Greatest Scottish Scientific and Engineering feats: history now or a call to action?

Greatest Scottish Scientific and Engineering feats

Emma SherlockTechnology

We rather like this infographic.  It shows some of the world’s greatest engineering projects, ranging from the trans-Siberian railway to the Panama canal.  It got us wondering, what are Scotland’s greatest engineering feats?


A quick search on Mr Google helps.  Wired magazine celebrated some of the more obvious Scottish scientific/engineering geniuses a few years ago and there is no doubt that Scotland has an exceptionally rich engineering heritage.  With Britain being the ‘Workshop of the World’ in the nineteenth century, Scots played a crucial role in making the country the global power at that time. Indeed, it could be argued that the practical refinement of the steam engine by James Watt was the source of much of that power (literally and metaphorically).


In case you haven’t seen it, there is an Engineering Hall of Fame for Scotland (see: which, as well as the ‘big names’ (Telford, Watt, etc.) also pays tribute to such amazing people as the Reverend Robert Stirling, from Galston in Ayrshire, a 19th century Church of Scotland minister whose innovative ‘Stirling Engine’ principles were developed by NASA to provide power in long-range space missions.


Scotland has led the way in some other, perhaps slightly less well-known areas.  Did you know that it was in Scotland that driving on the "wrong" side of the road began? Scottish law made driving on the left a requirement in 1772, more than 60 years before England and Wales.  Other less ‘weel-kent’ facts include the origin of the word ‘Dunce’, which is to be found in 13th-century Scottish theologian John Duns Scotus, whose name has passed into pointy-hatted, corner-standing, educational history.


Scots have continued to make a perhaps more modest contribution to the worlds of technology and engineering since then.  Our expertise in IT is a major force in the world of gaming technology, with Dundee being a particularly important centre and we undoubtedly still produce some great engineers and scientists. However, when you search for ‘modern’ Scottish engineering inventors, the list is a bit light compared to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It’s a reflection of the overall decline in interest in engineering, and science, generally in our society and, crucially, in our schools. 


The House of Lords Digital Skills report earlier this year, “Make of Break: The UK’s Digital Future” was described as “a call to action for the incoming Government in May 2015”.  As the report said, “over the next two decades some economists have estimated that 35% of current jobs in the UK could become automated. Digital technology is changing all our lives, work, society and politics. It brings with it huge opportunities for the UK, but also significant risks”. So what are the politicians doing?  And, equally importantly, what are we doing?  I’ll leave you with just one frightening statistic. Given our country’s proud record in education, it’s scary to learn that last year only 20 postgraduate students were training to be computing teachers in Scotland.  The giants of the past must be turning in their graves.




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