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Innovation in Scotland: 26 things you didn't know were invented by Scots!

A steam train in Paignton, Devon

By Andrew Lennox, President, Glasgow School of English, Global School of English, Edinburgh,
Hamilton School of English, Edinburgh

11 July 2014

Scotland is well-known for its beautiful scenery, festivals and city life – but it’s also a hotbed of invention and discovery! With a strong industrial heritage and a passion for new ideas, Scotland is the place to be for aspiring scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs. These are just a few of the inventions that came from this small country to change the lives of millions of people around the world…

Let’s start with how you get here. Naturally, there will be phone calls to check details of your course, costs, accommodation, etc. That’s right – the telephone was invented by a Scot, Alexander Graham Bell.

Then there’s your flight. You get on the plane, it taxis across the tarmac and then takes off. Tarmac, universally used for all the world’s roads as well as at airports, was invented by John McAdam, the Scottish engineer from which it takes its name (‘tarmac’ stands for tar macadam).

As the plane thunders down the runway, remember that its pneumatic rubber tyres – and those of every car in the world – were invented by James Dunlop, another Scotsman.

You might read a book on your flight – perhaps one of the many stories of the world's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author and creator of Sherlock Holmes, was from Edinburgh (you can see his statue at Picardy Place, the street where he was born).

Wherever you are in the world, you need to travel between your classes, your work and your home. In many countries, the bicycle is one of the most common forms of transport. By now, you won’t be surprised to learn that the modern bicycle was invented by a Scottish blacksmith named Kirkpatrick McMillan.

The Harris Tweed Ride © Simona Ciocarlan from Romania, photography student at West College Scotland

20 miles outside Glasgow lies Greenock, home of James Watt, the man who developed the steam engine. Watt’s innovation is generally regarded as one of the most important in world history, and undoubtedly played a central part in providing the power behind the UK’s industrial revolution – in the 19th century, the UK was considered the ‘Workshop of the World’. Factories, trains and ships were powered by steam for over 100 years.

Talking of ships, before you leave Helensburgh you can also learn of Henry Bell, a Scottish businessman. He built the ‘Comet’, the first steamship in the world, which launched from Helensburgh. The steamship was vital in developing international trade, with container ships transporting goods to and from all parts of the globe. 

You might wonder what else such a small town could have done that would transform our world. How about being the place where the inventor of television was born? Yes, television was invented by the Scottish engineer John Logie Baird. Love it or hate it, can you imagine a world without television?

But there’s still much more! Believe it or not, these are just some of the things invented or founded by Scots: penicillin, anaesthetics, the telegraph, Dolly the Sheep (the first cloned mammal), the electric clock, stereotype printing, the toaster, the sport of golf, antisepsis (using antiseptics to fight disease), the fax machine, neoclassical economics, beta-blockers (which treat heart conditions), quinine (the cure for malaria), logarithms (in mathematics), the refrigerator, the adhesive postage stamp, the thermos flask...

And, of course, Scotch whisky!

Turnberry Golf Course, Scotland ©VisitBritain/Harry Williams

Scotland has truly had a huge impact on the world. Today, Scottish universities, colleges and schools offer outstanding teaching, facilities and support to students, researchers and academics from all over the world. So if you want to be a pioneer, there's no better place to get started!

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