Scottish Scientists

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell / Scientists and Inventors

  • Name  : Bell
  • Born  : 1847
  • Died  : 1922
  • Category  : Scientists and Inventors
  • Finest Moment : First words over a telephone line

'Come here, Mr Watson, I want to see you.' These intrinsically unexciting words marked the beginning of a communications revolution which continues today. They were spoken by Bell in one room to his assistant in the next, his words into a microphone being changed into electric signals through a conducting wire which carried the signal to a receiving microphone and hence into intelligible sounds.

He was born in Edinburgh, the son of Alexander Melville Bell. The father was an educationalist and phonetician, analysing human speech and inventing a machine which produced an optical representation of speech. Bell Jnr. In essence continued his father's work, bringing his knowledge to bear on helping children who were profoundly deaf or otherwise unable to communicate.

Unfortunately, the scourge of tuberculosis caught Bell, and in fact killed both of his brothers. After a spell teaching in Elgin, his parents persuaded him to cross the Atlantic (his father was now living and working in the USA) He was then 23, and moved first to Canada, then Boston, where he became Professor of Vocal Physiology at Boston University. By day he taught deaf children, at night he experimented.

Obliged by patent laws to become an American citizen, he did so aged 27. His patent application was made on the same day as a commercial rival, and was done, as were many others, through a commercial company he had set up with commercial backers. He married Mabel Hubbard, the deaf daughter of one of his backers, and never lost the true humanitarian spirit he was imbued with.

He was disappointed with the British government, who failed to offer any encouragement towards his efforts, but gradually his commercial work increased in size and value until he was eventually a millionaire. He died at his home in Nova Scotia, where he is buried.


Alexander Monro

Alexander Monro / Science

  • Name  : Hardie
  • Born  : 1697
  • Died  : 1767
  • Category  : Science
  • Finest Moment : Founding a teaching hospital in Edinburgh, in 1729

Set up the first teaching hospital in Edinburgh, and was also the first of three Alexanders!

Born 8 September 1697 in London, the son of John Monro, an Edinburgh surgeon, Alexander was the first of three of that name who held the chair of anatomy at Edinburgh for 126 years. To differentiate the three, they became known as primus, secundus and tertius. Alexander primus received his M.D. degree in Edinburgh, as his father had moved back there. He was appointed Professor of Anatomy in 1720, and soon became known as a lecturer who not only did not use notes, but lectured in English, rather than Latin. This latter fact boosted his popularity no end!

His book, The Anatomy of Human Bones (1726), was published in several editions. Starting a hospital in 1729, off the Cowgate in Edinburgh, he promoted the idea of treating the poor for free, and provided his services as a doctor there for free. It was the forerunner of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, started in 1736, and was the start of Edinburgh's reputation as a centre for medical teaching.

In 1758 he handed over teaching duties to Alexander secundus, and six years later published An Account of the Inoculation of Small-Pox in Scotland, raising the standard of medical research and publication. He died in Edinburgh, on 10 July, 1767.


Charles Macintosh


Charles Macintosh / Scientists and Inventors

  • Name  : Macintosh
  • Born  : 1766
  • Died  : 1834
  • Category  : Scientists and Inventors
  • Finest Moment : Observing rubber dissolving

Born in Glasgow, where the rain falls often but softly, Macintosh was the son of a factory owner producing chemical dyes. He left school to work as a clerk, but was obviously possessed of a curious mind and attended scientific lectures, notably those given by the great chemist Joseph Black.

Living in an age of self-improvement, he was in business for himself by the time he was 20, taking out several patents in the use of dye materials, a new system for producing chloride of lime, used for bleaching, and even one new method for converting iron into steel.

In 1823, he was grubbing about looking at the waste products of gasworks, hoping to find some commercial use. He noticed that rubber dissolved on contact with coal-tar naphtha. Now, it's one thing to see something, it's another thing altogether to recognise that it's interesting and useful. He saw immediately that it should be possible to produce waterproof clothing using this discovery, and went into the clothing business.

Macintosh took two layers of woollen fibre, and sandwiched a layer of rubber in between, melting the rubber into the fibres. The early models had many problems, as in winter the rubber became as stiff as a board, while in summer it became somewhat sticky. Seams were leaky, as the needles left tiny holes in the layers. The rubber also disintegrated, or perished, quickly. But notwithstanding these minor technical problems, the coats sold and sold. Before his death, vulcanisation of rubber was invented, and the coats became much more user-friendly.

