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Two University of Manchester discoveries in the top ten of all time

16 Jun 2010

Two of the top ten discoveries by university academics and researchers were made at The University of Manchester, according to a poll released today.

The ground-breaking invention of the first working computer, by University of Manchester scientists Freddie Williams and Tom Kilburn, and researcher Herchel Smith’s development of the contraceptive pill are ranked third and fourth respectively in a poll of UK academics.

‘Baby’, the first computer, was unveiled on June 21st 1948, created after professors Williams and Kilburn had joined forces in the newly-opened School of Computer Science.

This was the world's first stored-program computer, a true universal computer, where changing a program would take minutes rather than days.

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s they produced a series of breakthroughs in the early development of the computer

In 1961, researcher Herchel Smith developed an inexpensive way of producing chemicals that can stop women ovulating during their monthly menstrual cycle.

The contraceptive pill was born, and continues to be an effective form of contraception used all over the world today.

The poll, which was carried out to mark Universities Week from June 14-20, was headed by the discovery of the structure of DNA on 28 February 1953.

It was followed by other key UK university discoveries such as genetic fingerprinting and CDs, DVDs and the Internet.

Professor Harry Kroto, joint winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1996 for the discovery of the C60 molecule (Buckminsterfullerene – a new form of carbon) announced the results and saw his own discovery making it into the top ten. 

The top ten demonstrates how influential UK researchers have been in developing innovations, theories and technologies that have changed our lives.

A total of 432 UK academics were polled throughout May. The list of the greatest discoveries by UK academics was compiled from the Universities UK publication, Eureka, and spans discoveries from the past 60 years.

The full list is as follows:

1)           DNA - James Watson and Francis Crick unveiled the double helix structure of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in 1953. DNA is a spiral staircase of molecules that exists in all our cells and contains the recipe for living things and the characteristics that are passed on from one generation to another

2)           Genetic fingerprinting – scientists from the University of Leicester developed a technique of identifying individual DNA make up in 1985. Genetic fingerprints are like real fingerprints in that they are unique to every individual (except identical twins) and have greatly assisted the fight against crime.

3)           Birth of the first working computer Two University Manchester scientists are credited with running the world’s first stored programme computer. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s they produced a series of breakthroughs in the early development of the computer

4)           The contraceptive pill - Herchel Smith, a researcher at the University of Manchester, who in 1961 developed an inexpensive way of producing chemicals that can stop women ovulating during their monthly menstrual cycle.

5)           Cancer and cell division Experts from Cancer Research UK were the first to identify the key genes that govern and regulate the cell cycle and cell division in 1987, further early stage research at Oxbridge, which subsequently paved the way for progress in treating cancer.

6)           CDs, DVDs and the Internet The Internet, CDs and DVDs have all been made possible through a technology called strained quantum-well lasers that was first proposed by Alf Adams at Surrey University. These lasers work by transforming information into pulses of light, or photons.

7)           The Gaia hypothesis While studying the atmosphere on the planet Mars, James Lovelock developed the ‘Gaia hypothesis’ – the idea of the earth as a self-regulating living organism –-  this revolutionary understanding of the earth transformed public attitudes towards the environment.

8)           Eradicating the Tsetse fly - Scientists from the University of Greenwich have been working to eradicate the Tsetse fly from Africa through the use of a novel artificial cow, which attracts the tsetse and kills them through insecticides. The discovery lead to a dramatic fall in the fatal sleeping sickness

9)           Stem cells Martin Evans’ early research at Cambridge University led to his discovery of embryonic stem cells - cells so early in their development that they have the potential to grow into the different cells that make-up the human body.

10)            Microscopic footballs It was only in 1985 that the third well-defined form of pure carbon was discovered. Harry Kroto at Sussex University, and his US collaborators Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, revealed that carbon can exist as tiny spherical molecules, now known as fullerenes or buckyballs.

Notes for editors

Professor Steve Furber from The University of Manchester School of Computer Science is available for interview.

The full results of the poll and more information can be obtained from UK universities. Please contact: Victoria.clarke@kindredagency.com or zoe.thomas@kindredagency.com or phone 0207 612 8800.

The inaugural Universities Week is taking place from 14-20 June 2010, and aims to increase public awareness of the wide and varied role of the UK’s universities. 

Over 100 universities and linked organisations are involved in the week.  Nationwide activity will include open days and debates for members of the public to attend.  A full list of events taking place can be found at www.universitiesweek.org.uk

Supporters can also find out more about the campaign by joining the Universities Week Facebook fan page www.facebook.com/universities

The UK’s higher education institutions have a tangible effect on our economy, generating almost £59bn of output every year.  They are some of the largest employers in their regions, and nationally create over 600,000 jobs either directly through higher education, or via knock-on effects.

For media enquiries contact:

Dan Cochlin
Media Relations
The University of Manchester

Tel: 0161 275 8387
07917506158
email: daniel.cochlin@manchester.ac.uk