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Age of Invention in Scotland

The Age of Invention in Scotland

In just a few short decades, Scotland managed to transform itself from a remote backwater scrabbling to make a living off the land into one of the greatest industrial nations on Earth.

The genius of its inventors, engineers and businessmen, combined with the hard work of its people, quickly transformed the country during the 18th and 19th centuries into the so-called workshop of the world.

As the economy boomed, cities such as Glasgow became some of the wealthiest places in Britain and the Empire. But there was also a dark side to this new-found wealth - appalling squalor and poverty which condemned thousands to an early death through illness and disease.


One of the greatest breakthroughs in bringing Scotland into the new industrial age was the condensing steam engine, invented by the Greenock-born scientist James Watt.

Watt dreamed up the device in 1765, and eventually perfected it for use in applications such as factories and coal mines. His invention turned heat into efficient power and signalled the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Watt's invention created a virtuous circle. Steam engines pumped the water out of the pits, making more efficient coal production possible. That coal was then used to heat water to power other steam engines in other uses.

As a result, the demand for coal boomed, and with its extensive reserves, Scotland was well placed to capitalise on this growth sector. As mining became more efficient, it paved the way for another great Scottish industry - iron smelting.

To start with, ore was brought up from England for smelting with the plentiful Scottish coal. But the nature of the industry changed entirely when it was discovered that the Monklands area contained a rich vein of iron mixed with coal known as Mushet's Blackband.

With Scotland now able to smelt its own iron, the pressure intensified for Scotland to find more efficient ways of producing the metal. A breakthrough came in 1828 when the Glasgow-born inventor James Neilson devised a hot blast system of smelting, which cut the amount of coal needed in the process by a remarkable 75 per cent.

The output of iron and the development of the steam engine led to the birth of yet another industry - shipbuilding. One obvious way of using the Watt's newly developed engine was to power ships with it, and by the 1780s, work on using steam for this purpose started.

The first commercially viable steamship, the Comet, was developed by Henry Bell in 1812. Others quickly followed, creating work in yards such as William Denny of Dumbarton and Scotts of Greenock.

However, Glasgow's engineers were not content merely to leave the steam engine alone. They developed and refined it. As a result, a whole generation of marine engineers sprung up. Among them was Robert Napier, whose side lever steeple engine of 1835 signalled a major advance in the industry.

At the same time as the propulsion of steamships was improved, yards began to build vessels in iron instead of wood. Again, it was Robert Napier who was instrumental in building the Clyde's reputation for shipbuilding.

Napier opened his own yard at Govan in 1841 and launched his first vessel, named the Vanguard, two years later. The shipping companies loved the new iron vessels - they cost more to buy, but a lot less to run, and Napier soon had a healthy flow of orders.

As demand for the vessels increased, so did the number of yards on the Clyde building them. Clydebank sprung up around the shipbuilding industry in 1871, and soon the yards reached all the way down to Greenock. The industrial soul of the west of Scotland, it seemed, lay in building more and bigger ships.

Other areas of Scotland were also building up their economies at the same time. In West Lothian, for example, James "Paraffin" Young discovered that a particular type of local coal, torbanite, gave off crude oil when it was heated.

Young patented his oil extraction process in 1851 and set up the world's first ever commercial oil plant at Bathgate. Within years, the shale oil industry was booming, and it remained an important economic force in the area until well into this century.

Dundee, too, saw economic prosperity built on the import of jute - a vegetable fibre capable of producing cheap cloth - from India. Once it arrived it was turned into sacks or carpet backing, employing thousands.

By 1880, one factory in the city - the Camperdown works - employed 5000 people on its own. Dundee became the largest single Jute production area in the world, and even earned the nickname Juteopolis.

As Scotland boomed, so its businessmen grew wealthier and wealthier. Shipyard owners built themselves fine houses overlooking the Clyde in places such as Langbank and Helensburgh.

However, while the industrialists and entrepreneurs enjoyed their money, it was a very different story at the other end of the social scale. From the shipyards to the factories and pits, life for the ordinary workers was a miserable and difficult struggle.

Whole families - men, women and their children - were forced to go out to work in order to earn anything like a living wage. Fourteen hour days were not uncommon even for the youngest, with shifts beginning before dawn and lasting until well into the evening.

Conditions in the workplace were appalling. Even pregnant women were not released from their machines until the very last moment before birth, and were expected to be back soon afterwards.

With poverty rife and with and with ordinary workers forced to endure dreadful diets and housing conditions, disease and illness were rife. Smallpox and cholera were so widespread in Glasgow in particular that average life expectancy was only 30.

With people jammed into slum housing and living miserable existences, crime and drunkenness became common. Families often lived in just one room in squalid tenements, in wretched and cramped apartments known as single ends. In Glasgow, overcrowding became so bad that the city fathers had to lay down regulations on the maximum number of people allowed to live in houses of three rooms or less.

Despite the dreadful conditions, most ordinary people were interested in only one thing - the fact that there was work available. Driven by the thought of earning a regular wage, impoverished immigrants arrived in Glasgow and other cities from as far away as the Highlands and Ireland.

The Irish in particular became unpopular. They were hard workers, and would often accept wages lower than those demanded by Scots. This led to resentment and claims that the overall standard of living was being pushed down by the low wages Irish families were prepared to accept.

The Irish brought something else with them which had been virtually unheard of in Scotland for centuries - Catholicism. As they arrived, their priests came with them, and churches gradually began to spring up.

Resentments grew, and the incomers soon started to be blamed for drunkenness and crime. Their priests were treated with suspicion. They became as community within a community, and the division with the local Scots helped to found the sectarian divisions which blight Scotland to this day.

It was not only by the power of its industry, however, that Scotland was becoming a name to be reckoned with in the world. Other great men were also making huge advances in other areas, creating legacies of their own which remain with us to this day.


  • 1765 Frederick the Great founds the Bank of Prussia  
  • 1765 James Macpherson publishes "Ossian"  
  • 1812 The Red River settlement is founded in Manitoba, Canada  
  • 1812 Philippe Girard invents a machine for spinning flax  
  • 1834 Hansom cabs are introduced in London  
  • 1851 Isaac Singer devises the continuous stitch sewing machine  
  • 1851 Herman Melville publishes, "Moby Dick"  
  • 1860 Gustav Mahler, the German composer, is born  
  • 1860 Abraham Lincoln is elected President of the USA  
  • 1823 Charles Macintosh develops a rubberised waterproof material  

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