15 of the Greatest Scottish Inventions

Scotland is famous for many things, from Whisky to deep fried mars bars, but they also invent things from time to time.
Christopher McFadden

Scotland, the Land of the Brave, whisky (not whiskey), Roman and English resistance and, haggis, is known for so many things. It has a wealth of beautiful landscape, dress-wearing men, fictitious lake-dwelling extinct reptiles (well one), and deep-fried Mars bars.

But they are also incredibly creative and ingenious people, as the following examples will show.

In the following article, we'll briefly explore some of the many inventions that can trace their origin to the Land of the Scots.


What is Scotland known for?

Scotland has a long and proud history but, since the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland's identity has, outside of the UK, been more or less synonymous with the rest of the UK. 

As for what Scotland is famous for, we have already mentioned a few things. Ultimately, we'll let you be the judge.

However, it has been a unique melting pot for great thinkers throughout history, as you are about to find out. 

For example, according to Richard Feynman, you can thank the Scots for many great things.

"[The] most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics".

Enough said.

Who is the greatest Scottish inventor of all time?

Probably the most famous Scottish inventor is likely Sir Alexander Fleming. He was the man the world can thank for Penicillin. 

This antibiotic has, arguably, saved millions of lives since it was first used in 1942. For this reason alone, we believe he should rank in 1st place, if not at least the top 3. 

But there are many more great inventors and scientists that have been born and nurtured in the land of the Scots.

What has Britain invented?

Since the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland's innate talent for invention has been absorbed into the ranks of other great thinkers in the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 

For this reason, many inventions that are British can also be claimed by the Scots. For example, James Watt (A Scot) perfected the steam engine which has had a profound impact on the world. 

But, there have been plenty of English, Welsh and Irish inventors who have all made their own significant contributions to the world. 

great Scottish inventions steam engine
Boulton and Watt Steam Engine Source: Ariadacapo/Wikimedia Commons

Greatest Scottish Inventions

Here are some of the most influential Scottish inventions in history. Needless to say, this list is not meant to be exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. Macadamised roads

scottish inventions macadam
Example of Macadam Road in around 1850. Source: Sutter County Library/Wikimedia Commons

Inventor: John Loudon McAdam

The macadamized road was the single biggest revolution in road building since the Roman Empire millennia before. Its development paved the way for much of the modern world as we know it today.

2. The pedal bicycle

scottish inventions bicycle
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Inventor: Kirkpatrick MacMillan and Thomas McCall

In the mid to late 19th Century, two Scots gave the world the first mechanically propelled bicycle. The contributions of Kirkpatrick MacMillan are somewhat controversial, but it was Thomas McCall that first produced a rod-driven two-wheeled, bicycle called the Treadle Bicycle in 1869. 

3. The pneumatic tire

scottish inventions tire
Source: Geni/Wikimedia Commons

Inventor:  John Boyd Dunlop

John Boyd Dunlop was a Scottish inventor and surgeon who spent most of his life in Ireland. After noticing his son getting into some difficulty riding his bicycle, he decided to make his cycling life a little easier in the behind.

His solution was to create the world's first pneumatic tire in around 1888. He patented his design and the rest, as they say, is history.

4. Condensing steam engine improvements

Inventor: James Watt

Whilst it was Newcomen who invented the first modern steam engine, it took some significant improvements by Scottish inventor James Watt to make it truly game-changing. His improvements significantly increased the steam engine's efficiency.

The steam engine, thereafter, would literally help drive the Industrial Revolution the world over.

5. The Stirling heat engine

Inventor: Rev. Robert Stirling

The Stirling Engine is one of the greatest Scottish inventions of all time. Whilst they have not been widely adopted, except for specialist applications, since their invention in 1816, they promise to be more efficient than internal combustion engines. 

A Stirling engine uses the Stirling cycle,­ which is unlike the cycles used in internal-combustion engines.

6. Europe's first passenger steamboat

scottish inventions steamboat
The Comet under sail. Source: Wpwatchdog/Wikimedia Commons

Inventor: Henry Bell

Henry Bell was a Scottish inventor and engineer who is most famous for his development of the world's first passenger steamboat service in Europe. The first of the line, the paddle steamer "Comet" was built in around 1811-12. 

7. The first practical screw propeller

scottish inventors propeller
Source: JThomas/Wikimedia Commons

Inventor: Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson was a Scottish inventor and fisherman's son is famed for inventing a special kind of screw propeller. It was first demonstrated in 1827 but the patent was awarded to another inventor in 1836. 

Wilson also managed to develop a self-acting motion for steam hammers that made them more practical and effective for industry.

