Scottish Inventions

Written by Chris Thornton | 30th of August 2023
Scottish Inventions

Great Scottish inventions have revolutionised human technology over the last 300 years and have shaped the modern world. The Scottish Enlightenment occurred between the 18th and 19th centuries with many scientific accomplishments in various fields, mainly due to Scotland's five universities and numerous parish schools.

England, by comparison, only had two universities, despite being wealthier and having a much larger population. Education was important to the Scots, and their achievements reverberate around the world today.

Great Scottish Inventors

Let's look at some of the most famous Scottish inventors and what they discovered, from the most recent discoveries and then hundreds of years.

  1. Tony Kettle - The Falkirk Wheel (2002)
  2. David Jones and Mike Dailly - Rockstar Games / Grand Theft Auto (1997)
  3. Roslin Institute - Mammal cloning (1996)
  4. Ron Hamilton - Disposable contact lens (1995)
  5. James Hutchison - Full body MRI scanner (1980)
  6. Dr John B. Glenn - Anaesthetic/Propofol (1977)
  7. James Goodfellow - Automated teller machine (1966)
  8. Sir Robert Watson Watt - RADAR (1938)
  9. Sir Alexander Fleming - Penicillin/Antibiotics (1928)
  10. John Logie Baird - The television (1927)
  11. John Reith - British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (1922)
  12. Alan MacMasters - The Toaster! (1893)
  13. Sir James Dewar - Cordite (1889)
  14. John Boyd Dunlop - Pneumatic tyre (1888)
  15. Henry Faulds - Fingerprints (1880)
  16. Alexander Graham Bell - Telephone (1876)
  17. Sir Sandford Fleming - Universal standard time (1870)
  18. Admiral Philip Colomb - The signal lamp (1860)
  19. James Clerk Maxwell - Colour photography (1855)
  20. Alexander Wood - Hypodermic syringe (1853)
  21. Sir William Fairbairn - Metallurgy (1844)
  22. James Nasmyth - Steam hammer (1840)
  23. Kirkpatrick Macmillan - Pedal driven bicycle (1839)
  24. Patrick Bell - Reaping machine (1828)
  25. Robert Wilson - Screw propeller (1827)
  26. John Loudon McAdam - Modern roads (1816)
  27. Sir David Brewster - Kaleidoscope (1815)
  28. Henry Bell - Paddle steamer (1811)
  29. Andrew Meikle - Threshing machine (1786)
  30. James Hutton - Geology (1785)
  31. James Watt - Steam engine improvements (1776)
  32. William Cullen - Modern refrigeration (1756)
  33. Alexander Cumming - Flushing toilet (1755)
  34. George Cleghorn - Fever/Malaria treatment (1749)
  35. John Napier - Logarithms & decimal points (1614)
  36. FAQs
  37. Conclusion

Tony Kettle - The Falkirk Wheel (2002)

The Falkirk Wheel is the world's only rotational boat lift designed to connect two canals at different levels. The boat lift will raise or lower boats to the upper or lower sections of the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal.

The boat lift is an engineering marvel and testament to Scottish design and engineering. Please read more about the Falkirk Wheel in my dedicated article.

The Falkirk Wheel
The Falkirk Wheel

David Jones and Mike Dailly - Rockstar Games / Grand Theft Auto (1997)

Maybe not strictly inventors who created life-changing inventions, but all the same, they made one of the world's most popular gaming franchises - Grand Theft Auto. While a popular target for the media to blame violence on video games, the GTA is more than just wonton destruction.

David Jones and Mike Dailly of Rockstar Games were pioneers in the field of open-world games... basically, huge uninterrupted game worlds that the player could explore in their entirety. Pair that up with a fantastic game engine, storytelling and characterisation; it's easy to see why the GTA series is so popular.

GTA5 is the latest game in the series and, since 2013, has generated more than $6 billion in revenue. An amazing achievement from a small Scottish startup in the late 1990s.

