The Apple iPhone and iPod wouldn't be here if it wasn't for a bunch of 1970s British boffins and their innovative "transputer" technology, sponsored by the Labour government of PM Harold Wilson. And that's when iPhone designer Jonathan Ive was a little boy in Chingford, Essex.

A Sunday Times report uncovers the work of men such as Sir Leslie Murphy, whose work led directly to today's mobile gadgets such as the iPhone and various Google Android phones.

"Crack open an iPhone," says Sunday Times author James Ashton, "and you will find components and designs from five British firms."

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"Murphy was chairman of the National Enterprise Board (NEB), set up to intervene in business by Wilson's Labour government in 1975. Much of its time was spent trying to rescue ailing firms such as British Leyland and Rolls-Royce, but the NEB also had a remit to back emerging technologies.

"In 1978, it invested £50m to set up Inmos, whose "transputer" technology, essentially a computer on a chip that could process several commands simultaneously, was thought to have the potential to make Britain a player in the electronics industry."

Inmos transputer

Inmos Limited was a British semiconductor company, founded by Iann Barron, based in Bristol and incorporated in November 1978. Despite early production difficulties, Inmos eventually captured around 60% of the world SRAM market.

"I would say that Inmos was one of the things that made a big difference," said Hossein Yassaie, chief executive of Imagination Technologies, an Inmos alumnus whose designs for graphics chips are in the iPhone.

His peers say GEC Plessey and Ferranti also left a legacy of skills long after their names had disappeared.
"Those big organisations have gone now," said Derek Boyd, chief executive of the National Microelectronics Institute. "But they have been replaced by a new breed of creative firms."

The iPhone was also helped by other British firms, such as ARM Holdings, which supplies its designs to 90 percent of mobile phones. Another is IQE, which designs and makes the silicon wafers used to manufacture chips. Cambridge-based CSR contributes Bluetooth chips and Wolfson Microelectronics supplies audio components, although neither is believed to be supplying the next-generation iPhone 3GS, reports the Sunday newspaper.

ARM was founded as a joint venture between Acorn Computers, Apple Computer and VLSI Technology (as Advanced RISC Machines)

The Inmos transputer was "years ahead of its time but failed to translate into a commercial success", "sucking up £211m of taxpayers' money before it was privatised by Margaret Thatcher's government."

British chipmakers focused on developing high-power, low-energy chips, perfect for today's mobile phones, which are crammed with complicated applications and demand long battery life.

So important is Imagination to America's technology giants that Intel and Apple bought a 25% stake between them to prevent the business falling into a rival's hands. Its share price has doubled since mid-June. And Apple has an internal PA Semi team working on future ARM chips for the iPhone/iPod touch.

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