Search for Great Scots

Search By Category


Charles Thomson Rees Wilson

Sir Charles Thomson Rees Wilson

  • Name  : Wilson
  • Born  : 1869
  • Died  : 1959
  • Category  : Scientists and Inventors
  • Finest Moment : First photographs of subatomic particle activity in a Cloud Chamber (1911)

Born St Valentine's Day, 1869, the eighth child of a sheep farmer at Glencorse in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh. His father died when he was four, and the family moved to Manchester to be near his grandparents. At school no science was taught, but he collected beetles and pond life with his brother, and when he was 13 he was given a microscope, starting his scientific career.

He studied as a medical student at Manchester in 1884, before moving to Cambridge where he became a physicist. And it was then that the unlikely combination of Wilson's mind and the cloudy top of Ben Nevis produced a useful scientific discovery leading to the Nobel Prize.

In September 1894, he spent a fortnight working at the summit Meteorological Observatory on Ben Nevis. His original intention was to study by experimental means the optical phenomena of coronas, glories and Brocken Spectres. These are the rainbow-like coloured rings and human-shaped shadows that hillwalkers often see thrown onto a bank of mist by strong, low sunlight. He was impressed by the optical effects. The following year he was watching a mist-covered Nevis when a storm broke out. His hair stood on end, drawing his attention to the massive electrical field associated with the storm. He later said that the whole of his scientific career was determined by these experiences.

In 1895 he was experimenting in the famous Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, under J.J. Thomson. He decided to recreate the effects in the lab, and made clouds by expanding moist air in a chamber, with moisture condensing on dust particles (so-called 'condensation nuclei') at a critical saturation point. He was surprised however to find that even with all dust particles removed he could still create clouds, if he expanded the moist air sufficiently. So what was allowing cloud formation to occur'

With careful observation, he found that there were in fact two main sorts of condensation; a rain-like type, with low numbers produced repeatedly, and at higher expansions a cloud-like fog. This fog re-created the optical effects he had observed. He decided that condensation was created in different ways, either on dust, or on rare, spontaneously produced nuclei (actually ions).

Wilson observed that X-rays and 'uranium rays' could cause huge numbers of fog droplets; in other words they must have been producing the same nuclei that occur spontaneously. These he identified as negatively charged ions, partly explaining the electric field in thunder clouds - drops form on negative particles, which fall by gravity to separate charge in the cloud. So, concluded Wilson, condensation can also be caused by an external influence, and he proposed that radiation from outside the Earth's atmosphere could be the cause (thereby predicting cosmic rays).

During this period, in 1908, he married Jessie Fraser Dick; they had three children.

In 1912, his apparatus, the Wilson Cloud Chamber, was perfected. He made possible the viewing of radioactive particles by photographing the drops condensed on the ions in the track, so that his chamber first revealed the behaviour of the elementary particles of nature. Atomic phenomena which had been deduced indirectly by various means, were now clearly visible to the eye, and his apparatus became essential to the study of particle physics.

Charles Wilson had continued to hillwalk. Aged 84 he climbed Caisteal Abhail in Arran, remarking that it was 64 years since he had sat at the summit. Aged 86 he managed to wangle some flights on RAF planes, passing himself off as a student of meterology.

He had become Professor of Natural Philosophy at Cambridge in 1925, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1927. He retired from the chair in 1934, settling at Carlops near Edinburgh. This did not prevent him from research, and he was still publishing papers aged 87. He died at home aged 90, after a brief illness, the only serious illness of his life.


David Brewster

Sir David Brewster / Scientists and Inventors

  • Name  : Brewster
  • Born  : 1781
  • Died  : 1868
  • Category  : Scientists and Inventors
  • Finest Moment : Publication of Treatise on Optics (1831)

Born 11 December 1781 in Jedburgh. Brewster went to Edinburgh University at the age of 12, to read for the Church, but saw another kind of light, as it were, and for the remainder of his life studied optics. He discovered a mathematical law describing the relationship between the refractive index of a substance and the angle at which light became polarised on striking that substance.

More playfully, he invented the kaleidoscope in 1816, and improved the stereoscope. On a safety issue, he promoted the use of flat, lightweight Fresnel lenses for lighthouses, and through his interest in the early days of photography introduced the two pioneers Hill and Adamson to each other.

He was an energetic producer of scientific papers, edited three journals, and wrote a biography of Sir Isaac Newton, Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (1855). As if that were not enough, he became principal of both St Andrews and Edinburgh Universities, in succession, and had a major role in the setting up of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

He died, probably with a sparkle still in his eyes, at Allerby near Melrose, on 10 February 1868.