ConsultantGary Smailes Historian & author

A land of world class invention

From golf to television to the telephone, Scotland prides itself on being a country that has led the way in many of the world's great inventions. But where does this power of invention spring from?

In the Reformation, the Scottish Kirk demanded a school in every parish. 200 years on, that learning led to the ingenuity and creativity of the Scottish Enlightenment. So what are the Scottish inventions, big and small, that shaped the modern world?


The birth of golf


Eighteenth century golfers at St Andrews

Golfers at St Andrews in the 18th Century.

Well before the Reformation, one of Scotland's first inventions was golf. It is now a global sport with over 32,000 courses across the world.

Although the Netherlands has laid claim to golf, the modern 18 hole game began in Scotland. The earliest known games were most likely played around the year 1100 on the Scottish east coast where shepherds used sticks to hit pebbles into rabbit holes. Over the next two centuries, the game’s popularity grew in Scotland. In the 16th Century golf evolved, with different clubs being used to hit the balls into holes marked by flags.In 1744, the oldest surviving rules of golf were drafted in Edinburgh.

The history of Scottish golf Rory McIlroy on the perfect golf swing

Golf is a day spent in a round of strenuous idleness.

William Wordsworth


John Napier and logarithms


Book of logarithm tables

Logarithm tables.

In the 17th Century John Napier laid the foundations for modern computing when he invented logarithms.

Napier first presented the concept of logarithms in 1614. Put simply, a logarithm answers the question: how many of one number do we multiply to get another number? For example, we need to multiply two three times to get 8: 2 X 2 X 2 = 8. So the logarithm is three. The applications were widespread: seafarers could chart their position accurately and astronomers were able to calculate the orbits of planets. Today, computers have replaced written tables, but the principle remains the same.

John Napier at the Scottish Science Hall of Fame


James Watt's improved steam engine

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James Watt's eureka moment, when he realised how he could improve the steam engine. Scots Who Made the Modern World (BBC Scotland, 2009).

In the age of Enlightenment, Scotland was full of leaders in science and philosophy. One was James Watt who invented a new type of steam engine.

James Watt was working as an instrument maker at Glasgow University when he was given a Newcomen steam engine to fix. Thomas Newcomen invented the first steam engine around 1712, but Watt believed he could improve it. Watt’s masterstroke came in 1765 when he thought of a way to stop the steam escaping, increasing the engine’s efficiency threefold. In mills, mines and factories, the steam engine transformed the way people worked.

James Watt at the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have – power

Matthew Boulton, James Watt's steam engine business partner


The first professional police force

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Glasgow Police pea whistle

Pea whistle as used by the Glasgow police force in the late 19th century.

The steam revolution was bringing increasing numbers coming into Britain's cities. The need for law and order was key.

In June 1800, the British parliament passed the Glasgow Police Act, establishing the City of Glasgow Police: Britain’s first professional police force. In addition to policing, the duties of this fledgling force included fire-fighting, street sweeping and calling the time. It ran from 1800 to 1975 and was then amalgamated into Strathclyde Police.

The Glasgow Police MuseumPolice Scotland


Macadamised roads

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A macadmised road in the Ukraine.

A macadamised road in the Ukraine.

Just as Watt sped up the industrial revolution, so John McAdam’s road improvements allowed the fruits of industry to be more smoothly transported.

McAdam was an engineer from Ayr, but his interest in road improvement led him to Bristol. It was there that McAdam proposed that road quality could be improved by building in layers. Macadamised roads had a solid base of large stones, overlaid with crushed stone and gravel. They also had a camber to allow rainwater to drain off. It was the biggest improvement to roads since Roman times. And by the beginning of the 20th Century, most American and European roads had been macadamised.

John McAdam biography at Undiscovered Scotland


Alexander Bain and the fax machine

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Alexander Bain's chemical telegraph.

Bain's chemical telegraph, the first to transmit a facsimile copy of an image.

In the Victorian era, there were many great inventors including Alexander Bain whose ideas were later used in the creation of television sets.

In 1841, Bain patented the electric clock, and two years later invented the first fax machine. He attached a needle to a pendulum, which then swept over an image made up of dark and light spots. Every time the needle met a dark spot, the electric current varied. These variations were sent by telegraph and reproduced by a synchronised receiving pendulum. Eighty years on, these ideas were used to develop television and in 2016, led to Bain receiving a posthumous Emmy Award.

