Practical Matters: Scots in Science and Industry

Don’t think, try.

—John Hunter


James Watt was instrument maker for the University of Glasgow when someone told him about a strange machine created by a Derbyshire man named Thomas Newcomen: a device that used steam to operate a water pump. The university even had a model of it, he was told, which was in London for repairs. Watt was interested in steam. He and his friend and teacher, Professor Joseph Black, had been arguing about its properties for years. Now, in the winter of 1763, he arranged for the model to be shipped back to Glasgow, and had a look at it.

It consisted of a boiler that sent steam into a vertical brass cylinder attached to a close-fitting piston, which in turn was attached to a metal rod. As steam went in, it pushed up the piston, depressing the rod. As it condensed back to water, the vacuum it created brought the piston down, raising the rod. Newcomen’s “fire-engine,” as some called it, was a clever device; miners in Wales had been using its up-and-down motion to pump water out of their coal pits. But as Watt fired it up and set it in motion, he saw the problem at once. The piston turned only two or three strokes at a time, because although the boiler attached was relatively large, most of the steam it generated escaped into the air.

Twenty-seven years old, Watt was largely a self-taught man, but what he knew impressed everyone who came into his shop. Even the university professors were impressed. “I saw a workman, and expected no more,” recalled one, “but was surprised to find a philosopher.” Watt also had an enormous supply of self-confidence. He believed he could fix, or make, anything. Once the Masonic Lodge in Glasgow needed a pipe organ and asked him to provide one. Watt, who knew nothing about music, mastered the subject over a few weeks, learned everything he could about organs, chose the necessary materials, laid out the design, and built the organ himself. These sorts of projects happily absorbed all his attention. Now figuring out how steam worked, and how to keep Newcomen’s machine moving, became his daily obsession.

Watt labored over the “fire engine” for more than a year. Then, on a particularly fine afternoon (always rare in Glasgow) early in 1765, Watt set out for a walk. He opened the gate at the foot of Charlotte Street and walked past the old washing house. “I was thinking upon the engine at the time,” he wrote later, “when the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel it would rush into it, and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder. . . . I had not walked farther than the golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.”

Contrary to myth, James Watt did not invent the steam engine. Two Englishmen, Newcomen and Thomas Savery, did that. What Watt did was typically Scottish: he perfected something created by someone else, and gave it a higher and wider application than its original inventor had imagined. Watt applied to the steam engine the idea of separate condensation, which allowed it to generate a constant motion, which, in 1781, Watt turned into a rotary motion. He had created the work engine of the Industrial Revolution. Commercial society was about to turn into industrial society, with technology as its driving force. He gave capitalism its modern face, which has persisted down to today.

The Scots did not invent technology, any more than they invented science—or capitalism or the ideas of progress and liberty. But just as in these other cases, the version of technology we live with most closely resembles the one that Scots such as James Watt organized and perfected. It rests on certain basic principles that the Scottish Enlightenment enshrined: common sense, experience as our best source of knowledge, and arriving at scientific laws by testing general hypotheses through individual experiment and trial and error. Science and technology give civilization its dynamic movement, like the ceaselessly moving pistons of Watt’s steam engine. To the Scots, they were the key to modern life, just as they are for us. A rapid succession of Scottish inventors, engineers, doctors, and scientists proved their point to the rest of the world.

James Watt, for example, grew up in Greenock, with no formal education, but surrounded by the paraphernalia of seagoing Glasgow, since his father supplied nautical equipment to local shipbuilders. Out of this environment of ships’ stores, ropes, pulleys, sextants, quadrants, and compasses, he developed an interest in mathematical and mechanical devices. He failed to find adequate work in London or Glasgow, but when the university found itself heir to a collection of sophisticated astronomical instruments assembled by a local West Indies merchant, it hired him to recalibrate them. Then he met Joseph Black, and began learning chemistry. “No man I know,” Adam Smith said, “has less nonsense in his head than Doctor Black.” Black discovered the same was true of Watt, and the two began exploring the problem that perplexed Black most, the question of what happens to the heat after objects are heated and cooled, or what he called “latent heat.”

