A photograph of wooden huts painted green.
Historic photography Listed places

8 Sites of Scientific Discovery and Innovation

From Charles Darwin to Alan Turing, discover incredible places in England connected to scientific achievement.

England’s historic sites have witnessed scientific discovery and innovation that shaped both the nation and the world beyond.

Here’s a selection of incredible places in England with scientific stories.

1. Charles Darwin wrote ‘On the Origin of Species’ at Down House, Bromley

Down House in Bromley, Greater London, was the home of naturalist Charles Darwin.

His major 1859 work on the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection, ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’, was written here.

A photograph of a grand 3-storey house with a garden.
The Grade I listed Down House in Bromley, Greater London. © Historic England Archive. PLB/N070887.

Darwin and his wife Emma moved to Down House in 1842. They made many changes to the house, including adding a new study and a large bay at the rear.

A photograph of a study in a house.
Charles Darwin’s study at Down House in Bromley, Greater London. © Historic England Archive. PLB/N071231.

The gardens were also improved, with Darwin constructing experimental beds and a hothouse for his botanical experiments.

Down House is open to visit and managed by English Heritage.

2. An apple fell on Isaac Newton at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire

Built in the early 17th century as a farmhouse, Woolsthorpe Manor House was the birthplace of mathematician and natural philosopher Sir Isaac Newton on Christmas Day 1642.

An outbreak of plague in 1665 forced Newton to return here from Cambridge University, and it was at Woolsthorpe that much of his theoretical and experimental work was conducted.

A black and white photograph of a 2-storey farm house.
The Grade I listed Woolsthorpe Manor House in Colsterworth, Lincolnshire. © Historic England Archive. View image BB79/08408.

An apple tree sits in the orchard of Woolsthorpe Manor House in Lincolnshire.

It’s believed that it was at this tree that Newton observed the fall of an apple, leading to his discovery of the laws of gravity and changing the way we understand the universe.

A black and white photograph of a large tree on the grounds of a farm house.
An apple tree in the orchard of Woolsthorpe Manor House in Colsterworth, Lincolnshire. © Historic England Archive. BB79/08410.

Woolsthorpe Manor is open to visit and managed by the National Trust.

3. Alan Turing broke the Enigma code and Tommy Flowers created the first electronic computer at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire

Shortly before the Second World War began, the Government Code and Cipher School, needing a safe and secret location away from London, moved to Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.

A photograph of a large manor house.
The Grade II listed Bletchley Park House in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. © Historic England Archive. View image AA048017.

Large, plain huts were built on the grounds, and it was here that the Bombe machine, designed by Alan Turing, helped break the Enigma code.

The crucial work of the thousands of people who worked in the wider Bletchley organisation, 75% of whom were women, helped shorten the war by an estimated two to four years and saved countless lives.

A photograph of wooden huts painted green.
The Grade II listed Hut 8 at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. Hut 8 was responsible for decoding Naval Enigma traffic and was headed by the famous mathematician Alan Turing, © Historic England Archive. DP435672.

Bletchley Park is also where Tommy Flowers created the semi-programmable electronic machine ‘Colossus’, the world’s first electronic computer.

Block H is known as the birthplace of modern computing because large-scale electronic information processing began here.

Bletchley Park is open to visit.

4. Edward Jenner discovered the vaccine against smallpox in a hut in Gloucestershire

In a rustic hut in the garden of his home, the Chantry, Dr Edward Jenner conducted his first vaccination against smallpox in 1796.

A photograph of the front exterior of a large, white-walled country house and its gravel driveway
The Grade II* listed Chantry, now Dr Jenner’s House, in Gloucestershire. Contributed to the Missing Pieces Project by Sophie Ro. View List entry 1304580.

The disease was devastating. In Jenner’s time, it was responsible for around 10 to 20% of all deaths, killing about 30% of those who contracted it.

Jenner was intrigued by local lore that claimed those who contracted cowpox could not catch smallpox. In 1796, he tested this theory on his gardener’s 8-year-old son, deliberately infecting the boy with cowpox and later exposing him to smallpox. This and subsequent tests confirmed his immunity to the disease.

A black and white image of a thatch-roof hut
The Grade II* listed Jenner Hut, also known as the ‘Temple of Vaccinia’, at the Chantry in Gloucestershire. © Historic England Archive. View image AA44/12384.

Dr Jenner’s House is open to visit.