Roslin Institute - Mammal cloning (1996)

Yes, Scotland was a pioneer in the field of animal cloning. Dolly, the sheep, was born in 1996 and was the first mammal ever to be cloned from a single adult cell. Cloning Dolly was the work of the Roslin Institute, part of The University of Edinburgh.

Dolly (named after Dolly Parton) achieved worldwide fame and even made the front cover of Time magazine. Dolly lived for seven years and birthed six lambs in her lifetime.

The Falkirk Wheel

Ron Hamilton - Disposable contact lens (1995)

Amazingly, Ron Hamilton developed the daily disposable contact lens in his makeshift laboratory in his back garden after investors refused to back his proposal of a disposable product.

He streamlined the manufacturing process himself, bringing the cost from £50 for contact lenses down to 50p for a disposable lens, an enormous saving.

James Hutchison - Full body MRI scanner (1980)

Still in use today as one of the most advanced and safest ways to view the human body, Hutchison and his team developed the first full-body MRI scanner in 1980.

While he did not invent magnetic resonance imaging, his significant contribution of "spin warp imaging" with his colleague Bill Edelstein was a game-changing technique that led to the modern MRI machines used in many thousands of hospitals worldwide. The MRI machine is a wondrous invention that has immeasurably contributed to our understanding of the human body.

Scotland invented many great and wonderful inventions such as the MRI machine.
My own brain MRI from 2015.

Dr John B. Glenn - Anaesthetic/Propofol (1977)

John B. Glenn decided to study veterinary medicine at Glasgow University instead of becoming a farmer. After graduation, he accepted a job with "Imperial Chemical Industries" and was tasked with developing new drugs.

After 13 years of research, Glenn and his team developed Propofol, the most widely used anaesthetic today, used for both animals and humans. If you have had surgery in the past, you were likely put to sleep with Propofol.

James Goodfellow - Automated teller machine (1966)

Hailing from Paisley in west Scotland, James Goodfellow was the first to develop the automated teller machine (ATM) with a security pin system in 1966. This service enabled locals to access their cash after banks had closed and were highly convenient and very beneficial to the local economy.

Sir Robert Watson Watt - RADAR (1938)

Here we have yet another famous Scottish inventor, Robert Watson Watt was responsible for developing RADAR in the late 1930s. His concept was to use radio waves to detect flying aircraft at great distances. RADAR was instrumental in the significant air battle - The Battle of Britain - and was a major turning point in World War 2.

Scottish inventors: Robert Watson Watt.

Sir Alexander Fleming - Penicillin/Antibiotics (1928)

One of Scotland's most famous inventors, Fleming, was the first to discover the highly effective antibiotic - Penicillin. Found purely by chance after he investigated green mould growing on the food he had left in his laboratory, it had interacted with a live culture of staphylococcus. Still, curiously the culture was not growing near the mould.

The medicine derived from the mould - Penicillin - was highly effective against bacterial illnesses such as bacterial endocarditis, meningitis, pneumococcal pneumonia, gonorrhoea and syphilis. To date, it must have saved many millions of lives.

Amazing Scottish inventions: antibiotics by Alexander Fleming.

John Logie Baird - The television (1927)

All display technology used today found its roots in the inventions of John Logie Baird, a Scottish inventor and electrical engineer from Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire.

Over his short life, he conceived, designed and developed a working television, initially from pieces of junk to test his concept, all the way through to a working colour television. The first transatlantic television transmission was successful in 1928, transmitting from London to New York. This must have been genuinely astounding at the time to receive live television images from so far away.

Amazing Scottish inventions, the television by John Logie Baird.

John Reith - British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (1922)

I'm not the biggest fan of the BBC; I feel their coverage can sometimes be skewed in favour of the current government's agenda. Their links with paedophile coverups in the past, such as the Jimmy Saville scandal, are unforgivable.

The controversial TV license is also hated in the United Kingdom and is just seen as another tax on people. TV license inspectors cause a great deal of anxiety amongst the population; those who dare not pay the license are endlessly bombarded with threatening letters that worry many. Inspectors can also visit homes to check license status but do not have legal powers to search homes.