Watt’s work on the steam engine led him to conduct a series of experiments on precisely this problem. Those experiments demonstrated that heat was not a substance but a property of matter, just as his description of the principles of the steam engine laid the foundation of modern mechanical engineering. The issue for Watt, though, was always not just how a thing worked, but what to do with it afterwards. Through Joseph Black, he teamed up with a pair of ironmasters named Roebuck and Cadell, who offered to pay for his development of the new engine and arrange for a patent, if he would build them a prototype for their foundry at Kinneil on the river Carron.

The real breakthrough came, however, when he met the English ironmaster Matthew Boulton of Birmingham. Their partnership, formed in 1775, gave them a complete monopoly over steam engine construction for the next quarter-century. Together they transformed Britain’s economic life. They turned the steam engine from primarily a water pump into a way to supply power for every conceivable industry, from John Wilkinson’s ironworks and Josiah Wedgewood’s pottery kilns to feeding the Birmingham Canal and dredging Glasgow’s port. Their engines (they produced more than five hundred in those twenty-five years) operated looms in cotton and textile mills from Paisley and Deanston to Manchester and Liverpool, allowing that business to expand its output almost exponentially. They made the modern factory, and the factory system, possible. They also altered the way people saw the world. That became clear when James Boswell visited their Soho works outside Birmingham, and Boulton showed him around, uttering the famous phrase: “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have: power.

A new concept had entered the modern consciousness. The idea of power not in a political sense, the ability to command people, but the ability to command nature: the power to alter and use it to create something new, and produce it in greater and larger quantities than ever before. At almost the same moment as Watt and Boulton were setting up their factory and producing their first steam engine, Adam Smith was writing that the division of labor was the key to creating wealth. Watt’s invention revealed that the future of the division of labor was technological change. By unleashing the dynamic power hidden in nature itself, one could make it work to human advantage.

“Nature has its weak side,” Watt liked to say, “if only we can find it.” Finding that weakness was the job of science. Exploiting the opening that science provided was the job of the engineer—and his business sidekick, the entrepreneur.

Watt was perfectly comfortable with the idea that his scientific expertise, like his machine, should be used to make a profit. So was his mentor, Joseph Black. As Professor of Chemistry, Black devoted much of his attention to improving the system of bleaching used by Glasgow’s linen manufacturers, just as Robert Foulis had conceived his school of design as a support center for textile printing. This was, again, very typical of the Glasgow Enlightenment’s fusion of the practical and the theoretical. Black’s own teacher, William Cullen, had launched the bleaching agent project when he was Professor of Anatomy at Glasgow. When he moved to Edinburgh in 1755, he was a distinguished figure not only in the field of medicine, but also in what might be called industrial science.

Cullen was a practicing doctor (he became Adam Smith’s personal physician). So was Joseph Black. Other key figures in the early development of Scotland’s industrial revolution were also trained as doctors, including Watt’s first business partner, John Roebuck. The two fields resembled each other. The hallmarks of Scottish medicine were close clinical observation, hands-on diagnosis, and thinking of objects such as the human body as a system—not so different from the practical approach of engineers such as James Watt. In fact, science and medicine were probably more closely linked in Scotland than any other European country. Together with mathematics, they formed the triangular base of the Scottish practical mind.

Even before the formal creation of Edinburgh’s medical school in 1726, Scotland was famous for its physicians. The field was dominated by two great dynasties of teachers, the Gregorys at Glasgow and the Munros at Edinburgh, who taught class after class of aspiring doctors in anatomy for nearly 130 years.28 The dynasty’s founder, Alexander Munro, Sr., made the study of anatomy central to the training of physicians. He was a student of the great Hermann Boerhaave at the University of Leyden, who broke away from the old medieval medical traditions and encouraged his students to use their eyes and ears to diagnose disease at the patient’s bedside. Boerhaave believed that progress in medicine depended on open-minded inquiry, a search for general laws based on observation—the key idea behind modern scientific method, in fact (Boerhaave was also a great admirer of Isaac Newton).

