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As today is a special day (and I’m all alone in the office), it seems a good time to have a think about the things which Britain has given to America, the things for which America should be thankful.

You’ll note I said ‘thankful’ and not ‘grateful’ because I’m not trying to pick a fight, these are things the British are pretty thankful for too. And no, they’re not in any order of preference and no, it’s not an exhaustive list and yes you are perfectly at liberty to add your own suggestions underneath.

Ready? Let’s get to it:

The English Language
Any language which has stood firm against the battering waves of time has probably done so by absorbing influences from everywhere. It’s like dog breeding, the more specialized a breed, the more likely it is to have health problems, whereas Champ the mongrel from down the block will probably live to be 20. The English language is just such a mongrel, sucking up words from every ethnic group that invaded, or even just visited our fair shores. It has proven to be such an effective sponge that there are words which fuse bits of Greek with bits of Latin, words which start out local and end up international. Naturally, because it’s been around so long and has been left to evolve in much the same way that yeast is left to evolve in a loaf of bread, most of the rules aren’t really rules. And people end up making aggressive blogs about apostrophes and badly-spelled signs. But it’s the language of Shakespeare, the language of Ricky Gervais and Doctor Who and Jay-Z and Ghostbusters and Ernest Hemingway, so it must have something going for it.

Rubber bands
Beloved of mail delivery operatives the world over, and anyone who wants to make a really big rubber ball but hasn’t the first idea how. Rubber bands were first developed in London by Stephen Perry in 1845, and have been used for an astonishing variety of things ever since, not the least of which include: home-made catapults, flicking paperclips in class, cutting off the blood supply in your thumb, keeping your old love letters together. So, in the name of sweethearts and schoolboys everywhere, thank you, Stephen!

It seems bizarre to thing that the tool to extract a cork from a bottle was invented after the practice of putting corks into bottles in the first place, but that’s how history works. Now, there is some debate over who first invented the corkscrew, with the earliest patent being applied for by Samuel Henshall, of Middlesex, in 1795. However, his, and all subsequent designs, were based upon the bulletscrew or gun worm, a corkscrew-like device designed to extract a jammed bullet from the barrel of a rifle. In any case, whoever came up with the idea has ensured everyone’s Thanksgiving celebrations will go well, so hats off.

Not the chap from M.A.S.H., obviously. No the thing we should all be thankful for is the invention of a way to keep a reliable eye on aircraft from long distances, which allows radio operators to help them not crash into one another. It also provides a valuable early warning system should any missile be launched in your direction. And it’s thanks to Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt (who must have flinched every time some Bertie Wooster passed nearby, braying “what-what?”) that we have such things. The 20th Century would look very different without him.

The Periodic Table
Think about it, even when you know that there are some chemical entities which cannot be broken down into core components, and must therefore be called ‘elements’, why should it be possible to arrange them into some kind of rational order? Why should the universe line up in such a helpful fashion that, once you’ve arranged everything correctly, there are gaps to be filled by elements which have yet to be discovered? Elements which chemists then go on to discover because they actually exist? That’s the incredible legacy of John Newlands, who must qualify as some kind of scientific visionary.

And if that seems a little boring, here’s a song by Tom Lehrer to jazz John’s achievement up a little. Happy holidays!

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By Fraser McAlpine