Creating a dedicated broadcasting corporation was a good idea and the brainchild of John Reith, a Scotsman. The collective power of the BBC has produced many great bodies of work over the years; their nature documentaries are the best in the world due to their vast budgets and highly trained staff.

Some of their original TV shows were fantastic, for example, Dr Who - I remember watching in the 80s (Sylvester Mccoy era) and being terrified. Unfortunately, the Dr Who of today is terrible in comparison; it went downhill after David Tennant. The BBC is being left behind by subscription services such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney+. The BBC really needs to get with the times and start producing quality fictional TV shows again on a subscription-based on-demand model.

John Reith, founder of the BBC independent public service broadcasting.

Alan MacMasters - The Toaster! (1893)

Yes, a Scotsman developed the toaster you probably use daily for your breakfast! MacMasters got the idea while working on the London subway system. The electrical elements from the lighting installations were toasting his bread while he stopped to eat. This led him to develop his very own toaster with electrically heated wire elements to toast bread.

Sir James Dewar - Cordite (1889)

Sir James Dewar and Sir Frederick Abel developed "Cordite" in 1889, which was used as an explosive compound. The British Army would use cordite as their primary explosive for detonation systems and propellant for bullets fired from guns.

The "Little Boy" atomic bomb used cordite as part of its detonation system; this bomb was sadly dropped on Hiroshima, a Japanese city, and swiftly ended world war 2. I wonder how Dewar would have reacted to his invention being used in this way.

Dewar was also the inventor of the vacuum flask in 1892.

Sir James Dewar

John Boyd Dunlop - Pneumatic tyre (1888)

The Scots may not have invented the wheel, but John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre. His idea was to fill rubber tyres with air, providing a much smoother ride than iron-rimmed wheels or solid rubber tyres.

Irish cyclist Willie Hume demonstrated the success of the new tyre design by winning all four cycling events at the Queens College playing fields in 1889.

John Boyd Dunlop

Henry Faulds - Fingerprints (1880)

The initial idea of using finger prints to identify criminals belongs to Hendry Faulds a Scottish doctor from Beith, North Ayrshire.

While on a medical mission to Japan in 1873, he discovered fingerprints on ancient clay fragments and after comparing his own fingerprints with those of his colleagues he was convinced that each set was unique.

It wasn't long before he used his theory in practice when he successfully exonerated a man for robbing the hospital where he worked. Amazingly, the local police agreed with his evidence and released the man.

Modern fingerprinting was born but wasn't used widely until well after he died in 1930 due to a lack of research on its efficacy.

Henry Faulds

Alexander Graham Bell - Telephone (1876)

Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell was accredited with the invention of the telephone in 1876. The ability to communicate over large distances instantly could not be overstated for the progression of humanity and must be one of the greatest inventions of all time.

Bell established the Bell Telephone Company in 1877 and saw mass success, with 100,000 people owning a telephone in the USA by 1887. Despite creating this wondrous invention, Bell disliked the telephone and found it intrusive and distracting, and he refused to have one installed in his study.

Alexander Graham Bell

Sir Sandford Fleming - Universal standard time (1870)

The concept of universal standard time was first proposed by Scottish inventor Sir Sanford Fleming in the late 1870s. UST was a continuation of the British Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and has become the international standard for time today.

Sir Sandford Fleming

Admiral Philip Colomb - The signal lamp (1860)

While not strictly a scientific inventor, Admiral Colomb developed a ship-to-ship communication system using a signal lamp. This lamp was an amazingly effective way for ships to communicate via line of sight.

Colomb created his code, which was used for some years but later replaced by the more popular Morse Code system.

James Clerk Maxwell - Colour photography (1855)

Known as the father of modern physics and held in the same high regard as Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, James Clerk Maxwell created the world's first colour photograph. His first colour photograph was of a tartan ribbon and was nonchalantly presented at an unrelated lecture. His three colour method using red, green and blue is still used today.

Maxwell also predicted the existence of radio waves.