The first staff of Edinburgh’s new medical faculty were all Leyden students, including Munro. The school was the brainchild of the same man who conceived the New Town, Provost George Drummond, and for the same reason: to give Edinburgh a distinctly modern and “civilized” identity, as a leading center for British medicine as well as British urban life. It succeeded beyond Drummond’s dreams. Students flocked in from across the country—since in medicine as in everything else, Oxford and Cambridge were closed off to non-Anglicans. Edinburgh became the preeminent place in Europe for the study of anatomy. The school used human cadavers for dissection in such record numbers that supplying new ones became a problem.29

The Munros were the anchor of the school. Alex senior founded the Royal Infirmary, developed its celebrated lectures on anatomy and the central nervous system, and made the study of surgery a fundamental part of medical training. However, the pace changed dramatically when William Cullen, already Edinburgh’s Professor of Chemistry, stepped in as Professor of the Theory of Physic in 1766. Cullen was an iconoclast. He created the same revolution in medicine that Francis Hutcheson had in philosophy, by lecturing in English rather than Latin. He encouraged students to challenge him in class and to think on their own, based on what they saw rather than what they had been taught to expect. He vehemently rejected academic speculation; his motto was, in effect, no facts, no theory. But as the first professor of chemistry in Britain, he also insisted his students equip themselves with the most up-to-date knowledge of the basic sciences.

The typical product of the Edinburgh school in those years was a new kind of modern doctor: the general practitioner, who was physician, surgeon, and apothecary rolled into one (Cullen published the first modern pharmacopoeia in 1776). Other medical schools, especially Oxford and Cambridge, discouraged their students from any kind of physical contact with the patient. Probing a tender spot, or cleaning and dressing a wound—let alone cutting someone open to see what was going on—was left to menial servants, such as the barber-surgeon. Edinburgh taught its doctors to be hands-on generalists, who could spot a problem, make a diagnosis, and apply treatment themselves. Professor John Rutherford created the first system of clinical rounds for training medical students in 1750. More than just spouters of medical theory, Scottish doctors were in effect scientific missionaries, ready to push forward the frontiers of knowledge and progress wherever they went, and equipped to do battle against ignorance and apathy, as well as against disease.

Two brothers, William and John Hunter, best exemplified this Scottish approach. William studied with Francis Hutcheson and William Cullen at Glasgow, took Munro’s anatomy classes at Edinburgh, and taught the subject to his brother John when he joined him in London in 1748. William turned the field of obstetrics into a scientifically precise discipline under the supervision of doctors. Critics even derided him as “the man mid-wife,” as he broke down the barrier that made delivering babies the exclusive preserve of women. Feminist critics still deplore Hunter’s efforts to turn childbearing, and the female body, into an object of medical knowledge. But Hunter was motivated not by male chauvinism but by the desire to make infant delivery more organized, more systematic, and safer than traditional methods— including banning the use of forceps. John Hunter worked to achieve a similar transformation of the fields of dentistry (he first coined the terms incisor, bicuspid, and molar for describing teeth) and surgery.

Despite incessant criticism and vast professional jealousy, both became spectacularly successful. William Hunter was personal physician to the rich and powerful, including Physician Extraordinary to Queen Charlotte. His brother held the same position to the King himself (still another Scottish medical man, John Arbuthnot, had been physician to Queen Anne). More than any other person, John Hunter turned surgery from a quick-and-dirty art, practiced part-time by barbers, into a scientific discipline resting on a solid foundation of both anatomy and biology. The Hunters were bona fide figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. Edward Gibbon and Adam Smith both attended William’s lectures in the 1770s; John diagnosed David Hume’s fatal illness, and treated Smith for hemorrhoids. He passed on his great motto, “Don’t think, try,” to his most famous English student, Edward Jenner. It probably helped to inspire Jenner’s experiments with using cowpox inoculations to fight off its far deadlier relative, smallpox. Jenner gets the credit for inventing medical inoculation—although it was in fact another distinguished Scottish London physician, Charles Maitland, who first borrowed the technique from the Middle East and used it to protect his patients from smallpox outbreaks in the 1720s.

Scottish doctors were more popular with patients than English ones, since, as the historian Anand Chitnis has suggested, “their useful knowledge contrasted with the ornamental learning of the London physicians who were Anglican and Oxbridge-trained.” Between 1800 and 1825, 258 of the Royal College of Physicians’s 371 fellows and licentiates were Scottish-educated. Guy’s Hospital in London offered a host of distinguished Edinburgh-trained doctors, including Richard Bright, Thomas Addison, and Thomas Hodgkin, each of whom gave his name to the disease he was the first to diagnose.

