the world.


Manchester’s STEM history

The North of England was always at the heart of the country’s industrial revolution. And right in the centre of it all was Manchester. French historian Alexis de Tocqueville put it simply on his visit to the city: “[From Manchester], the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the world.”

Manchester was a city built by the industrial revolution. Science, technology, and innovation are part of its very roots. It soon became a hub for some of the greatest minds, with many of the schools from its universities dating back hundreds of years.

Even today, you can still see the city’s close ties to its industrial past and dedication to STEM. They are clearly proud of their place in history, something which is exemplified in the must-see Science and Industry Museum. There is also a strong drive to keep the spirit of STEM thriving in Greater Manchester’s education, encouraging young boys and girls to pursue a career in one of the four fields.

Such a strong history has led to some fascinating advancements. Here is our selection of innovations that have helped change the world for the better.



Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford is seen as the father of nuclear physics. That isn’t bad for someone born on a small farm in New Zealand in 1871. They say his name was misspelt as “Earnest” on his birth certificate – perhaps a sign of what was to come?

He conducted most of his scientific research here in England, but his most influential discovery happened at the University of Manchester. It was Ernest who discovered the true structure of the atom. Through his experiments, he found that atoms were mostly empty space; a nucleus being orbited by electrons, like planets orbiting the sun.

His understanding of atoms led to great advancements in nuclear physics. It was also him who posited splitting atoms, noting that it creates an enormous amount of energy. While he didn’t live to see it, this became the foundation for nuclear energy as we know it.


A more recent discovery, it was at the University of Manchester where man-made graphene was first created. Scientists already knew two-dimensional graphene existed, but no one knew how to extract it from graphite.

Enter two researchers at the University of Manchester: Professor Andre Geim and Professor Kostya Novoselov. Discovering graphene came somewhat by accident. They regularly held ‘Friday night experiments’ where they would try experiments that weren’t related to their daily obligations. It was on one of these Friday nights, with a lump of graphite and some sticky tape, that they made their Nobel-prize-winning discovery.

What makes graphene so great? Simply the fact they were able to create a two-dimensional object – just one atom thick – is wonderful enough. But graphene is 200 times stronger than steel, as well as super light and extremely conductive. Its scientific applications are vast. It can be used for DNA sequencing, attaching to cancer cells in the body, and could lead the way in adaptive, malleable technology. The discovery was so important that the university has since opened the National Graphene Institute to conduct further research.



Manchester Baby

The Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine, better known as the Manchester Baby, was the world’s first computer to run a program stored in its memory, not needing a person every step of the way. This innovation is what led to objects such as our smartphones, or the very computer you might be reading this on.

The Manchester Baby weighed more than a tonne and took up an entire room at the University of Manchester. No one involved could have predicted where it would leave, or if it would even work in the first place.

But in 1948, and taking 52 minutes, it ran the first computer program ever. Frederic Williams, Tom Kilburn, and Geoff Tootill were the geniuses behind its creation. Today, you can find a recreation of the computer at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Ferranti Mark 1

That discovery was the foundation of our next entry, the Ferranti Mark 1. Sometimes known as the Manchester Ferranti, it became one of the world’s first commercially available digital computers, selling its first ever unit to the University of Manchester in 1951.

While still a far cry from the computers we have today, it was a general-purpose computer used to help forecast election results, calculate wages, and many other things. None other than Alan Turing (who we will get to later) wrote its instruction manual.

It was even used to create one of history’s first ever video games, though it was severely limited. Dr Dietrich Prinz attempted to create a digital version of chess, though it was only capable of running mate-in-two chess problems. The program analysed thousands of moves to find solutions to these challenges, which took it 15-20 minutes.



Liverpool and Manchester Railway

The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 was the first modern, inter-city passenger railway in the world. It relied exclusively on steam power, the first to do so as others used horse-drawn help.

That wasn’t the only first, though. It was also the first to have a signalling system, the first to run a timetable, and the first to transport mail. Building of the 35-mile line began in 1926 and was done by hand with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows.

On the day of the launch, excitement was in the air, with spectators jostling for a prime position to see trains on their maiden voyage from Liverpool to Manchester. As you can guess, the venture was a financial success and within 20 years there were 6,200 miles of railway across Britain.

The Bridgewater Canal

A canal might not seem like a noteworthy feat of engineering, but Manchester’s Bridgewater Canal was the first man-made one that didn’t follow a previously existing waterway. It was also a huge boost to the economy, as its main purpose was to facilitate easier and more cost-effective transportation of coal into the city.

This was especially important as the city saw the industrial boom; it needed coal to keep it running, and it needed it fast. So, in 1761, Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, opened his canal. It proved to be so popular that it started a ‘canal mania’, with plenty of canal building taking place between the 1790s and 1810s.

It was engineer James Brindley who was the brains behind the construction. It was he who suggested creating a stone aqueduct to make traversal easier, carrying canal boats over the River Irwell at staggering heights of 13 metres.



Alan Turing

Alan Turing is regarded as one of Britain’s greatest minds. His work during World War 2 helped decipher Germany’s Enigma code, affording the British forces the information they needed to wage a successful campaign. Turing’s brilliant mathematical mind created the Bombe, a machine capable of efficiently breaking the Enigma code.

After the war, Turing joined the Mathematics Department at the University of Manchester, where he eventually worked on the Manchester Mark 1 – the successor to the Manchester Baby. This led to his work as a consultant on the development of the Ferranti Mark 1.

His curiosity drew him to more abstract mathematics and the world of artificial intelligence. While it is a widely discussed topic today, Turing was one of the first to question the idea, leading to the ‘Turing test’, which is used to establish how convincing a machine is at mimicking a real person.

But Turing’s homosexuality – illegal at the time in the UK – saw him stripped of his association with the government he had served during the war, tarnishing his reputation. Shortly after, he was found dead from cyanide poisoning in an apparent suicide. It wasn’t until 2009 that the government issued a formal apology and he posthumously received a royal pardon for his crime in 2013.

This campaign was led by John Leech, MP for Manchester Withington at the time, and shows how powerful Turing’s influence was. In that moment, it cemented Alan Turing’s legacy as one of Britain’s greatest minds and one of Manchester’s lasting pioneers.

He, and all those mentioned on this list, have created innovations that changed the world. Without these advancements made in Manchester, would we have nuclear power, computers, or smartphones? And with the city’s dedication to graphene, we can see this reputation for great change isn’t going anywhere. It seems Alexis de Tocqueville’s words still ring true: Manchester truly is fertilising the world.

At Coster Content, we’re proud to be a Manchester-based business. The Greater Manchester region is bustling with bright ideas and creative companies. If you want to connect and achieve something great, then get in touch with the team on 0161 413 8418.