James Clerk Maxwell
The first colour photograph.
The first colour photography by James Clerk Maxwell.

Alexander Wood - Hypodermic syringe (1853)

Scottish physician Alexander Wood is the inventor of the modern-day hypodermic syringe used on countless millions every day, be it for immunisations, medicine delivery or giving blood. Wood was inspired by nature and after studying the process of how a bee sting works.

Alexander Wood

Sir William Fairbairn - Metallurgy (1844)

A master engineer, William Fairbairn was the first to use wrought iron for ship hulls, bridges and other large engineering projects. He experimented with strengthening iron with hot and cold manufacturing processes.

Fairbairn also invented hydraulic machines and the "Lancashire boiler".

Sir William Fairbairn

James Nasmyth - Steam hammer (1840)

During the industrial revolution, the need for large sections of forged metal was enormous for use in the construction industry and engineering projects or shipbuilding.

Scottish inventor James Nasmyth came up with the concept of using a steam-driven hammer that could generate the force needed to forge large sections of heated metal. A steam hammer could generate a 125-ton blow for each hammer hit.

James Nasmyth, important for the industrial revolution.

Kirkpatrick Macmillan - Pedal driven bicycle (1839)

Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a blacksmith from Keir (Dumfries and Galloway), was the first person to design and build a pedal-driven bicycle in 1839. His design included iron-rimmed wheels, a steering wheel that turned the front wheel and a rodded pedal system that drove the larger rear wheel of the bike.

There is evidence in a Glasgow newspaper of Macmillan being fined 5 British shillings for knocking over a pedestrian while riding his bicycle. There is an unconfirmed detail that his niece - Mary Marchbank - was the first woman to ride a bicycle and therefore became the first female cyclist ever. In 2023 a new cycle route named Kirkpatrick C2C was created in memory of Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick Macmillan

Patrick Bell - Reaping machine (1828)

Patrick Bell was a church of Scotland minister and inventor with interest in mechanical engineering. He invented the horse-powered reaping machine for harvesting wheat grain, a precursor to the modern combine harvester.

The harvester was used successfully on his father's farm and became a popular machine in the district. Even after witnessing the massive success of his machine, Bell did not seek a patent and thought the device should be for the benefit of all humanity. Unfortunately, others decided to patent the design a couple of years later and made an enormous fortune.

Patrick Bell

Robert Wilson - Screw propeller (1827)

Robert Wilson was a Scottish engineer fascinated with model boats and how he could propel through the water. He experimented with rotating sculls with various sizes of blades, different angles and shapes and discovered a particularly efficient form of a screw propeller.

This style of propellor was not popular when Wilson demonstrated it on multiple occasions to the powers that be in the navy. But his design would be used in torpedos and then on ships worldwide. His design is still used today on modern ships.

John Loudon McAdam - Modern roads (1816)

John Loudon McAdam pioneered the concept of cambered roads with crushed layers of stone. This was considered the most significant road-building advancement since the Romans, 2000 years earlier.

The road could be built with less foundation work upon the soil with layers of crushed rock. The road's camber helped water runoff into trenches on either side; the drainage reduced water penetrating the structure of the road and causing damage, especially in winter. This process was named macadamisation / macadamised / macadam roads, and although the process has been dramatically refined, McAdams's design is still in use today.

John Loudon McAdam

Sir David Brewster - Kaleidoscope (1815)

A wonderful invention - the Kaleidoscope - was created purely for artistic enjoyment. It has no other helpful application other than to cast beautiful light patterns and geometric shapes. Invented by Sir David Brewster, he created a tube with two or more reflecting mirrors, symmetrical patterns of light are created due to repeated reflection. The mirror elements within the tube can be rotated to create an ever-changing pattern of shapes and colours.

Sir David Brewster

Henry Bell - Paddle steamer (1811)

This Scottish invention revolutionised passenger travel on waterways around Scotland in the early 1800s. The first paddle steamer was named "Comet" after the great comet of 1811 and provided regular service between Helensburgh, Greenock and Glasgow three times per week. The three horsepower steamer could achieve 5 miles per hour while sailing into the wind.