Scottish physicians also pioneered another aspect of modern medicine: the field of public health, which largely meant trying to halt dangerous epidemic diseases. John Pringle, another Boerhaave student, served as Physician-General of the British Army in Flanders. Appalled at the needless loss of thousands of soldiers to disease and neglect, he insisted on sweeping changes in the way the army treated its sick and wounded, including ventilation of field hospitals and barracks to prevent the spread of disease. He made sure that every soldier was issued a blanket, and that campsites included proper latrines and sanitation.

On one occasion, just before the army was about to engage the French in battle, Pringle suggested that the army’s commander deploy his field hospitals in a clearly neutral area, away from the actual fighting, so that the wounded and those tending them would be out of harm’s way. The commander was a fellow Scot, none other than the fourth Earl of Stair—grandson of the man who saved the Treaty of Union. Stair agreed. During the battle, the French saw what was happening and avoided shelling or attacking the British hospitals. They then adopted Pringle’s idea, and other European nations followed suit. Pringle had established the fundamental principle of army medics and their patients as noncombatants, which would not only make European warfare more humane, but would also inspire organizations such as the Red Cross.

James Lind was the Scottish physician who discovered that scurvy, the scourge of common British seamen serving on long voyages in the South Atlantic and Pacific, could be cured by the use of citrus fruits. On May 20, 1747, Lind took on twelve patients with scurvy, who “all in general had putrid gums,” he wrote, “the spots and lassitude, with weakness of their knees.” He divided them into six pairs, treating some with a rich diet of mutton broth and pudding, others with a quart of cider a day, others with “twenty five gutts of elixir vitriol”—and the last pair with two oranges and a lemon a day. It may have been the first controlled experiment in medical history. The pair on the citrus diet recovered first; within six days they were fit for duty. “I am apt to think oranges preferable to lemons,” Lind said, and suggested that British naval vessels carry a regular supply. Ignorance and obstinacy blocked his proposed reform. He did persuade Captain James Cook, who was a Scot by blood, to use citrus fruits on his voyage to the South Seas in 1769, but it took yet another Scot, Sir James Blane, finally to persuade the Admiralty in 1795 to require lime juice as standard issue on His Majesty’s ships. It was a crucial contribution to Britain’s recovery as a world power—and its acquisition of empire. The term limey stuck as a sobriquet for the British sailor, and later for Britons overseas. Scottish medicine was emerging as a bulwark of the new Great Britain.

James Hutton studied medicine at Edinburgh and Leyden in the late 1740s, but chose not to become a doctor. He took up farming instead, at the family estate in Berwickshire. Hutton was part of Edinburgh’s enlightened intellectual elite. He would convene the Oyster Club with Adam Smith and Joseph Black and shared Black’s passion for chemistry. Hutton was also an amateur geologist. One day in a farm field he picked up a peculiar stone that was clearly made up of layers of distinct minerals. It led Hutton on a fantastic journey to a completely new understanding of the earth’s geology. “In interpreting nature,” he wrote, “no powers are to be employed that are not natural in the globe . . . and no extraordinary events to be alleged in order to explain a common appearance.” Hutton concluded that the earth’s crust was not only made up of debris from past geological upheavals, but was also far older than the six thousand years the Bible had allowed. In 1795, the same year James Blane finally moved the Admiralty to accept Lind’s recommended cure for scurvy, Hutton published his revolutionary Theory of the Earth. In it he proposed that the earth had its own history of great and ancient changes, which, like diseases of the body, left their visible mark on its surface through fossil remains and sedimentary rock deposits. Planet Earth was the bedrock of all history, in fact. It long predated the appearance of man and would, Hutton assured readers, endure long after he had gone.

Hutton died just two years later. But the stage was set for a new view of nature—as well as of man. The natural and physical world turned out to be as dynamic, and progressive, as human society had been for the Scottish school. At least one scientist took Hutton’s idea to heart, an English-born but Edinburgh-trained physician named Erasmus Darwin. Darwin expanded and inflated it into a full-blown theory of nature as a history of progress, in his Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life. “Would it be too bold to imagine that . . . all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament,” he wrote, “with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities . . . and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end?”

