The genius of inventors with roots in Edinburgh and the Lothians is subject of new BBC series

The blackboard was invented by James Pillans, the former headmaster of the Royal High School in Edinburgh
The blackboard was invented by James Pillans, the former headmaster of the Royal High School in Edinburgh
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THE story on a tea towel tells of a day in the life of an Englishman bombarded by Scottish ingenuity as he eats breakfast, goes to work and returns home.

Having eaten a breakfast with marmalade invented by Janet Keiller and her son James in Dundee, travelled by a train whose steam engine was invented by James Watt of Greenock and arrived at his place of work in the Bank of England, founded by William Patterson of Dumfries, he rings his wife on the telephone invented by Alexander Graham Bell of Edinburgh. Later, he returns home to find his son reading Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, also from the Capital, and his daughter watching television invented by John Logie Baird of Helensburgh.

Jame Clerk Maxwell  is regarded as one of the greatest physicists of all time behind Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein

Jame Clerk Maxwell is regarded as one of the greatest physicists of all time behind Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein

Unable to escape the superiority of the Scots, he is offered the chance of shooting himself with a breech-loading rifle designed by Captain Pat Ferguson – another native of Edinburgh, or being given an anaesthetic invented by Sir James Young Simpson of Bathgate.

While Scotland overall has given birth to a whole host of inventors and entrepreneurs, Edinburgh in particular has always been a hotbed of talent.

Ahead of a new four-part BBC Two series entitled The Genius of Invention which starts on January 24, we look at some of inventions you may not realise have their roots in Edinburgh and the Lothians.

Lime cordial

Lauchlan Rose (1829-1885), son of a Leith shipbuilder, patented the method used to preserve citrus juice without alcohol in 1867 – creating Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial. In the same year the Merchant Shipping Act brought in a requirement for all Royal and Merchant Navy ships to provide a daily lime ration to sailors to prevent scurvy. After Rose opened a factory to produce lime juice on Commercial Street in 1868, the product became commonplace and was responsible for the nickname ‘limey’ given to British sailors. It was introduced to the United States in 1901 and is now manufactured and distributed in the UK by Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd.

The football club

The Foot Ball Club of Edinburgh (1824-1841) is thought to be one of the oldest recorded clubs in the world. It is the first documented club dedicated to football, and the first to describe itself as a football club. The club, which met in the summer months to play a form of football with 39 players, forbade tripping but allowed pushing and holding and the picking up of the ball. The team played in Dalry Park. A modern association football club with the same name was formed in 2007. in an attempt to revive the legacy of the old club. The new club plays in the Edinburgh Sunday Fair Play League, with home games held at Dalkeith High School.

First passenger steamboat service

Henry Bell (1767–1830) was a Scottish

engineer and inventor famous for introducing the first successful passenger

steamboat service in Europe.

Born at Torphichen, near Bathgate in West Lothian, he built his first steam-powered boat - the Comet - in 1812. The boat, which regularly sailed between Greenock and Glasgow along the River Clyde, was the beginning of a revolution in navigation. After briefly trying a service on the Firth of Forth, he started a service between Oban and Fort William via the Crinan Canal in 1819, until the boat was shipwrecked just over a year later.

Gin and tonic

While Edinburgh-born George Cleghorn (1716-1794) didn’t exactly invent gin and tonic, the 18th-century doctor discovered that quinine could cure malaria. The son of a farmer from Granton, Cleghorn studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh where he was one of a group of students who established the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh. While working as an army surgeon in Minorca he discovered that quinine bark acted as a cure for malaria which was endemic in Britain at the time. The quinine was drunk in tonic water but because it was so bitter, gin was added to make it more palatable.

Digestive biscuit

Biscuit manufacturer Sir Alexander Grant (1864-1937) is credited with inventing our favourite tea dunker - the Digestive biscuit. The apprentice baker, who was originally from Forres, moved to Edinburgh in 1887 where he joined biscuit-maker Robert McVitie as his assistant. The name of his creation came from the high content of baking soda in the biscuit which was believed to aid digestion. It was an instant best-seller and following McVitie’s death, Grant became chairman and managing director of the company which he had already transformed by opening factories in Edinburgh, London and Manchester. He became very wealthy but was also a generous benefactor, helping to fund the creation of the National Library of Scotland and Edinburgh University’s new science campus at King’s Buildings.


Schoolchildren would have been happier without this invention by James Pillans (1778-1864), the former headmaster of the Royal High School in Edinburgh.

He used it with coloured chalk to teach geography. Pillans, who was educated at Edinburgh University, where he later became a Professor of Humanity & Laws, was an early advocate of compulsory education. While blackboards allowed the teacher to write things which could be seen by the whole class, they also led to less interaction with students and less dialogue.

Grand piano

East Lothian-born carpenter and cabinet-maker John Broadwood (1732-1812) was the Scottish founder of the piano manufacturer Broadwood and Sons. Having walked 400 miles from Oldhamstocks to London to become an apprentice of the Swiss harpsichord maker Burkat Shudi – whose customers included Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven – Broadwood set himself the challenge of improving the piano’s traditional box design, perfecting the grand piano around 1777. He also patented the foot-pedal in 1783. He married Shudi’s daughter Barbara and later took over the company following his father-in-law’s death.

Hypodermic syringe

Edinburgh physician Alexander Wood (1817–1884), used the sting of a bee to come up with the world’s first hypodermic needle in 1853. It consisted of a hollow needle fine enough to pierce the skin – hypodermic means “beneath the skin” – and a syringe barrel made of metal. It was initially used

exclusively for the administration of morphine as a painkiller. While the hypodermic syringe would later come to be associated with Edinburgh’s heroin problem more than a century later, graphically illustrated in the film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Dr Wood and his wife Rebecca Massey were also said to have been addicted to morphine with Massey becoming the first woman to die of an injected drug overdose.

Sulphuric acid

John Roebuck (1718-1794) was originally from Sheffield but studied medicine at Edinburgh University, where he developed a taste for chemistry. In 1746 he invented the lead chamber process for the distillation of sulphuric acid - an important component in the manufacture of many other chemicals and in metal refining. In 1749 he built a factory at Presonpans to produce the acid. Having failed to take out patents to protect his discovery, he later faced competition from others and went on to introduce improved processes for producing malleable iron at his Carron Company ironworks in Stirlingshire.

Colour photography

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), the Scottish theoretical physicist responsible for discovering the theory of electromagnetism, is regarded as one of the greatest physicists of all time behind Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. Born in Edinburgh and educated at Edinburgh Academy, he also invented the ‘three-colour method’ which resulted in the world’s first colour photograph. The photograph, taken by Thomas Sutton in 1861, used a tartan ribbon to present his theory that any hue could be made by mixing three pure colours of light in red, green and blue.