15 Edinburgh Inventors
01 March 2023
Epicentre of the Scottish Enlightenment; the world's leading festival city; the first city in the world to receive UNESCO City of Literature status; home to one of the UK’s top universities – Edinburgh’s accolades are lengthy and for centuries has been home to men and women who have pushed the world forward, earning the city a reputation as a hub of inspiration and innovation.
From the founder of the world's first municipal fire service to the butcher who gave us Bovril, read on to discover more about the inspiring inventors that have called Edinburgh home.
1) The Telephone
The inventor of the telephone was Alexander Graham Bell, who was granted the first patent for the telephone in 1876. Amazingly, Bell refused to have a telephone in his study, fearing it would distract him from his work! Have a drink in his honour at The Alexander Graham Bell (128 George St, Edinburgh EH2 4JZ), a short distance from where he was born.
Mathematician John Napier was the inventor of Logarithms in 1614, which had a profound impact on astronomy and navigation. In 1617 he also devised the ingenious calculating device, “Napier’s Bones”, numbered rods which could be used to multiply or divide large numbers.
His family home, Merchiston Tower, also known as Merchiston Castle, forms part of Edinburgh Napier University's Merchiston campus. Discover more about John Napier of Merchiston >
3) Theory of the Higgs mechanism and boson
Edinburgh University’s Professor Peter Higgs’ 1960s theory of the Higgs mechanism and boson was finally proven in 2013 in a Large Hadron Collider experiment, winning him the Nobel Prize in Physics.
4) The “Three colour method”
In 1855 James Clerk Maxwell invented the “three colour method”, which resulted in the world’s first colour photograph.
Born in Edinburgh in 1831, his family home on 14 India Street is now in the care of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation. Fully restored, the house contains a collection of scientific and personal items belonging to Maxwell. Tours of the house can normally be arranged by prior appointment. A virtual online tour is also available – see here for further details.
5) The “S” bend
It is Alexander Cumming we have to thank for the modern-day toilet after he invented the “S” bend in 1755.
He was one of the founding fellows of The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland's national academy of science and letters. Explore their What’s On page to discover a range of thought-provoking events >
6) Anaesthesia and chloroform
Edinburgh physician James Young Simpson’s experiments on anaesthesia and chloroform. You can see the Chloroform Inhaler at the National Museum for Scotland.
7) The Hypodermic needle
Alexander Wood developed the first hypodermic needle in 1853.
8) World's first municipal fire service
James Braidwood founded the world's first municipal fire service in Edinburgh after the Great Fire of Edinburgh in 1824 destroyed much of the city's Old Town.
Dedicated to his memory and recognising the courage and sacrifice of firefighters worldwide, a bronze figure of James Braidwood was placed in Parliament Square in 2008.
9) Dolly the Sheep
Dolly the Sheep, the world's first cloned mammal and born at The University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute in 1996. See Dolly the Sheep in the National Museum of Scotland.
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10) The Gas mask & Decompression Table
As well as inventing the gas mask, in the early 1900’s John Scott Haldane also created the first decompression tables for deep-sea divers.
11) The Grand Piano
A carpenter by trade, John Broadwood travelled from his home in Cockburnspath in East Lothian to London to become a harpsichord maker. He is credited with perfecting the grand piano in 1777.
See a beautiful example of his work at St Cecilia's Hall's, the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Scotland.
12) The Electric toaster
It was while working on a lighting system for the Glasgow Underground in 1893 that Alan MacMasters inadvertently invented the electric toaster - a full 35 years before the arrival of sliced bread!
Love it or loathe it – it was through his interest in food science & preservation and working in his uncle’s Edinburgh butcher shop that John Lawson Johnston first developed the meaty drink, Bovril in 1874.
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14) Rose’s Lime Cordial
In 1867 Lauchlan Rose patented a method of preserving lime juice with sugar, instead of alcohol – creating Rose’s Lime Cordial.
15) “Digestive” biscuit
McVitie & Price Ltd was first established in Edinburgh’s Rose St in 1830. In 1892, new employee Alexander Grant devised and produced the first and original “Digestive” biscuit, the secret recipe of which is still used today.