It was an insight that his grandson, also trained at the Edinburgh medical school, would refine even further. Charles Darwin developed his own theory of biological evolution with the help of Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell, who did more to advance the field of theoretical geology, Darwin later stated, than “any other man who ever lived.” Darwin created a vision of the history of nature that matched the one that the Scots had crafted for the history of man—a history of progress, a steady rise from the primitive and the simple to the more complex, which culminates, of course, in man himself. On the Origin of Species revealed that the assumptions of the Scottish school were becoming indispensable not only to the social sciences, but to the natural and physical sciences as well. In the English-speaking world, a “scientific outlook” on the world was coming to mean almost the same thing as a Scottish outlook.


Scots became experts in another technical aspect of modernization: transport and communication. More than anyone else, they understood how essential the free flow of goods, services, people, and information was to the creation of modern society.

As early as the 1740s Duncan Forbes had foreseen that effective roads were the key to advancing the forces of civilization in Scotland’s Highlands; Dr. Johnson’s injunction about Scotsmen finding “the high road to London” made the same point. Adam Smith realized early on that England had developed faster as a commercial society, and then as an industrial power, in part because it enjoyed a network of roads, canals, bridges, riverways, and harbors that permitted goods in one part of the country to reach the other parts with relative ease. Nothing like it existed in Scotland: the Highlands were as effectively sealed off from economic and social progress as if they had been surrounded by a stone wall.

General Wade and his army construction gangs had strung a thin network of roads through the Highlands years before, which were still used by civilian as well as military traffic. But they were crude and unreliable in poor weather, and they were far too few. Local roads were even worse, as one traveler found out during a trip through Forfarshire: “Many of these roads,” he wrote in 1813, “were merely formed, by digging a ditch on each side of them, and throwing the spongy clay, here called mortar, upon the top of the road. Of course they are almost impassable. . . . In wet weather, horses sink to their bellies, and carts to their axles. . . .”

This began to change in the 1790s, thanks to two Scottish engineers. One was John McAdam, who devised a cheap and efficient way to build a sturdy roadbed by using crushed stones and gravel. This he did with typical Scottish thoroughness, first traveling nearly thirty thousand miles across Britain and examining nearly every major road and highway. McAdam discovered that as long as the roadbed remained dry, it could handle any amount of traffic in any kind of weather— while wagon wheels and horses’ hooves constantly pressing crushed gravel into the road actually made it firmer and stronger. The macadamized road, as it became known, soon crisscrossed most of England and parts of southern Scotland, as it allowed wagons and carriages to travel as fast as horses could pull them. It is the ancestor of our modern asphalt or tarmacadam roadway (tarmac for short). On such roads the Independent Tallyho coach could carry a letter or passenger from London to Watt and Boulton’s factory in Birmingham at the breathtaking speed of fifteen miles an hour. Travel time from London to Edinburgh shrank from ten days to less than two. By 1830 the journey from Edinburgh to Glasgow, which used to take Adam Smith a day and a half, now took only four and a half hours.

McAdam’s method worked best for repairing old roads and highways. While it proved immensely useful in England, it could not solve the real difficulty Scotland faced, which was a lack of roads. The man who really opened up Scotland, and in so doing transformed the nature of modern communication, was Thomas Telford. No other builder or engineer looms as large in the nineteenth century as Telford: he in effect created the shape of our modern landscape.

Telford was cut from a heroic mold, which was also typically Scottish. He was born in 1757 at Glendenning, the son of a local shepherd. His father died soon after he was born, and he was raised in poverty by a single mother. Still, he managed to go to the local parish school, and learned to read, write (he wrote poetry, and good poetry, the rest of his life), and do mathematics. To earn his bread, he apprenticed with a local stonemason. When he had learned all he could, he went to Edinburgh and then London, where he worked for Robert Adam and William Chambers. Long after he made his fortune as a builder and engineer, Telford was crossing Waterloo Bridge (built by another Scottish engineer, John Rennie) with a friend, and he pointed to Somerset House across the water, saying “You see those stones there: forty years since I hewed and laid them, when working on that building as a common mason.”

