Great Scottish inventors who changed the course of history

Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell calling Chicago from New York in 1892 in the world's first telephone call | Wikimedia | Public domain

If you were to call to mind which country is the most innovative in history you’re probably going to think of America. Termed the ‘Nation of Inventors’ by Mark Twain, it’s often at the forefront of collective minds when it comes to revolutionising technology. However, there is another nation that is often overlooked when it comes to it’s contributions to modern-day life: Scotland.

It’s strange to think where the world would be today without the innovation and creativity of Scottish inventors. From Kaleidoscopes to the toaster, Scottish inventors can stake their claim on many of the daily items that we use today.

Alexander Graham Bell (1847 - 1922)

Perhaps one of Scotland’s most renowned inventors; Alexander Graham Bell created the first electric telephone. Though today he is often credited with the invention of the telephone, this title goes back even further than the 1800s.

The history of the telephone begins in 1667 when Robert Hooke invented the acoustic telephone. Very similar to the tin can phone that you might have played with as a child, the acoustic or mechanical phone works by passing sound vibrations along a taut wire strung between two ‘receivers’.

Bell’s creation was born out of the frustrations with the communications technology available at the time: the telegraph. Limited to dispatching only one message at a time, and with the boom in demand for technology, the race was on to find a more efficient and practical solution. Bell’s ‘harmonic telegraph’ seemed to be just the thing, and he received a United States patent in 1876. Its capability to transmit clear spoken words over long distances helped industry worldwide boom, while it’s capacity for adaptation meant that it has been evolving ever since. Indeed our most used technology today - the smartphone - might have been something else entirely.

John Logie Baird (1888 - 1946)

Perhaps one of the biggest inventions to have its origins in such a small nation is another household staple: the television.

Though while his success with the TV would connect the world in a way that had never been seen before, it wasn’t a straight line to brilliance for Baird. It took a string of failed inventions before Baird was struck by the inspiration to amalgamate the technology of Paul Gottlieb Nipkow’s ‘Nipkow’s Disc’ with Arthur Korn’s long-distance photography, which he demonstrated in 1906 by transmitting a picture of Crown Prince Wilhelm over 1800km. Building on elements from both inventions Baird debuted his television in 1925.

From getting kicked out of his home in Hastings (after giving himself a 200-volt shock), to blowing up the entirety of Glasgow’s power supply (in his attempt to transform graphite into diamonds) his creativity and passion left him undeterred and his vision to succeed meant that he successfully discovered a way to transmit moving pictures. In 1928 he achieved the first transatlantic television transmission, and later that same year he demonstrated the first colour tv. He later appeared on the first experimental television programme aired by the BBC.

Alexander Flemming (1881 - 1955)

Joint winner of The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1945 Flemming accidentally discovered penicillin in 1928 and, with the help of his co-recipients Florey and Chain, actualised it’s potential as an antibiotic that would go on to change the course of medicine forever.

Whilst working with influenza, Flemming returned from a two-week holiday to find that he had accidentally contaminated the culture in one of the Petri dishes used for his experiments. Close to destroying the culture as it was contaminated, Flemming noticed a halo surrounding the foreign culture that was beating back the staphylococcus Flemming had intended to grow. He realised the potential that this discovery could hold, and went on to continue studying this new bacteria naming it penicillin.

Flemming’s work was picked up by Florey and Chain in 1931 who realised its use as a medicine, though it wasn’t until the forties until a form of mass production was secured due to the outbreak of the second world war. Determined to turn the tides of war, the US and UK worked together to create a system in which Penicillin could be mass-produced and used for soldiers fighting in the western theatre. Once proven to work, companies worked round the clock to ensure that over 2.3 million doses were ready and available for the D Day landings.

Whilst it’s impossible to know the true impact of how many lives were saved in the course of WWII thanks to Flemmings discovery, it’s extensive use in medicine worldwide today has ensured that bacterial infection and diseases that were once considered fatal are now easily treated.

James Watt (1736 - 1819)

Perhaps one of the most important inventions in the actualisation of the industrial revolution around the world, James Watt’s ‘Watt Engine’ was another invention that stemmed from tinkering and improvements on a previous creation.

Whilst repairing a 1712 Newcomen steam engine Watt noticed that the amount of steam and heat that was escaping the engine’s cylinder was highly inefficient. Able simply to push and not pull, the ability of the Newcomen engine limited its uses and practicalities.

Initially, Watt pioneered adding a separate condenser to the cylinder. By re-routing the steam that was originally lost and cooling it separately from the cylinder it created a far more effective use of energy. With a little encouragement from chemist and fellow inventor John Roebuck, Watt went on to invent the engine that would revolutionise industry and travel, and enable us to truly harness the full potential of energy-dense fossil fuels.

Were it not for the innovation, creativity, passion, and determination of these four Scotsmen, the world today would be an entirely different place. In a world of telecommuting, streaming television, and smart devices one thing is for sure: without these fundamental discoveries, our lives would look very different.

Written by:

Jo Rowan