From the lightbulb to the teabag, the top ten inventions of all time

The humble tea-bag has been chosen by the British public as one of the most important inventions of all time, English Heritage reveals today (8 June) as the charity launches a new nationwide exhibition celebrating human ingenuity throughout the ages.

As part of its Ingenious! season, English Heritage curators across the country have been searching through the charity’s vast collection of historic artefacts to identify the most ingenious objects in its care. Opening today, the fruits of that search will go on display at English Heritage castles, forts, and historic houses. The remarkable and innovative objects include the ground-breaking Roman armour at Corbridge Roman Town in Northumberland and the then state-of-the-art 1930s vacuum cleaner at Eltham Palace in London.

At the same time, English Heritage also asked the British public what they thought were the the top ten inventions of all time. The final list includes the unquestionably world-changing wheel but also a few surprises, namely the quintessentially English tea bag (see full list below). Now English Heritage wants the public to pick its favourite invention from that top ten list by voting on our website at

The new research also revealed that the public think the Victorian age was the most inventive, with our own modern age coming a close second. English Heritage’s Ingenious! season includes numerous examples of Victorian ingenuity from an ice-cream maker at Brodsworth Hall in Yorkshire to the Bell telephone at Queen Victoria’s Osborne on the Isle of Wight, the demonstration of which, by Alexander Graham Bell in 1878, so impressed Victoria that she decided to buy it.

Matt Thompson, Head Collections Curator at English Heritage said: “This summer, at our sites across the country, we’re celebrating ingenuity through the ages and – from prehistoric axes to vintage vacuum cleaners – we’re showcasing some of the most important inventions of all time.

“History has been built on ingenious inventions, big and small and it’s fascinating today to hear what people find ingenious – the tea bag was invented by accident but has stood the test of time.”

At any one time English Heritage has around 100,000 artefacts on display across over 400 sites. We may have missed a few ingenious objects in our search so we want to invite the public to help fill in the gaps by getting out to our sites and tweeting us (#Ingenious) with anything they think should have been included.


• The wheel
The wheel was invented in around 3500 B.C. Though it was originally used for pottery, it soon revolutionised everyday life and now, wheels are found in everything from clocks to vehicles to turbines.

• The Fridge
The ability to keep food cold for prolonged periods drastically changed the food production industry and eating habits of people around the world. Now, we have easy access to fresh meats and dairy products even in the hot summer months.

• Sewers
Whether Egyptian, Roman or modern, sewage and sanitation systems made cities more sanitary (and more pleasant) places to live.

• The plough
Ploughs made farming easier and faster so that people could harvest far more food than they needed to survive. They sold the surplus for goods or services and as populations gathered to trade, cities grew.

• Penicillin
Penecillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. It transformed medicine by its ability to cure infectious bacterial diseases and began the era of antibiotics.

• The Internet
The creation of the Internet in the 1960s and the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee in the 1990s transformed our communication, commerce, entertainment, politics and much more.

• Armour
With some of the earliest armour dating back to Ancient Rome, this invention was an important development in the history of warfare through the ages.

• Light bulbs
As well as initiating the introduction of electricity in homes throughout the world, this invention also had an unexpected consequence of changing people's sleep patterns.

• The clock
Much of everyday life requires knowledge of time and for thousands of years, we have tried to keep track of it, using devices from sundials to candle clocks to modern clocks.

• Tea bags
Tea bags were invented by accident in 1908 when American entrepreneur Thomas Sullivan decided to package tea in bags made of silk. It was the customers who assumed that the tea bags were intended to be dipped into hot water.

Vote online for the top invention at