Like any young, ambitious Scot working in London, Telford sought out a well-placed fellow Scot to act as his patron. Sir William Johnstone had married the niece of the Earl of Bath, and was supposed to be the richest commoner in Britain. Telford had met Johnstone’s brother on his trip down to London, and Sir William was sufficiently impressed to put Telford in charge of building the commissioner’s house at Portsmouth Dockyard. Telford taught himself the basic principles of architecture, and went on to build churches, castles, and jails until 1793, when Sir William got him appointed surveyor and engineer of the Ellesmere Canal in Wales.

South Wales, like Scotland, suffered from an appalling lack of roads and navigable waterways. It was, in its own way, as remote and inaccessible as the Scottish Highlands. But it also produced many of the raw materials needed for industrialization, particularly iron ore and coal. The problem was how to get it out of Wales. The answer was canals, since water was still the cheapest form of transport of bulk goods across Britain. However, with Ellesmere Telford surpassed the work of all his predecessors. At two crucial points in the canal he built massive aqueducts on a scale and size not seen since Roman times. The second, Pontcysyllte (which simply means “great crossing”), rose 127 feet above the Dee River, on a one-hundred-foot raised bank, with an iron trough carrying boats and barges along a nearly quarter-mile span. Two hundred years later it is still there and still in use, its meticulously made metal joints as perfect and trouble-free as the day they were laid.

Pontcysyllte revealed Telford as something new in the emerging industrial world: a visionary, an artist in cast iron and stone who grasped the potentially titanic scale and power of the new technologies. Telford humbly saw himself as the servant of progress and capitalism. “I admire commercial enterprise,” he wrote, “it is the vigorous outgrowth of our industrial life. I admire everything that gives it free scope, as wherever it goes, activity, energy, intelligence—all that we call civilization—goes with it.” But money was not everything, either for civilization or for Telford. “I hold that the aim and end of all ought not to be a mere bag of money, but something far higher and better”—perhaps even, through his bridges and canals, a kind of immortality.

Striving for something higher and better infused all of Telford’s projects, including the ones he never built. In 1800 he offered to put across the Thames a single-span bridge of more than six hundred feet—the longest bridge ever attempted. It never saw the light of day, but his project for a bridge across the Menai Strait into Anglesey did, with a span of 579 feet suspended from towers rising 153 feet into the sky. Each of the bridge’s sixteen suspension chains, made of links almost a yard long, required two and half hours of exhausting and dangerous work to raise into position, which Telford oversaw himself. When it opened in 1826, it was the biggest bridge in the world, tall enough to allow Britain’s largest warships to pass underneath—and for more than a hundred years it never needed the slightest repair.

Telford’s record of building in Scotland was even greater, and with a more decisive impact. In 1801 he toured the Highlands at the request of the Pitt government and a group of landowners calling themselves the Highland Fisheries Society, who were desperate to find some way to promote economic growth on their lands—and keep their tenants from being permanently driven away by the spread of sheep and cattle. Telford proposed building roads, bridges, harbors, and docks to open up coastal areas to commercial fishing, and canals—including a canal to link all the inland lochs of the Great Glen to Inverness and the sea. It was a development scheme on a heroic, almost foolhardy scale; yet, surprisingly, the government agreed and offered to split the costs with the local lairds. Together they spent over twenty thousand pounds putting in a new harbor at Peterhead, and over seventy thousand pounds at Dundee, all under Telford’s supervision. He also built a thousand miles of strong and secure roads crisscrossing the Highlands, more durable even than McAdam’s; they made Highland tourism, the new industry Sir Walter Scott had set in motion, possible. He also built bridges across remote glens and gorges—more than 120 of them.

All of this unending labor and travel, which took Telford back and forth across Britain—“you know I am tossed about like a rubber ball,” he told a friend, “the other day I was in London and since then I have been in Liverpool and in a few days I expect to be in Bristol”—had to be fitted around the greatest project of his life, building the Caledonian Canal.

