Manchester: A City of Firsts

7th January 2019

The first month of the year is a time for New Year’s Resolutions; a time when people are invigorated to kick old habits, or form new ones; a time for reflection on both the year past and the year to come; a time for a fresh start and reinvention. New Year, new you.

To celebrate the beginning of the New Year, we are celebrating some of the ‘new things’ (ideas, inventions, revolutions) that began in Manchester.

Did you know Manchester did that!?

Manchester and its inhabitants have regularly produced ideas, technologies, movements and ideologies that have defined the modern world. It is a city of ‘firsts’: the birthplace of ideas, the cradle of revolutions and a centre of innovation. The amount of new things to have come from the city is remarkable considering that Manchester has only existed as a significant centre of population for 250 years. It was as a result of Manchester’s ability to innovate and reinvent itself that it became a leading global city and catapulted itself from market town insignificance to a leading player on the world stage.

Here is a list of just some of the things that Manchester has given the world:

🛤️ Liverpool – Manchester Railway – First Intercity Passenger Railway

On the 15th September 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester railway opened and revolutionised public transport. The railway connecting Liverpool and Manchester was not only the world’s first intercity passenger railway, but also the first railway to rely solely on locomotives drawn by steam power, the first to be entirely double track for its whole length, the first to have a signalling system, the first to be fully timetabled and the first to carry mail. It was the second revolutionary transport system in the city, after the Bridgewater canal, Britain’s first canal wholly independent of a natural waterway. The canal brought coal into the city just a short distance away from the terminus of the new railway. Ironically, it was the canal’s success and near monopoly on transport of raw materials into Manchester that fuelled the desire for the railway, as it was believed the Bridgewater canal and its operators were generating excessive profits (this same issue regarding the railway would later lead to the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal).

The opening of the railway kicked off the age of mass transit, making it easier for people to travel than ever before. Over the following decades 1,000s of kilometres of railway line were laid, connecting cities up and down the country, but it was Manchester that paved the way for this revolutionary form of transport.

First Train in Manchester

✌️ Vimto

In 1908 at 19 Granby Row, John Noel Nichols, a seller of herbs and spices, invented an herbal tonic that would give drinkers ‘vim and vigour’. Thus, Vimto was born here in Manchester. The drink, originally known as Vimtonic, became incredibly popular locally, particularly among temperance advocates, who praised the non-alcoholic nature of the cordial. Vimto is a drink that is not universally loved, but is fiercely defended by those who do enjoy the slightly medicinal fruit cordial. However, the drink enjoyed enough success that the company soon outgrew its Granby Row offices and relocated to Salford, with a further move to Wythenshawe later in the century, before finally moving out of Greater Manchester to nearby Haydock.

Vimto has a very strong export market in the Middle East where it is the most popular drink consumed during Iftar, the sunset feast during the month of Ramadan. The high sugar content makes Vimto an ideal beverage after a day of fasting and sales skyrocket during this time.

To celebrate Vimto’s origins in Manchester the ‘Monument to Vimto’, an oak sculpture carved by Kerry Morrison, has stood in Granby Row since 1992. It is well worth a visit to see the iconic sculpture.

Manchester Vimto Monument

🥕 Vegetarianism

In 1800 William Cowherd, a Christian Minister in Manchester, established a new congregation at a chapel built with funds from his own pocket. It was at this church that Cowherd advocated a life of self-improvement and temperance, with particular focus on abstinence from alcohol and meat. To join the church, worshippers had to sign a pledge to avoid both of these. Therefore, Cowherd was the leader of the first organisation in the modern Western world to preach and practice a vegetarian diet. In this he was one of the philosophical forerunners of the Vegetarian Society, founded in Kent in 1846 and the first such society in the modern Western world. The Vegetarian Society, appropriately due to Cowherd’s influence, held its first General Meeting in Manchester the following year.


⚛️ Atomic Theory

John Dalton’s atomic theory is a pillar of modern science. It was in Manchester at the beginning of the 19th Century that Dalton put forward his theory, which became a cornerstone of chemical study. While modern atomic theory is much more complex than what Dalton proposed, and some elements of his theory have been disproved, the core of his theory still stands today. Dalton’s groundbreaking theory was that elements were made up of indivisible and indestructible particles called atoms; that each of these atoms in any element were of equal size and weight, but atoms of differing elements were different sizes and weights; that atoms of different elements combine in simple ratios to form compounds and that atoms are rearranged in chemical reactions.

Some parts of Dalton’s theory have since been disproved. Notably, atoms are neither indivisible nor indestructible but contain even smaller particles and can be destroyed in nuclear reactions. This was a discovery that again was made in Manchester when Ernest Rutherford ‘split the atom’ and became the first person to create an artificial nuclear reaction, thus creating the discipline of nuclear physics.


🔥 First Law of Thermodynamics

James Prescott Joule was a physicist born in Salford. He studied under John Dalton, another Manchester-associated luminary also featured in this list, at the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. After his studies, Joule began working in the family brewery, where he began experimenting with electricity. His experiments on the amount of mechanical work necessary to produce a unit of heat led to the discovery that both mechanical work and heat are forms of energy. This became the basis for the theory of the conservation of energy or The First Law of Thermodynamics. For this research, Joule received the Royal Medal in 1852.

As a lasting testament to Joule’s contribution to the study of energy, Joule has given his name to the unit of energy – a single unit of energy is known as a Joule (J).

💻 Manchester Baby – World’s first electronic stored program computer

In 1948 the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine, ‘Baby’, was the first computer to store and run a program when the computer successfully determined the highest factor of a number. By modern standards the computer was incredibly rudimentary, but it was the first success in stored memory computing that would eventually lead the plethora of devices available today.

The Manchester Baby had less computing power than a calculator while measuring more than 5m in length and 2m in height (and weighing a ton) but the importance of the machine to modern computing should not be underestimated. You can see a replica of the Manchester Baby at the Science and Industry Museum in Castlefield, with demonstrations of how the computer worked running on selected days.

🌧️ Mackintosh Raincoats

Appropriately for a city as perennially wet as Manchester, Charles Macintosh’s iconic waterproof outwear was made in the city . Macintosh discovered that sandwiching a rubber solution between pieces of cloth made the garment waterproof. In South america, latex had been used in a similar way for centuries, however, latex was too unstable to ship to Europe and so there was huge demand in Europe for waterproof clothing. In 1824 Macintosh opened a factory next to the Birley brothers’ cotton mill on Cambridge Street where he could produce his rubberised fabric. Although the resulting coats were waterproof, the manufacturing process left an unpleasant smell. As a result, the coats were not initially successful, despite the armed forces and merchant navy creating a steady demand. After some collaboration with Thomas Hancock, another entrepreneur experimenting in the waterproofing of clothing using rubber, and an eventual merger, Macintosh’s coats became much more successful and are now a byword for waterproof coats.


You can learn about all of these ‘firsts’, and more about Manchester’s incredible history, on our very own premium bus tour. The weekly ‘Best of Manchester: City of Firsts’ tour departs from Liverpool Road every Saturday at 11am and 2pm. Or, for a more tailored experience, book a private tour where the route and content can be customised to suit your interests.

Written by: Dan Bridges

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