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Leeds has long been an innovative place. Lying in the heart of Northern England, the city stoked the industrial revolution with fresh ideas and cutting edge technology. The growing city and mix of industries attracted people with bright ideas.

Those creative minds needed places where they could exchange ideas. Institutions like The Leeds Library and the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society sprang up to support the spread of knowledge and skills. The University of Leeds, originally the Yorkshire College, continues to produce innovative research in the race for imaginative solutions.

Following the decline of our traditional industries, Leeds has re-invented itself as a city with flourishing finance, digital, media and medical science sectors.

Celebrate with us the people and inventions that have made Leeds such a creative city.

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Elizabeth Beecroft

Honest, Upright and Industrious

Elizabeth Beecroft was that rarest of things, an 18th century woman in sole charge of an industrial enterprise.

Kirkstall Forge was a long-established iron works, established by Cistercian Monks in 1151 and which became an important supplier of raw materials for the growing industries of Leeds. Elizabeth persuaded her husband George Beecroft and his brother-in-law Thomas Butler to raise funds to take over the lease of the declining Forge in 1779. Once in charge, Elizabeth – or ‘Betty’ – quickly turned around the fortunes of the previously ailing business.

‘Now we fully applied ourselves to our business. My husband undertook the care of the farm and works and I undertook the care of the trade, the books, the buying and selling and also the engagements of the men ‘til March 31st 1786.’

‘I took in large quantities of metal and scraps at Leeds besides taking care of my own business.’

Kirkstall Forge closed in 2003. The site is being redeveloped as office space and housing. With parking for 200 cars and twice hourly trains to and from Leeds, Kirkstall Forge railway station plays an important role in reducing traffic pollution and congestion in the city.

  • A black and white portrait of Betty Beecroft
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John Smeaton

An Old Leodensian

From an early age John Smeaton was interested in how things worked. He grew up at Austhorpe near Leeds and started experimenting on the lathe he built for himself. One of his early projects was building a miniature pumping engine which he used to drain a pond at his home in Austhorpe – killing all the fish!

Smeaton’s passion for learning was encouraged by his mentor Henry Hindley, a Lancashire clock and instrument maker living in York. Hindley sold one of his telescopes to help Smeaton set up in London as an instrument maker.

Despite dying in 1792 Smeaton’s legacy lives on today. He even makes an appearance in the lyrics of I Predict a Riot by Leeds band the Kaiser Chiefs.

  • A portrait of John Smeaton
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Louis Le Prince

The Art of Invention

Augustin Le Prince produced dozens of drawings during his journey towards building workable moving-image cameras and projectors. Some of these were little more than doodles, but all were part of his creative process.

Le Prince combined his university training in physics and chemistry with his artistic abilities to produce an invention which straddled science and art. Augustin and his wife Lizzie set up the Leeds Technical School of Art where they specialised in applying photographic images to ceramics. Le Prince’s father in law, Leeds brass-founder John Whitley, also provided encouragement and access to the engineering know-how required to build his cameras.

Augustin drew upon all of these assets in submitting the first of his highly-detailed drawings and descriptions of his inventions to the United States Patent Office in 1886. The patent application was entitled ‘Method and Apparatus for Producing Animated Pictures of Natural Scenery and Life’.

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Washington Teasdale

The Generous Genius

Do you know the name Washington Teasdale? Few remember him now but in Victorian Leeds’ scientific circles he was a big deal.

Teasdale worked as an engineer on India’s growing railway network in the 1850s, becoming fluent in the indigenous languages. He found Hindustani so helpful to his thought processes that he continued to use the language for the rest of his life.

Back in Leeds, Teasdale’s intelligence and wealth enabled him to share knowledge in many learned societies. These included the Leeds Naturalist Society, Leeds Astronomical Society and Leeds Photographic Society. Teasdale carried out pioneering work using the cyanotype process including creating what may have been Leeds’ first ‘selfie’.

Below Image: 96943 History of Science Museum, University of Oxford.

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Matthew Murray

Underrated Engineering Icon

Moving to Leeds allowed Matthew Murray to exploit his innovative skills in a city that was ripe for economic growth. Lack of work in the North East forced Murray to walk to Leeds in 1789 in search of work, carrying only a bag of tools. Industrialist John Marshall enlisted Murray’s help in designing innovative textile machinery. Murray went on to design ground-breaking engines to power Leeds’ expanding textile trade and develop the world’s first commercially-successful steam locomotive.

  • A painted portrait of Matthew Murray smoking a pipe against an industrial background
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Harris Sumrie

Tailor-made for Leeds

Harris and his wife Mary were Jewish emigres who moved to Leeds from Poland in the 1880s. Like other Jewish emigres, Harris developed a thriving tailoring business aimed at the higher end of the market. The presence of an existing Jewish community in the city was a strong factor in Harris and his family choosing Leeds as a place to set up in business.

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Priya Subramanian

Award Winning Scientist

Priya Subramanian was a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds School of Mathematics from 2015 to 2019. Her research has included looking at quasicrystalline structures.

‘The city of Leeds has a diverse group of activities that focus on science communication and engagement for both students and the public.’

‘The school also allowed me to participate as a co-organiser and speaker for the Leeds Masterclass series – a lovely experience to see the enthusiasm of 13 and 14 year old students for mathematics.’

‘I think that the University and the city are fertile grounds for budding early career researchers like me and curious-minded people.’

Bright Young Sparks

Have a lightbulb moment!

Many inventors and creators have a place where they work best. It could be a shed, a spare room or an attic!

Find your special space and let your ideas run free! If they don’t work first time round, rip them up, wipe them out, try again and share your ideas with your friends and family. You’ll get there in the end!

Why not take inspiration from some of the great inventors listed on our page? There’s loads more who either lived or worked in Leeds too. Check out our list list of local legends who have done their bit to put Leeds on the map:

Putting Leeds on the map (PDF, 0.6MB)