The Caledonian Canal is a massive sea-to-sea navigable waterway, connecting the Atlantic Ocean to Inverness and the North Sea. Running sixty miles through the Great Glen, with more than twenty miles of canals and locks, it is one and a half times the length of the Panama Canal, and nearly two-thirds as long as the Suez (for which it was the model). Its construction is one of the great epics of modern engineering history. It took Telford almost fifteen years to build, using tens of thousands of workers, at an unheard-of cost of nearly a billion pounds—the equivalent of perhaps two trillion dollars in today’s money. Almost all of the money came from the British government, for what was the first public inland waterway project in the nation’s history. It opened up the central Highlands to commercial traffic for the first time, marking a new era in the history of that remote and aloof region.

At each stage Telford had to find a solution to a new engineering problem. There was dredging out the entrance to an existing loch, or cutting a new channel, or finding a secure bottom for his massive stone canal locks (at one point the bottom was so soft “that it was pierced with an iron rod to the depth of sixty feet”), or simply moving the enormous quantities of earth the construction of each lock required. He designed a huge dredging machine, powered by one of Watt’s steam engines, that could bring up eight hundred tons of mud a day. His friend and fellow poet Robert Southey saw it in operation when he came to visit in 1819. Southey also watched the building of the series of locks connecting Loch Lochy and Loch Oich, or “Neptune’s Staircase,” which could raise a ship nearly one hundred feet above sea level—“the greatest work of its kind which has been ever undertaken in ancient or modern times.” Southey was a romantic reactionary. Like Sir Walter Scott, he was more inspired by the beauty of mountains and lakes than by industrial machinery. But even Southey could appreciate the breathtaking sight of Telford’s soaring suspension bridges, such as the one at Bonar: “Oh! It is the finest thing that ever was made by God or man!” And Scott said much the same when he saw Menai Bridge, calling it “the most impressive work of art I have ever seen.”

But what most impressed Southey was Telford himself. “There is so much intelligence in his countenance, so much frankness, kindness, and hilarity about him. . . .” He concluded, “Telford’s is a happy life: everywhere making roads, building bridges, forming canals, and creating harbours—works of sure, solid, permanent utility. . . .” Permanent was right. More than 75 percent of Telford’s projects are still in operation to this day. It was a life’s work that flowed from a bottomless reservoir of creativity and self-confident energy. It continued to flow right down to his last years, when Telford began to work on a plan to build a canal in South America to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The place he chose for it was the narrowest point on the North-South American land bridge, at Darien—the same place where William Paterson had launched his ill-fated colony 136 years earlier, when Scotland was starting its first tentative steps into the modern world.

Telford never got started on his new canal. He died in 1834, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, joining the growing contingent of Scottish geniuses laid to rest in that hallowed shrine to British achievement. Others recognized Darien’s potential, however. The world would have to wait another fifty years before work would finally get under way. William Paterson’s vision of the isthmus of Panama as “the door of the seas” would finally be realized—by Americans this time, not by the British, athough the first chief engineer on the Panama Canal would happen to be a Scot by descent, John Findlay Wallace.

Canals, roads, bridges, and renovated harbors were all crucial to the network of self-interested exchange that held together modern commercial society, and now industrial society. The next logical step was to improve the means of transport on those thoroughfares, with the help of Watt’s steam engine. Strangely, Watt himself was reluctant to do this. He seems to have believed the tremendous power generated by his invention would make any ship or vehicle too dangerous to handle. Instead, it fell to a series of other visionary Scots, and inventors of Scottish extraction, to turn the energy of steam into the new transportation of the industrial age.

Henry Bell put his steam-powered boat Comet on the river Clyde in 1812. It was an idea borrowed, as usual, from someone else (a Scot named William Symington, who sailed the first working steam-powered boat, Charlotte Dundas, back in 1788 on Loch Dalswinton); but Bell showed that it could power genuine seagoing vessels, not just light rivercraft or demonstration toys. By 1823 there were more than seventy-two steamships operating up and down the Clyde, almost 60 percent of Britain’s total steam-powered shipping. An American of Scottish descent, Robert Fulton, made the idea functional in North American waters, as well. Fulton usually gets the credit for inventing the steamboat, but it was Bell who first made it commercially and nautically feasible, while Glasgow’s dockyards became home to generations of increasingly advanced and powerful oceangoing steamships.