5. Dorothy Hodgkin and other women scientists studied at Somerville College, Oxford

Named in honour of the mathematician and scientist Mary Somerville, Somerville Hall (later College) was founded in 1879. It accepted women at a time when they were barred from Oxford University.

A black and white image of the exterior of Somerville College, Oxford
The Grade II listed Somerville College in Oxford. © Historic England Archive. View image CC50/00402.

One Somerville alumna was Dorothy Hodgkin, Britain’s only female scientist to receive the Nobel Prize.

Reading chemistry, Hodgkin researched X-ray crystallography, going on to Cambridge to gain a PhD before returning to Somerville in 1934 as a research fellow.

Through X-ray techniques, she could determine the structures of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin.

A black and white photograph of women in long skirts playing hockey on an open field with trees in the background
Women playing Hockey at Somerville College in Oxford between 1860 and 1922. © Historic England Archive. View image CC50/00679.

6. Harry Brearley invented stainless steel at the Brown Firth Research Laboratory in Sheffield, South Yorkshire

At the Brown Firth Research Laboratory in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, metallurgist Harry Brearley accidentally made stainless steel in 1913 when he incorporated chromium into steel.

A photograph of the exterior of a red-brick building with a rounded corner that was previously Brown Firth Research Laboratory
The Grade II listed former Brown Firth Research Laboratory at 1 Blackmore Street, Sheffield, South Yorkshire. © Historic England Archive. View image DP175105.

The invention of a non-corroding steel revolutionised manufacturing worldwide. Not only is stainless steel cutlery used by people worldwide every day, but Brearley’s invention was also important for how buildings were constructed.

The metal trade has been alive in Sheffield since the Middle Ages, and by the 18th century, Sheffield was the nation’s principal producer of different types of steel. The invention of stainless steel, a lucky accident, remains perhaps Sheffield’s most significant contribution to the industry.

7. The stars were plotted at the Royal Observatory, London

Commissioned by King Charles II and designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, was the first state-funded scientific institution in Britain.

A sepia photograph showing a general view of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and its surrounding environment
The Grade I listed Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. Source: Historic England Archive. View image PC09041.

Over more than 300 years, the Observatory has played a fundamental role in the history of navigation, the progress of astronomy, the modern measurement of time, and our understanding of the universe itself.

Here, the first two Astronomers Royal plotted all the stars visible in the northern and southern hemispheres; where, in 1833, the first public time signal was made; and where the Prime Meridian of the world is set.

Photograph of a woman in a grey blazer jacket looking up towards a large astronomy telescope
Anna Rolls, Scientific Instruments Conservator at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London. © Historic England Archive. DP183411.

The Royal Observatory is open to visit and managed by Royal Museums Greenwich.

8. Sputnik was tracked at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, Cheshire

Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire is the only site in the world that can chart the entire history of radio astronomy, and it remains a place of live scientific research.

It has been at the heart of ground-breaking discoveries for over 70 years. It is home to the Lovell Telescope, a nearly 90-metre-tall structure that stands as an icon of British science and engineering.

General view of the 90 metre tall white metal structure of the Lovell Radio Telescope
The Grade I listed Lovell Telescope at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire. © Historic England Archive. View image DP162273.

The Lovell Telescope was the first in the world to be controlled by a digital computer and was the largest steerable telescope upon its completion in 1957. It tracked Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, on its launch the same year.

Other space-age triumphs included being asked by the Soviet Union to track the moon spaceship Luna 9, which sent the first images from the moon’s surface.

Jodrell Bank is open to visit.

We love telling stories about colourful characters and special places near you. Discover the stories and secrets behind listed buildings in your area on the National Heritage List for England.

Further reading

2 comments on “8 Sites of Scientific Discovery and Innovation

  1. Dr P. N. Jarvis

    If you please, Bletchley Park has never been in Bedfordshire. It is in Milton Keynes, which gained independence from Buckinghamshire in 1974 and has been much better since.
    Have you not heard?
    Whether the buildings in Bletchley Park should be Grade One, I cannot tell – but the bomb proof buildings are some of the best I have encountered and, if looked after, should not fall down in a hurry.
    I have known less impressive castles listed higher. The local hammerbeam roofed village hall of 1476 is rightly listed II*.

    We also have an underground nuclear bunker nearby, which I think should be Listed.
    I would be happy to show you round the historic sites of Bletchley.

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