Unfortunately, despite inventing steam-powered navigation, Bell received no benefit for his design. After two tragedies with the sinking of the Comet and its successor Comet II, he spent much of his later life in poverty.

Henry Bell

Andrew Meikle - Threshing machine (1786)

A threshing machine was a unique device used to remove the outer husks from wheat grains. Designed by Andrew Meikle, it revolutionised agriculture in the late 18th century earning Meikle a place in the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame in 2011.

Andrew Meikle

James Hutton - Geology (1785)

Known as the father of modern geology, James Hutton changed how we looked at the planet's formation and discovered it was much older than we realised... not 6000 years as mentioned in the bible!

At age 58, he presented his work "Theory of the Earth" to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Rock formations at Holyrood Park illustrate his theory on ancient earth.

James Hutton

James Watt - Steam engine improvements (1776)

James Watt was a prolific inventor in the late 1700s and early 1800s but is best known for further developing Thomas Newcomen's steam engine design.

Watt developed a separate condenser that significantly improved all steam engines' energy loss, power output, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. As a result, Watts's steam engine, after some time, led to him becoming very wealthy.

The SI unit of power is named after James Watt - the watt.

James Watt

William Cullen - Modern refrigeration (1756)

William Cullen was a Scottish physician and chemist responsible for creating modern refrigeration. Cullen demonstrated his device in Edinburgh in 1756, a simple device made with a pump to create a vacuum above a container of diethyl ether. When boiled, it absorbed heat from the surrounding areas and created ice.

Unfortunately, at this time, it wasn't understood how this device could have a practical application in day to day life. Still, it led the way for future improvements and was the basis for modern refrigeration in current times.

William Cullen

Alexander Cumming - Flushing toilet (1755)

Scottish mechanic Alexander Cumming was the first to come up with the idea of an "S Bend" for toilets. The idea was to use still water to block bad smells returning up from pipework or sewers. This simple but effective design is still used in all modern toilets today.

Alexander Cumming

George Cleghorn - Fever/Malaria treatment (1749)

After studying malaria in Menorca, Scottish doctor George Cleghorn was an expert on fevers in the mid-1700s. He discovered that the compound "quinine" (made from the bark of the cinchona tree) was a highly effective treatment for malaria and used by British officers as a preventative. However, the solution wasn't very palatable, so the soldiers mixed the drink with lime, sugar... and gin! This is the origin of the popular gin and tonic drink.

John Napier - Logarithms & decimal points (1614)

The Scottish mathematician John Napier was a pioneer of logarithms and pushed for the everyday use of decimal points within mathematics. His work - "Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio" contained a significant work on natural logarithms of trigonometric functions.

It's way beyond my comprehension, but John Napier was responsible for pushing the boundaries of mathematics in the 1600s.

Table of Scottish inventions with inventors:

