Scottish inventions that rocked the world

By National Museums Scotland

Ask anyone 'who invented the telephone?’ and they could probably tell you it was Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell. But did you know that Scotland is also the birthplace of a myriad innovations we now take for granted? Meet the people, and one sheep, that made scientific history and shaped Scotland’s reputation as a hotbed of invention.

Dolly 1National Museums Scotland

Dolly: the world’s most famous sheep

On 5 July 1996, a very special sheep was born. The first cloned mammal ever to be created from an adult cell, Dolly was both one of a kind and… very much not.

Dolly 4National Museums Scotland

Dolly started her life in a test tube, at the Roslin Institute just outside Edinburgh, cloned from a cell in the mammary gland of an adult sheep.

Once normal development was confirmed at six days, the embryo was transferred into a surrogate mother.

Dolly 1National Museums Scotland

The birth of Dolly was kept under wraps until the publication of the Roslin Institute's research results could be prepared.

Once these results were released, the full impact of the discovery became plain, as the world’s press descended on Roslin.

Dolly 2National Museums Scotland

This ordinary-looking sheep had captured the public imagination.

The idea that there might be an exact copy of you somewhere in the world is a theme that has often been pursued in fiction, and the prospect of cloning a human being has always excited speculation and interest.

Dolly deathmaskNational Museums Scotland

Likewise, plans to clone extinct species such as mammoths have attracted a lot of publicity, but at present such ideas must remain, like Jurassic Park, firmly in the realm of fiction.

Dolly 3National Museums Scotland

Dolly died on Valentine’s Day, 2003, yet her legacy lives on, with important advances in stem cell research made possible by her story.

Small wonder she remains one of the most popular attractions at the National Museum of Scotland, where she now resides.

Simpson.James.Y.National Museums Scotland

James Simpson: knock-out doctor

Thanks to anaesthetics, people no longer need to be drunk, held down or knocked out for surgery. In 1847, Edinburgh doctor James Simpson (1811-1870) discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform.

Anaesthesia: Nitrous Oxide Cylinder, 1939. (1939)National Museums Scotland

While surgery is almost as old as medicine, anaesthesia is a relatively modern discipline.

It was only in the early 1840s that physicians, surgeons and dentists began experimenting with nitrous oxide and ether to relieve pain during operations.

Simpson.James.Y.National Museums Scotland

But these methods had significant drawbacks and Simpson was determined to find an alternative.

His experiments, however, were somewhat unorthodox.

Simpson Sir James Young M.D. (Chloroform) 1811-1870LIFE Photo Collection

His trials took place after dinner and the test subjects were friends, family and colleagues.

On 4 November 1847, Simpson and two fellow doctors used a substance they’d previously discounted: chloroform.

chloroform inhaler 2National Museums Scotland

Tales of this legendary dinner party may have been embroidered: it's likely Simpson had already tried chloroform and knew it would work but its outcome is undoubted.

Drs Simpson, Keith and Duncan initially reported light-headedness and laughter and then, quite suddenly, they lost consciousness.

Simpson Sir James Young M.D. (Chloroform) 1811-1870LIFE Photo Collection

Simpson’s experiment could have gone badly wrong - chloroform is no longer used in anaesthesia today is because it carries a high risk of triggering heart failure.

Yet his discovery revolutionised surgery in the 19th century, making this Scottish doctor a pioneer of medicine indeed.

EMAS i-Limb HandNational Museums Scotland

David Gow: the bionic man

In 1982, Scot Campbell Aird lost his arm to muscular cancer. Sixteen years later, he was fitted with the world’s first bionic arm at the Princess Margaret Rose Hospital in Edinburgh. The man behind this miracle? Mechanical engineer and prosthetics pioneer David Gow.

EMAS early prosthetic armNational Museums Scotland

The Princess Margaret Rose Hospital had long been seen as a centre of excellence in the field of prosthetics, with pneumatic-powered limbs for children created there since 1963.

But when Gow took control in 1986, he was determined to take the research even further.

EMAS prosthetic arm 2National Museums Scotland

Gow believed that the pneumatic design was not user-friendly, especially for children.

He and his team set out to create a system that was not only lighter and more convenient, but that had component parts that could be used in prosthesis for patients of varying ages and sizes.

EMAS Simpson prosthetic armNational Museums Scotland

And so the EMAS (Edinburgh Modular Arm System) was invented.

This arm was the first to have a powered shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers, controlled by electronic micro-sensors that sent pulses to the arm.

At 1.8kg, the metal and plastic creation was lighter than a natural arm and much easier to use than the pneumatic ones that preceded it.

Aird used the EMAS for 18 months after the initial fitting, continuing to work regularly with the team on adapting it for everyday use.

EMAS prosthetic armNational Museums Scotland

He also appeared in documentaries, praising Gow and the team for their pioneering work.

He commented:

"For the first time in 16 years I recently reached above my head to pick a book off a shelf. It was a great moment for me."

EMAS prosthetic armNational Museums Scotland

Though not content with being able to reach the top shelf, he learned to fly (although admittedly not using the EMAS) and went on to win 14 clay pigeon shooting trophies, raise money for several charities and windsurf across the Forth and the English Channel.

His life had been transformed.

EMAS i-Limb HandNational Museums Scotland

Gow went on to form a spin-out company from the NHS in 2002, Touch EMAS (Later Touch Bionics).

He went on to launch the famous i-limb hand in 2007, the first prosthetic with individually powered articulating fingers.

His work continues to change lives – and it all started with the EMAS.

Pilchers Hawk Percy and Ella 1896National Museums Scotland

Percy Pilcher: the first man to fly?

The year is 1897, six years before the Wright brothers took to the skies. The place is Glasgow, and Percy Sinclair Pilcher (1867-1899) has just broken the world distance record for heavier-than-air flight with his Hawk glider.

Working with his sister, Ella, this determined aviation pioneer designed four gliders – the Bat, the Beetle, the Gull and the Hawk.

While the Hawk is the most famous of Pilcher’s flying machines, it was not the first to soar.

Pilchers Hawk Kelvingrove Park 1896National Museums Scotland

That honour belongs to the Bat, which Pilcher tested at Cardross near Helensburgh during 1895.

With the Bat, he became the first person in the United Kingdom to make repeated flights in a contraption heavier than air.

Pilchers Hawk in flightNational Museums Scotland

By 1899 Pilcher had devised a powered flying machine, which he intended to demonstrate to the world.

But it was never to be.

On 30 September 1899, Pilcher crashed to the ground during what should have been a routine test flight on the glider.

He never regained consciousness and died on 2 October 1899.

Pilchers Hawk being conserved 2National Museums Scotland

The Hawk is perhaps both the most melancholy and most hopeful of all the objects in the National Museum of Scotland.

Although it ultimately killed its creator, the monoplane glider stands testament to Pilcher's unerring belief that we would one day fly.

Check out how curators from the National Museum of Scotland prepared Pilcher's Hawk to fly once again in this short video.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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