Alexander Bain's honorary Emmy award


James Young Simpson and chloroform as an anaesthetic

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James Young Simpson experimenting with chloroform

James Young Simpson, having experimented on himself with chloroform, was found unconscious on the floor by his butler.

While Napier and Watt made navigation and transport much easier, Scots were committed to improving and saving lives in other branches of science.

As a medical student, John Young Simpson was horrified at the sight of operations performed without anaesthetics. After becoming Professor of Midwifery at Edinburgh University in 1840, he attempted to find a drug that would block his patients’ pain. Eventually he came across a liquid called chloroform. After successfully testing it on himself and two assistants, Simpson realised its potential. He revolutionised childbirth, making it much safer.

James Young Simpson's chloroform decanterShort biography of James Young Simpson

I do not underrate the importance of pain or of its alleviation. There are women who after one labour remain their life long depressed…

James Young Simpson


Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone

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Early Bell telephone and terminal panel, 1877

Early Bell telephone and terminal panel, 1877.

Today, with nearly seven billion mobile phones worldwide, there can be no doubt as to the significance of Alexander Graham Bell's invention.

Edinburgh-born Alexander Graham Bell was fascinated with speech and our ability to hear. This led to him experimenting with ways of transmitting sound electronically. By 1875, now living in Canada, he had developed a receiver that turned electricity into sound. Famously, Bell's first phone communication was to his assistant in another room: "Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you." Although others were researching along similar lines, Bell was the first to patent his design in 1876.

Alexander Graham Bell National Historical siteBell at the Scottish Science Hall of Fame

Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you.

Alexander Graham Bell's first words on a telephone


John Muir and National Parks

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Neil Oliver describes the risks that John Muir took while exploring Yosemite. The Last Explorers: John Muir (BBC Scotland, 2010).

With the telephone, Bell brought us closer together. But that Scottish need to travel and see the world has also led to many great innovations.

John Muir’s wanderlust started as a boy when he would roam his native East Lothian. After his family emigrated to America, his passion for exploring found a much bigger stage. Muir was profoundly moved by the natural beauty of the Sierra Nevada mountains and Yosemite. Concerned that this beauty was under threat from industry and farming, he lobbied for Yosemite to become a National Park, for all to enjoy. Muir achieved this in 1890, sowing the global seeds of the National Park movement.

John Muir at the National Parks Service websiteThe John Muir Trust

The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.

John Muir


Irn Bru

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Michael Portillo talks to Robin Barr about the family's famous soft drink. Great British Railway Journeys (BBC Two, 2015).

Apart from the scientific and social spheres, Scotland has also made some unique culinary contributions to the world's palate.

Often described as Scotland’s ‘other national drink’, Irn Bru as we know it today was first made by AG Barr and Co in 1901. The iron in its name is thought to derive from the fact that the fizzy drink has a food additive containing iron hydroxide, although the exact recipe remains a secret. Both Billy Connolly and Elvis Costello have immortalised Irn Bru in song and it’s sold in countries as diverse as Russia, Spain and Australia.

Irn Bru maker AG Barr ends cash refund on bottle returns

Made in Scotland... from girders

Irn Bru promotional slogan


John Logie Baird and television

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John Logie Baird's grandson Iain and Adam Hart Davis describe Baird's first television. Scots Who Made the Modern World (BBC Scotland, 2009).

Television is perhaps the 20th Century's most influential invention.

Helensburgh-born John Logie Baird was an inventor to his fingertips. Before television he had even invented a thermal undersock, used by soldiers during World War One. His first mechanical television was a primitive affair whose parts included a tea chest and bicycle lights. Despite this, Baird successfully demonstrated his television in early 1926, even though the crude picture was at a resolution of barely 30 lines. But from these first small steps, television would go on to change the world.

John Logie Bard at the History of the BBC websiteThe world's oldest surviving colour television

It's the menace that everyone loves to hate but can't seem to live without.

Playwright Paddy Chayefsky on television


Dolly the sheep

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Dolly the sheep at the National Museum of Scotland

Dolly the sheep at the National Museum of Scotland.

One pioneering Scottish scientific achievement announced in 1997 means we can now create copies of living things.

Dolly the sheep is the world's most famous clone. She was created from an adult sheep cell at the Roslin Institute, now part of Edinburgh University, and born in 1996. Dolly was cloned to allow research into genetic diseases for which there is currently no cure, but ethical questions arising from her cloning have sparked much debate. Dolly is just one of the many ground breaking innovations that place one small nation at the forefront of inventions that have shaped the modern world.

Overview of Dolly's life Dolly the sheep at the National Museum of Scotland