Invention Inventor Year
Falkirk Wheel Tony Kettle 2002
Rockstar Games / Grand Theft Auto David Jones and Mike Dailly 1997
Mammal cloning Roslin Institute 1996
Disposable contact lens Ron Hamilton 1995
Full body MRI scanner James Hutchison 1980
Anaesthetic / Propofol Dr John B. Glenn 1977
The wave-powered electricity generator Stephen Salter 1977
Automated teller machine James Goodfellow 1966
RADAR Sir Robert Watson Watt 1938
Penicillin / Antibiotics Sir Alexander Fleming 1928
Television John Logie Baird 1927
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) John Reith 1922
The overhead valve engine David Dunbar Buick 1902
The teleprinter Frederick G. Creed 1900
The Toaster Alan MacMasters 1893
The Kinetoscope, a motion picture camera William Kennedy Dickson 1893
Cordite Sir James Dewar 1889
Pneumatic tyre John Boyd Dunlop 1888
Carbon brushes for dynamos George Forbes 1885
The Fresno scraper James Porteous 1883
Fingerprints Henry Faulds 1880
Telephone Alexander Graham Bell 1876
The Clerk cycle gas engine Sir Dugald Clerk 1876
Universal standard time Sir Sandford Fleming 1870
The Fairlie, a narrow gauge, double-bogie railway engine Robert Francis Fairlie 1869
The signal lamp Admiral Philip Colomb 1860
Marine engine innovations James Howden 1860
Colour photography James Clerk Maxwell 1855
Thermodynamic cycle William John Macquorn Rankine 1854
Hypodermic syringe Alexander Wood 1853
Crane design improvements James Bremner 1847
Steam engine improvements William Mcnaught 1845
Metallurgy Sir William Fairbairn 1844
Tubular steel Sir William Fairbairn 1844
Steam hammer James Nasmyth 1840
Wire rope Robert Stirling Newall 1840
Pedal driven bicycle Kirkpatrick Macmillan 1839
Reaping machine Patrick Bell 1828
The hot blast oven James Beaumont Neilson 1828
Screw propeller Robert Wilson 1827
The Drummond Light Thomas Drummond 1820
The patent slip for docking vessels Thomas Morton 1818
Modern roads John Loudon McAdam 1816
Kaleidoscope Sir David Brewster 1815
Paddle steamer Henry Bell 1811
Dock design improvements John Rennie 1800
Making cast steel from wrought iron David Mushet 1800
Canal design Thomas Telford 1793
Threshing machine Andrew Meikle 1786
Geology James Hutton 1785
Roller printing Thomas Bell 1783
Steam engine improvements James Watt 1776
The Scotch plow James Anderson 1770
Modern refrigeration William Cullen 1756
Flushing toilet Alexander Cumming 1755
Fever / Malaria treatment George Cleghorn 1749
Print stereotyping William Ged 1725
Logarithms & decimal points John Napier 1614


Here are a few popular frequently asked questions about Scottish inventions.

Who was the best Scottish inventor?

It's hard to say there are so many great inventors on this list, but for me, it has to go to Sir Alexander Fleming. In terms of lives saved, Penicillin must have helped many millions of people since its discovery in 1928 and must surely be one of the greatest Scottish inventions.

What is Scotland famous for making?

Scottish Whisky is Scotland's most famous export.

Who invented the Scottish bagpipes?

It's impossible to know who invented the bagpipes. The history of the bagpipe spans many thousands of years, and did not originate in Scotland at all. The pipes may even date back to the ancient Sumerians in the country known as Iraq today.

The pipes made their way through history and into Europe. When Caeser/The Romans invaded Britain, the war campaign reached Scotland, and the Romans used bagpipes to scare horses of the natives in Scotland - the Picts. The Picts saw this instrument as having magical qualities and adopted it into their own culture... the rest is history!

Who invented Scottish Whisky?

The first mention of Scottish Whisky dates back to 1495. Friar John Cor, a distiller at Lindores Abbey in Fife, is listed on an Exchequer Roll as making "aqua vitae", which is strong alcoholic liquor. The product Friar Cor developed 520 years ago is unlikely to be the same as the modern product today, but still an interesting footnote in Scottish history.

Was Chicken tikka masala invented in Scotland?

Yes, Mr Ali Ahmed Aslam from the restaurant Shish Mahal is credited with inventing the quintessential British/Indian dish. He created it using a tin of Campbell's condensed tomato soup and spices. The sauce was ideal for cooking chicken without losing moisture from the meat and is likely the most popular Indian dish in Scotland and the wider United Kingdom today.


I'm sure you'll agree that our tiny country has had a massive impact on the world and is a testament to Scot's education system and intelligence. Scottish inventions have shaped the modern world and may have contributed to the betterment of humanity more than any other country.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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Jeanette McQueen
4th of November 2023 @ 11:44:10

Very very proud of my Country men's many inventions over the centuries.

24th of June 2023 @ 18:02:27

Beautiful brilliant intelligence 👏 Inventions from Great Scotland.🌍✍️🌎♥️💞💕

Thomas Mc.lean Robertson CSE.
5th of September 2022 @ 06:47:57

Thank you