Cover Story: Bright Sparks Who Changed the World; Wales Boasts Some of the Most Important Inventors Ever, but a Fine Mind Doesn't Always Make You a Household Name. Steve Dub Pays Tribute to These Unsung Heroes

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), August 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

Cover Story: Bright Sparks Who Changed the World; Wales Boasts Some of the Most Important Inventors Ever, but a Fine Mind Doesn't Always Make You a Household Name. Steve Dub Pays Tribute to These Unsung Heroes


Byline: Steve Dube

The road to fame is paved with good inventions, and some of the most useful were dreamed up by Welshmen. We're not talking here of toasted cheese, obscure poetic metres, stovepipe hats or the razzmatazz and hocus-pocus of Iolo Morganwg's colourful Gorsedd. Some are much more mundane like mathematical signs in such everyday use you wonder what people did before they were invented.

Wales can also boast of the scientist who developed the theory of evolution - move over Darwin - and the man who invented a way for computers to talk to each other, making possible a certain facility called the internet.

Millions of schoolchildren in pre-calculator days have Bridgend-born Dr Richard Price to thank forinventing the times tables while Pryce Pryce-Jones of Newtown gave the world mail order shopping, which also makes him honorary inventor of junk mail.

Robert Recorde of Tenby has the honour of being the earliest Welsh inventor on record, so to speak.

Born in Tenby in 1510, he designed the equals sign and is known as the founder of modern algebra. He was the first man in Britain to write about arithmetic, algebra and astronomy and was generally considered the most educated man of his day. He was also a theologian and a doctor.

He became physician to Edward VI and later head of the Royal Mint in Bristol. But far from making a mint, he fell on hard times and died in a debtor's prison in 1558. A little more than a century after Recorde's death, William Jones was born in Llanfihangel-tre'rBeirdd, Anglesey in 1675.

He was a contemporary and friend of better remembered scientists and inventors like Sir Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley, but Jones is the man who first used the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet, pi, to represent the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle.

Pi is a constant in a wide range of mathematical problems, and like the equals sign, it is hard to think what mathematicians would do without it. By the time Jones died in 1749, Richard Price or Pryce, the third Welsh mathematical genius, was 26 years old.

His claim to a place in the roll call of Welsh inventors, aside from a typically Welsh passion for democratic reform and civic rights, was to invent the times tables recited by millions of schoolchildren.

Richard Price was born at Tyn-ton in the parish of Llangeinor near Bridgend in 1723. He was ordained a minister in 1744 and wrote a number of books on philosophy and economics, subsequently advising Pitt the younger on the national debt. His Northampton Tables laid the foundation for scientific actuarial calculation - the times tables.

When civil unrest began to surface in the American colonies, Price wrote to the inhabitants of Boston advising them to throw the English tea into the harbour. History shows that they took his advice and the event sparked the American revolution, or war of independence.

Price wrote several books in support of the revolution and in 1778 he accepted an invitation by the American Congress to become a citizen of the United States. He was equally enthusiastic about the French Revolution, and after a life of political, moral and religious works and support for civil rights and democratic reform, he died in 1791.

Shopkeeper Pryce Pryce-Jones of Newtown, Powys, concentrated on commercial rather than intellectual concerns. Some time in 1859 this astute businessman began to offer goods for sale by post and the mail order catalogue was born.

Many of his customers were farmers who lived in isolated valleys or on inaccessible hillsides and had little time to go shopping.

The Pryce Jones Mail Order business was the answer, using the new cheap and reliable postal service developed in the Post Office reforms of the 1840s.

Pryce-Jones's warehouses in Newtown began a service that caught on quickly in the United States, with its greater distances and scattered population. …

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Cover Story: Bright Sparks Who Changed the World; Wales Boasts Some of the Most Important Inventors Ever, but a Fine Mind Doesn't Always Make You a Household Name. Steve Dub Pays Tribute to These Unsung Heroes
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