Scotland is a small country, but its impact on the global stage has been massive, particularly when it comes to inventions. With a population of only 5.47 million people (less than the population of Minnesota), you might be surprised to learn just how many inventions came from Scottish minds.
Well-known Scottish inventors include Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone, and Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin. But besides these two great Alexanders, Scotland has been home to much more than just the creation of haggis and bagpipes. This list is far from exhaustive but rounds up 10 of the best world-changing inventions that you might not have known were created by Scots.
10 The Toaster
This might seem hard to believe, but the electric toaster was actually invented before sliced bread hit the shelves. Sliced bread was introduced in 1928, but the first electric toaster arrived 35 years earlier, in 1893. We have Scotsman Alan MacMasters to thank for the toaster, which he called the Eclipse Toaster. This original toaster only toasted one side of the bread, though, so people had to flip the bread over manually halfway through.
Initially, the toaster was not that successful due to electricity not being widespread at the time and sliced bread having not been invented. It was also a challenge to develop a heating element that could sustain repeated high temperatures that wouldn’t eventually burst into flames. This problem was solved in 1905 by Albert Marsh from Illinois, who created a filament wire with a nickel and chromium alloy. By 1913 toasters could toast both sides of the bread without the manual flip, and by 1921 a Minnesotan named Charles Strite created the pop-up toaster.
9 The Hypodermic Syringe
Hypodermic syringes are one of the most important medical technologies ever developed. Attempts at intravenous injection go back to at least 1656, with experiments done by Renaissance man Christopher Wren (he was an architect, anatomist, astronomer, geometer, and mathematician-physicist, and I don’t know when he found time to sleep). Wren used a goose quill as a needle and an animal bladder as a syringe to inject dogs with opium.
The first recognizable hypodermic syringe was developed by the Scottish physician Alexander Wood in 1853. Remarkably, a French surgeon named Charles Gabriel Pravaz independently developed a similar invention in the same year. Large needles attached to tubing were used at this time, but both Wood and Pravaz improved upon this design.
Both men created a fine needle that fit onto a syringe, but there were differences. Pravaz’s syringe was made of silver and used a screw mechanism to inject the medicine. Wood’s was more closely related to modern syringes, as it was made of glass—to see and measure the contents—and used a plunger to inject the medicine. While this was a large medical step forward, many years passed before the danger of infection via needles was understood and the process of sterilization was adopted.
8 The Bicycle and the Pneumatic Tire
So this entry is two in one, but they go together like peanut butter and jelly: the bicycle and the pneumatic tire (admittedly, that doesn’t sound as catchy). The first bicycle was invented by a German, Baron Karl von Drais. It was delightfully called a “dandy horse” but, unfortunately, did not feature pedals. As a result, the rider had to push their feet on the ground in order to move them forward.
The inventor of the modern pedal-driven bike was Kirkpatrick Macmillan, who from his name alone was obviously Scottish. Macmillan was fascinated by the dandy horse but wanted a better means of propulsion, so he endeavored to attach pedals to the contraption. It is thought that by 1839 he had succeeded, though whether he was the first creator or merely a copycat is unknown. Bicycle expert Alastair Dodds explains that either way, “it is almost certain that the inventor was Scots.”
The first pneumatic tire was patented in 1845 by Scottish inventor Robert William Thomson, but it was never practically applied. That did not occur until 1888 when John Boyd Dunlop, also Scottish, realized that a pneumatic tire could make bicycle rides more comfortable. That name should be familiar to anyone who has bought car tires as three brands dominate the market: Michelin, Goodyear, and Dunlop.
Multiple people attempted to create automated teller machines, or ATMs, during the 1960s, but the man who created the version we use today is James Goodfellow from Paisley. He considered a variety of solutions to ensure that only a verified customer could access money from a machine, including fingerprints (more on that next), voice recognition, and retinal patterns. All of these suggestions were discarded because of technical practicalities or cost.
Goodfellow eventually designed a system with a machine-readable encrypted card and a Personal Identification Number. The invention was patented in 1966, was installed nationwide soon after, and was so successful that it is now ubiquitous worldwide. Also, if you’ve been saying ATM machine and PIN number for your whole life, then you know now that it’s just ATM and PIN, as the extra word at the end is redundant.
6 Forensic Fingerprinting
Life for criminals became much harder at the turn of the 20th century thanks to Henry Faulds from North Ayrshire, who thought up forensic fingerprinting. While on an archaeological dig in Japan, he noticed fingerprints on ancient clay fragments. He became convinced that the pattern of ridges on a person’s fingertips was unique and thus could aid the police in identifying criminals. Faulds had first-hand experience of the usefulness of fingerprinting when he assisted the Tokyo police in identifying a burglar.
