College inventions that shaped the world

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As well as being a hotbed of intellectual development and debate for centuries, universities have also been the breeding ground for many of the world's most significant innovations.

Here, CNBC takes a look at eight seismic discoveries and landmark breakthroughs that came from Europe's elite universities.


1846, first operation in Europe under anaesthetic:

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Born in Scotland in 1794, Robert Liston earned a reputation as one of 19th century medicine's most adept and clinical surgeons.

Reportedly able to amputate a leg in less than 30 seconds, Liston made history at University College Hospital, London in 1846 when he performed the first operation in Europe under anaesthetic.

Using ether, Liston amputated the leg of Frederick Churchill, a butler. It is said that the operation took just 25 seconds.

1848, The Cambridge Rules:

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While soccer – or football as it is known outside the U.S. – is not having the best of times at the moment, it has a rich history.

Games resembling soccer have taken place for thousands of years, but in 1848 students at the University of Cambridge drew up a set of rules that laid the foundations for the modern game.

These included the changing of ends at half time, the concept of goal kicks and the outlawing of, "holding, pushing with the hands, tripping up, and shinning."

1865, antiseptic surgery:

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Before the seminal work of Joseph Lister, going under the knife was extremely risky for patients, with infections and death a common occurrence.

Lister, who became a surgeon in 1853, was made Professor of Surgery at the University of Glasgow in 1860. According to the university's website, it was during this period that Lister, "developed his revolutionary system of antiseptic surgery," using carbolic acid to cover patients' wounds.

Infection rates dropped, more post-operative patients survived and a new era of medicine was born.

1895, X-rays:

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In late 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, Rector of the University of Würzburg, transformed medicine with his discovery of X-rays.

According to the website of the Nobel Prize – which he won in 1901 – Röntgen was conducting experiments with cathode rays, described as "radiation emitted in a low pressure glass tube when a voltage is applied between two metal plates."

It was during this experiment that he discovered, "weak light appearing on a screen a bit away although the glass tube was shielded."

This discovery of unknown, penetrating radiation made headlines the world over, and ushered in a new period of medical science -- with doctors able to look inside patients without needing to operate on them.


1958, ultrasound:

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Ultrasound -- used to check everything from the development of foetuses in the womb to diagnosing internal problems -- is now a crucial part of medicine.

Ian Donald, Regius Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Glasgow, pioneered the use of ultrasound in obstetrics.

Together with engineer Tom Brown and obstetrician John MacVicar, Donald developed the world's first diagnostic ultrasound machine, with the findings published in a 1958 Lancet paper.


1961, the contraceptive pill:

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The contraceptive pill has had a profound impact on culture and society over the last 50 years.

While working as a researcher at the University of Manchester, Herchel Smith, "developed an inexpensive way of producing chemicals that can stop women ovulating during their monthly menstrual cycle," according to the university's website. "The contraceptive pill was born."

1984, DNA fingerprinting:

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Alec Jeffreys conducted research at the University of Leicester which lead to the discovery, in 1984, of, "variations in DNA, unique to each individual," according to the university's website.

This led to Jeffreys' innovation of "DNA fingerprinting." The significance of Jeffreys work is huge, and has been used to help solve many high-profile cases as well as exonerate individuals found guilty of crimes they did not commit.

Speaking of his work, Jeffreys has said: "It does not solve crimes. It establishes whether sample X comes from person Y. It is then up to the court to interpret that in the context of other evidence in a criminal case."


1991, webcam:

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It may seem odd, but the world's first ever webcam was designed in 1991 to let researchers at the University of Cambridge Computer Lab know when their coffee pot – located in another area of the department – was running dry.

The camera showing the coffee pot was finally turned off in 2001, but its significance was huge, with online-video services such as Skype and FaceTime now an integral part of modern life.