8. The steam hammer

scottish inventions steam hammer
Source: SMU Central University Libraries/Flickr

Inventor: James Nasmyth

James Nasmyth was a Scottish inventor and engineer who is most famous for his steam hammer. His invention was one of the necessities for the forging industry.

At the time, forges were struggling to make the paddle shaft for enormous vessels like the SS Great Britain. His solution was to replace existing tilt-hammers with his new design for a steam-powered one. 

It would revolutionize the industry forever.

9. Cordite

Inventor: Sir James Dewar, Sir Frederick Abel 

Cordite is a smokeless propellant that was developed in the United Kingdom in the late 1800s. It was, in part, developed by several Scottish inventors including Sir James Dewar and Sir Frederick Abel of the UK's "Explosives Committee".

It would quickly replace existing propellants in many of the British Forces armaments for many years. It was also used as the detonation system in the earliest atomic bombs like "Little Boy". 

10. Telephone

Inventor: Alexander Graham Bell

The invention of the telephone is widely attributed to Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell. This was one of the most important developments in human communication technology in history.

11. Universal Standard Time

scottish inventors UST
Source: Poulpy/Wikimedia Commons

Inventor: Sir Sandford Fleming

Universal Standard Time is the modern continuation of British Greenwich Mean Time. It has become the international standard for every part of the world today. 

It was originally proposed by Scottish-Canadian inventor Sir Sandford Fleming in the 1870s. 

12. Light signaling between ships

scottish inventions light signalling
Source: U.S. Government/Wikimedia Commons

Inventor: Admiral Philip H. Colomb

The Signal Lamp was first pioneered by the Royal Navy in the later 19th Century. It proved incredibly effective as a means of inter-ship communication that they still in use to the present day. 

Their utility over previous methods, like flags, is significant and they are particularly useful during periods of radio silence for warships. 

The earliest proposal for such a system was by Scottish Admiral Philip Colomb in the 1860s. He developed his own code system which, whilst used for a time, was widely replaced by Morse Code. 

13. The British Broadcasting Corporation BBC

Inventor: John Reith

Love it or hate it, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was 'invented' by a Scotsman. If you are not aware, the BBC is the official British Public Broadcaster and is one of the oldest and best known in the world.

It was devised by John Reith and became officially established by order of Royal Charter in 1922.


scottish inventions RADAR
Source: U.S. Government/Wikimedia Commons

Inventor: A significant contribution made by Robert Watson-Watt

RADAR is a detection system that uses radio waves to help determine the range, angle, and velocity of objects. It is often used to detect aircraft, spacecraft, guided missiles, motor vehicles, weather formations, and terrain. 

RADAR, whilst the product of various inventors, was greatly improved by the work of Scottish inventor Robert Watson-Watt

15. Gas-coal lighting

scottish inventions gas lighting
Source: LarryGrim/Wikimedia Commons

Inventor: William Murdoch

Gas-coal lighting is a system of producing artificial light through the combustion of flammable gases like hydrogen, methane or natural gas, to name but a few. Lighting is produced either directly from the flame or indirectly using things like a gas mantle or limelight where the gas acts only as a fuel source.

Before the advent of electricity, it was one of the most widespread means of providing largescale artificial light in cities and suburbs. 

William Murdoch, a Scotsman, was the first to exploit the flammability of gas for the creation of practical large-scale lighting in the 18th Century. 

Other notable Scottish Inventions

The following table identifies some significant Scottish inventions and their inventors. This list is far from exhaustive.

Invention Inventor
The overhead valve engine David Dunbar Buick
Tubular steel Sir William Fairbairn
The patent slip for docking vessels Thomas Morton
The Drummond Light Thomas Drummond
Canal design Thomas Telford
Dock design improvements John Rennie
Crane design improvements James Bremner
Thermodynamic cycle William John Macquorn Rankine
Carbon brushes for dynamos George Forbes
The Clerk cycle gas engine Sir Dugald Clerk
The wave-powered electricity generator Stephen Salter
Marine engine innovations James Howden
Making cast steel from wrought iron David Mushet
The hot blast oven James Beaufort Neilson
The steam hammer James Nasmyth
Wire rope Robert Stirling Newall
Steam engine improvements William Mcnaught
The Fairlie, a narrow gauge, double-bogie railway engine Robert Francis Fairlie
Threshing machine improvements James Meikle & Andrew Meikle
The Scotch plow James Anderson
The mechanical reaping machine Rev. Patrick Bell
The Fresno scraper James Porteous
Print stereotyping William Ged
Roller printing Thomas Bell
Universal Standard Time Sir Sandford Fleming
The underlying principles of Radio James Clerk Maxwell
The Kinetoscope, a motion picture camera William Kennedy Dickson
The teleprinter Frederick G. Creed
The automated teller machine and Personal Identification Number system James Goodfellow
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