Faulds published his research on the forensic possibilities of fingerprinting in Nature magazine in 1880 and sought the help of Charles Darwin (yes, as in the man who proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection) to get the idea off the ground. However, Darwin had no interest and passed the information onto Francis Galton. Galton published works on the idea starting with a paper in 1888 but failed to credit Faulds as the starting point for his research. As a result, Faulds never received the widespread recognition that he felt he deserved.
5 The Refrigerator
Food preservation, such as drying and fermenting, dates back to ancient times, maybe as early as 10,000-12,000 years ago, according to some anthropologists. But change was in the air in 1755 when the Scottish professor and physician William Cullen created the first artificial refrigerator. Cullen used a pump to create a vacuum over a container of diethyl ether and then heated the ether, thus absorbing the heat from the surrounding air and cooling the container.
Cullen’s experiment was purely scientific, though, and he did not pursue the practical application of his creation. But it was his research that provided the starting point for the commercialization of artificial refrigeration. Of course, the impact of refrigeration goes well beyond food storage; it’s useful for anything that needs to be kept cold and even allowed for the creation of towns and cities in previously inhospitably hot locations.
4 Color Photographs
You might know that Scotsman John Logie Baird was responsible for not only the television but also for color television. But did you know that a Scotsman was also responsible for color photographs? In 1861 the mathematician James Clerk Maxwell created the foundation for all practical color processes: the three-color method.
The first color photograph was of a tartan ribbon (very appropriate given that it was the experiment of a Scot) for one of Maxwell’s lectures on color theory. Maxwell realized that all colors could be counterfeited to the human eye by mixing three colors. The actual picture taking was done by Thomas Sutton, who photographed the ribbon three times through red, blue, and green filters. When the images were combined into one composite photograph, the blend recreated the true color of the ribbon.
A decade earlier, the American minister Levi Hill claimed to have produced a color photograph, but it was largely fraudulent. His process, called heliochromy, had only a limited ability to reproduce color, so Hill hand-applied color to his photo. Therefore, Maxwell takes the crown.
Maxwell is actually better known for his advancements in the field of physics. His research on electromagnetism was vital for the creation of technology such as the telephone, radio, television, microwaves, and x-rays. Albert Einstein also used it when he was developing the Theory of Relativity.
3 The Steam Engine
The steam engine was really created by two men: the Englishman Thomas Newcomen, who in 1712 created the atmospheric engine, the first practical fuel-burning engine; and the Scot James Watt, who improved the steam engine to such an extent that he is better known today as its originator.
By 1765 Watt had designed an engine with a separate condenser which improved efficiency. That may not sound impressive, but by 1778, Watt’s design could be applied to power machinery in mines, mills, and factories instead of relying on water power. He was an essential figure in the Industrial Revolution, and his influence is still felt today. It was Watt who popularized the term “horsepower,” and his contribution to the world was deemed so significant that the “watt” unit of power was named after him.
2 Modern Anesthetic Marvel
If you have had an operation that required a general anesthetic in the last 30 years, then Scotsman John B. Glen is why you (hopefully!) didn’t feel any pain. Glen was originally a vet, but in 1972, he joined ICI Pharmaceuticals (later acquired by AstraZeneca) as a research biologist, investigating a replacement for the anesthetic thiopental. This drug was good at knocking patients out but left them feeling sick and dizzy when they regained consciousness.
In 1973 Glen realized that propofol, a substance that was already synthesized by the company, was fast-acting but also left the system quickly. Glen explains that during trials for the drug, they “had mice walking on little rods like tightropes, and they regained their balance 3 minutes after waking up from propofol.” It took 13 years to get the drug right, but it is now so widely used that the World Health Organization lists it as an “essential medicine.” So while not exactly the creator of the drug, his work essentially saved it from a life sitting on a dusty shelf in a storeroom somewhere—or something like that.
1 The Flushing Toilet
Scotland lays claim to not only the earliest indoor toilet but also the invention of the flushing mechanism that is the foundation of modern sanitation. Some of the earliest known indoor toilets are found on Scotland’s Orkney Islands, at the Neolithic site of Skara Brae. The stone huts of this 3,000 B.C. village featured a very basic sewer system, where waste was flushed into a drain with pots of water. Even earlier, toilets in the Indus Valley region also included a pipe system to carry the soiled water away. But these early models required someone to manually pour water into the basin to “flush.”
Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Crapper did not invent the flushing toilet; rather, he was one of the leading manufacturers who later modified what had already been invented. Instead, Englishman Sir John Harrington (ancestor of Games of Thrones actor Kit Harrington) is usually credited as the true inventor. While Harrington’s Renaissance-era toilet featured many of the trappings of the modern toilet, he, unfortunately, failed to solve the smell issue.
The award for solving that problem goes to Edinburgh-born Alexander Cumming, who in 1775 developed and patented the “S bend” to block out bad smells from the connecting sewers. He also linked the water valve to the flush mechanism, which allowed users to empty the pan and refill it with fresh water with the pull of one handle.