Published on May 6th, 2014 | by Bridget Murray


Great Scot, I’ve got it!

What do we have to thank Scotland for, apart from consistent weather and the Loch Ness Monster? Bridget Murray investigates in the spirit of Issue 10, “Ten!”, which will be available from 9th May online and around campus!

1. Bicycles

A Scottish blacksmith named Kirkpatrick MacMillan designed the first vehicle that came close to what we call a bicycle today, although a variety of wheeled contraptions, such as velocipedes, existed throughout the early 1800s. McMillan is also often associated with the first known bicycling traffic offense in 1842, for which it is alleged that he knocked over a pedestrian in Glasgow and was fined five British shillings.

2. The Flushing Toilet

Scottish watchmaker Alexander Cummings took a step away from his usual work when he submitted his patent for the first flushing toilet. His S-shaped design in the pipe trap below the toilet ensured that unpleasant odours from the sewers did not enter buildings. The patent was granted in 1775 and the essence of the design survives today in modern toilets.

3. The Hypodermic Syringe

Alexander Wood, a Scottish physician, invented the first true hypodermic syringe in 1853, around the same time as the Frenchman Charles Pravaz. Although Wood designed it specifically with the administration of morphine in mind, it was noted that he also imagined it could have far wider applications.

4. Chloroform

The use of chloroform as an anaesthetic was first discovered by a Scottish obstetrician, James Young Simpson. Through a process of trial and error, he realised that inhaling the vapour of chloroform depresses the central nervous system, meaning that painful medical procedures could be conducted with ease. Although the use of chloroform was eventually phased out, it revolutionised medicine both in the UK and further afield.

Robert Watson-Watt

Robert Watson-Watt

5. Radar

A radar network along the English coast implemented to detect incoming enemy aircraft in World War II was the brainchild of Scottish physicist Robert Watson-Watt. Building on his research into the radio detection of thunderstorms in World War I, his system located aircraft using radio pulses. Arguably, the radar systems based on this remarkable discovery were vital to Britain’s success in the Battle of Britain.

6. Television

James Logie Baird is sometimes known as “The Father of Television”, and was the first person to demonstrate a working television with the ability to show motion. In 1924 he transmitted the image of a Maltese cross over the distance of ten feet.

7. Colour Photography

The Edinburgh born James Clerk Maxwell was appointed to the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen at the young age of 25. It was when he moved to King’s College London in 1861 that he first demonstrated the technique of colour photography with a picture of a tartan ribbon taken using coloured filters. His work on optics and colour was also essential to the early development of other technology that we now take for granted, such as radio, television and mobile phones. The world can only wonder what other triumphs he could have achieved if he had not died prematurely of stomach cancer, aged only 48.

8. Penicillin

After experiencing first-hand the horrors of infected wounds as a medic in World War I, Scottish scientist Alexander Flemming went on to note the substances exuded by Penicillium rubens when cultured in specific substrate.

9. The Kelvin Scale

During his time studying the nature of heat, Lord Kelvin realised that if he was able to define, with precision, very low temperatures, he would be able to progress much further. In 1848 he proposed an absolute temperature scale that is familiar to us as the kelvin scale, where zero degrees kelvin is absolute zero — the point where all thermal motion ceases — equivalent to −273.15 Celsius.

10. Irn-Bru

Iron Brew was first produced in Falkirk in 1901 by the Barr family, and its ingredients include a top secret combination of 32 flavouring agents. It changed its name to Irn-Bru in 1946, as new legislation required a drink to actually be brewed to have “brew” in its name. Sometimes known as “Scotland’s other national drink” (after whisky), Irn-Bru outsells all other soft drinks in Scotland.

Featured image is the first colour photograph (invention number 7), a tartan ribbon, taken in 1861.

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About the Author

A zoology undergraduate in her fourth year, Bridget spends most of her time trying to pretend graduation isn't looming, fiddling with the exhibitions in the Zoology Museum. In her spare time she bakes a lot of cakes and edits a lot of words.

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