• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Scotland’s most surprising inventions

It's common knowledge that Scots were responsible for the telephone, penicillin and television but did you know the indoor toilet, fax machine and cash machine were created here?


In Invented In Scotland, a new book that celebrates the ingenuity of Scots through the years, author Allan Burnett tells how in 1765 Burkat Shudi, a harpsichord maker in London, found himself with a nine-year-old prodigy who had been sent to play one of his harpsichords. The boy’s name was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but Shudi, as it turns out, was more taken with John Broadwood, an East Lothian-born carpenter who had travelled to London to become his apprentice. In time, Broadwood set himself the aim of improving on the piano’s then-traditional box design, and perfected the grand piano in or around 1777. He also came up with the foot-pedal method for varying the sound of the keys.


Where would we be without it? We shudder to think. According to Burnett, the oldest known indoor toilet can be found in the wall of a neolithic village of Skara Brae, Orkney. The sewer system was understandably basic -- this was, after all, sometime between 3200BC and 2200BC, but what happened was that waste was flushed into a drain with pots of water. The rough principle survives today.


A North Ayrshire-born medical missionary named Henry Faulds was at an archaeological dig in Japan in the 1870s when he noticed fingerprints preserved on ancient clay pots, and it occurred to him that no two people’s fingerprints were the same. After reading an article in Nature magazine about how such prints could be used to apprehend criminals, he spent six years devising a system of forensic fingerprinting. Scotland Yard turned it down, but when police officers in Argentina used it to ascertain that two young boys had been killed by their mother it was the first time fingerprints had been successfully used in a murder investigation. Faulds died in 1930, frustrated by what he saw as a lack of public recognition for his achievement.


Fancy keeping your weekly shopping in a hole in the ground and packing it with ice? Thought not. This was the practice for generations, but in the 19th century patents for a refrigerator design came into being, taking up the principle of artificial refrigeration as devised in 1748 by William Cullen of Hamilton. By means of a pump he sucked air out of a bell jar and created a partial vacuum over a container of a colourless liquid known as diethyl ether. It came to a boil as depressurisation continued and absorbed heat from the nearby air, which in turn became so cool that a small amount of ice was formed. “He could have chosen to use this method for keeping foodstuffs cold,” says Burnett, “but it was considered to have no practical purpose at the time.” Others, fortunately, would eventually see its worth.


Virtually all that connects these seemingly disparate inventions is the fact they stand on the shoulders of a Scots giant who was highly regarded by none other than Einstein: a prodigiously gifted physicist called James Clerk Maxwell, who was apparently known as Daftie to his friends at Edinburgh Academy. “This is a good example of the fact that an invention doesn’t have to be a physical object -- it can be an idea or a way of understanding the world,” says Burnett. “The electro-magnetic spectrum is a great illustration of this.” Maxwell recognised that all electric and magnetic energy is carried in waves that travel at a speed equivalent to the speed of light -- about 300,000 kilometres per second. As other scientists built on his experiment, the full electro-magnetic spectrum was discovered. In 1861 Maxwell was also responsible for the world’s first demonstration of colour photography. Some daftie.


Alexander Bain, the Caithness crofter’s son who also gave us the electric clock, devised a form of telegraph involving the use of electrically-charged chemical paper, but he ran up against Samuel Morse, who claimed it infringed his own patented telegraph. Bain, however, also created a primitive version of the fax machine, a complicated device in which a stylus “read” a metal surface imprinted with dark and light spots; the dark spots caused variations in an electrical current passing through the apparatus and transmitted via a telegraph wire to another machine; there, a synchronised pendulum would detect the changes in current and represent it on a piece of chemically treated paper tape. Voila: a sequence of spots that matched the original.


Sir George Keith Elphinstone, an aristocratic electrical engineer, specialised in electrical instruments for use on the road or in battle. He developed speed-recording equipment for trains, and it was but a short step to a similar device for new-fangled cars. Other inventors came up with their own variations, but Elphinstone was the first. He died in 1941.


There are an estimated 1.5 million ATMs around the world, and they owe their invention to John Shepherd-Barron, a Scot born in India. The idea occurred to him while he was in the bath. The first ATM opened for business in London in 1967. An earlier US version had been tried and scrapped in the late 1930s; Shepherd-Barron’s device, says Burnett, “was the first true and successful cash dispenser”. His original PIN code had six digits, later reduced to a more memorable four.


Together with baseball and American football, this is one of the great American sports. According to Burnett, James Naismith, born in Ontario to Scottish parents, was working as a PE teacher in Massachusetts in 1891 when he devised the game so as to give his charges something to do when it was too cold to venture outside. He gave them a large, soft ball and a set of rules entailing minimal physical contact, and hung a couple of peach baskets 10 feet above the gym floor.


This was created by a team at the University of Aberdeen led by John Mallard, Scotland’s first professor of medical physics. The first whole-body MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan was conducted at Aberdeen in 1980. Huge development costs and safety fears hampered its initial progress and rival versions emerged from the US later, but, says Burnett, Mallard and his team deserve “the principal credit” for the current MRI scanner -- safe, portable and capable of saving lives.

Invented In Scotland by Allan Burnett is published by Birlinn, priced £12.99.

Credit to the nation

“If a child or young adult picks up this book off a library shelf or a coffee table and is inspired by the stories in it to think creatively and enterprisingly - and, above all, practically - it will be a great example of why history matters,” says Allan Burnett of his book, Invented In Scotland.

“I grew up under the cloud of Thatcherism and its legacy in Scotland, and the assumption that ‘business’ was not my business, and the private sector was not to be trusted. I think many young Scots shared that experience.

“But the story of the Scottish inventors taught me to change my mind. We are -- and always have been -- an outstanding nation of innovative, enterprising individuals.

“Crucially, these Scottish inventors also demonstrate a remarkable social conscience -- in everything from Alexander Graham Bell’s interest in assisting deaf children, to James Lind’s desire to eradicate scurvy among sailors, to the universal benefit of the MRI scanner. I think this makes these people truly inspirational.”

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.