As Londoners we feel we are the leading city in the world. We squeaked past Paris to nab the 2012 Olympics. Our metro was first, and we become misty eyed with pride thinking of Joseph Bazalgette’s superhighways of sewage.
But London has often played catch-up. How many institutions that many Londoners take pride in did Parisians actually have first? Here's your starter for 10.
George Shillibeer put a 20 seater bus on the streets of London in 1829. It was green. Buses had just started in Paris and he liked the idea. (And incidentally he also brought over a large quantity of brandy without paying tax. Tut-tut.)
The Royal Greenwich Observatory opened in 1676 to aid navigation, with John Flamsteed as Astronomer Royal. But the Paris Observatory had opened in 1671. Its first director was the Italian Giovanni Domenico Cassini (Cassini I), the first of a dynamic dynasty which features again in our list. Greenwich was made ‘prime meridian,’ 0 degrees longitude, in 1884.
A group of entrepreneurial London booksellers commissioned Dr Samuel Johnson to write his dictionary of 1755, the first of recognisable form in English, and with some aspiration to completeness. The ‘harmless drudge’ took eight years to compile it, which he did with only clerical help, and he listed 40,000 words. The two volumes satisfied a need to establish some common ground in everyday letters and was a typically Anglo-Saxon enterprise when compared to the monumental French exertions which predated it. The Academie Française published a dictionary in 1694 which had taken 40 scholars half a century to produce. Its purpose was to lay down rules for French, and it continues to do so, often squaring up against popular culture in the process.
The sea captain, Thomas Coram, whose 20-year campaign started the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury in 1740 for lost or abandoned children, was inspired by examples of compassionate institutions he had seen on the continent. The Paris equivalent, La Couche, opened in 1636 and had a trap door arrangement (or tour d’abandon) like a bank night safe in which babies could be dropped, the mother remaining anonymous. The Foundling hospital was without a similar chute.
Linking the Paris and Greenwich Observatories to further the needs of astronomy, by measuring their relative positions, was a landmark in international scientific co-operation. It was proposed by César-François Cassini de Thury (Cassini III) and prompted the British mapping project which grew into the Ordnance Survey. But the French had already embarked on their great mapping project in 1756, and completed it in 1789. The British laid down their first baseline from which to take all other readings in 1791. There is still a marker in a car park at Heathrow showing where it started.
6. Zoological gardens
The monarchs of France and England had long held royal menageries for entertainment. Some pretension to scientific study crept in by the end of the 18th century — in France. The animals were moved from the palace at Versailles to the Paris Jardin des Plantes in 1792.
The Menagerie at the Tower of London closed in 1835 and the remaining inhabitants were transferred to the Zoological Society Gardens in Regent’s Park, established in 1828.
Unlike the Parisians besieged during the Franco-Prussian war, Londoners have never had to kill their zoo animals for food. London naturalist Frank Buckland may have snacked on one or two, but they were dead already.
7. Appliance of science
Victorian Britain’s inventive prowess was built on a remarkable succession of imaginative amateurs.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was trained in France. Non-military technological training was lacking in London. The Regent Street Polytechnic of 1838 (now the University Westminster) followed Paris’s École Polytechnique of 1795.
Imperial College, one of the world’s top 10 universities, grew from a number of different institutions including the clumsy sounding Normal School of Science of 1881, named in homage to the 1808 École Normale Supérieur of Napoleon.
Paris has its own Joseph Bazalgette and his name is Eugène Belgrand. He began building impressive, vaulted sewers in 1855 to empty Paris’s ordure downstream of the city a few years before Joseph received his go-ahead. Unlike London, this was part of a comprehensive modernisation of the city. In the London sewers you need waders, but the Parisian ones include walkways and even have a section open to the public.
9. Electric lighting
The arc light was invented in London around 1808 but not developed into a practical system for street lighting until Pavel Yablochkov lit an area of Paris in 1878. Very soon after, arc lights started to appear in London, notably outside the Gaiety Theatre, Strand.
10 Big (Pointless) Pointy Things
The Eiffel Tower, built from 1889 is 324m tall and was once the world’s tallest building. Entrepreneur Edward Watkin began something closely resembling the French erection at Wembley in 1891. But it was never completed. Today’s Shard is still shorter.