George Stephenson’s background was very much like Thomas Telford’s. His paternal grandfather was a Scot who settled in northern England near Newcastle, a region similar to Lowland Scotland across the border, with a history of religious dissent and austere poverty, but high levels of literacy and a tendency to turn out ambitious, self-made men. George fell in love with steam engines while working as a teenager in the West Moor Mines. Stephenson took up a Cornishman’s invention, a locomotive engine powered by steam, and used it to build the first modern railway. Not surprisingly, Thomas Telford was thinking along the same lines, except he envisioned steam-powered cars moving along his sturdy and well-built roads, not on rigid iron rails. The lobby for rails won out, however, and by the end of the 1820s Stephenson and his team of engineers were building an intricate network of iron railways and bridges for their steam-powered locomotives.

A new chapter in the industrial age was about to begin, as hundreds of miles of rails reached out to connect the major cities and industrial centers of Britain, north and south. It was the most massive national construction project in history. Telford’s dream of a national network of highways with motorized vehicles and passenger cars would have to wait for another century, and another form of power—gasoline rather than steam.30


There was one other unforeseen consequence of Watt’s steam engine, which many contemporaries missed, but which a perceptive German observer named Karl Marx did not. Steam power allowed a factory or mill owner to build his place of business where it suited him, rather than having to rely on geographical accident, such as a swift-running river or access to cheap fuel such as coal, to dictate his choice of location. Where it suited him usually meant close to routes where he could transport his products and supplies cheaply, and where he could find a cheap and ready supply of labor—which in turn usually meant a city. In other words, Watt made industrial production an essentially urban activity. The classical industrial city was the result: Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Essen, Lyons—and Glasgow.

Glasgow epitomized nearly every aspect of this development, and foreshadowed many of the rest. By 1801 it was Scotland’s largest city. The era of the great tobacco lords and merchant capitalists was finally and decisively over. Instead, textiles, ironworking, and modern shipbuilding were the driving forces of economic and demographic growth. Smokestacks, brick factories, and fiery, glowing foundries ringed the city, as the austere old warehouses along Gallowgate were submerged by workers’ tenements. The city’s population expanded from 77,000 in 1801 to nearly 275,000 forty years later: almost a fourfold increase. In the earliest boom years, between 1801 and 1811, the population grew by 30 percent a year.

Archibald Buchanan built the very first “integrated” cotton mill in Britain at Glasgow in 1807, combining all its component processes under one roof. The manager of the Glasgow Gasworks, James Neilson, transformed the iron industry by developing the modern blast furnace in 1827, which likewise helped to integrate ironworking and the production of pig iron. Glasgow soon outstripped both England and Wales in its iron output, rising over twentyfold to half a million tons. Glasgow managers and manufacturers were famous for their technical skill, their efficiency, and their willingness to innovate and develop new materials or techniques. By the early 1830s, Glasgow was making much of the machinery used by the rest of Britain’s industrial plant: “In these works,” wrote one observer, “everything belonging to, or connected with, the Millwright or Engineer department of the [British] manufacture is fabricated.”

Glasgow’s emergence as a major industrial city made fortunes for business dynasties such as the Finlays, the Dunlops, who successfully made the transition from importing tobacco to making pig iron, and the Bairds of Gartsherrie, who eventually became the world’s leading producers of pig iron. At the end of the century, William Baird was counted among the forty wealthiest men in Britain.

However, all this growth soared far beyond the city’s capacity to offer safe and affordable housing, or even adequate sewage and sanitation. The tens of thousands of rural immigrants who flocked in looking for work had to cram themselves into the old decaying inner city of Glasgow, abandoned long ago by Glasgow’s middle class. Just in the narrow area where Gallowgate intersects High Street and the Saltmarket, more than twenty thousand people were jammed together, dumping their refuse into the streets and behind their tenements, where, as one official put it, “sanitary evils existed to perfection.”

Who were they? Contrary to myth, few were Highlanders fleeing the Clearances—perhaps no more than 5 percent at the beginning. The vast majority were Irish, who abandoned the abject poverty of their homeland for the low but real wages they could earn in Glasgow’s cotton mills, iron foundries, and linen dye works. It beat starving for nothing. Clydeside’s Irish were the precursors of the armies of unskilled but hardworking “guest workers” of modern industrial Europe, and of the flood of cheap Irish labor that would emigrate to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. By the time of the First Reform Bill, in fact, one out of five Glaswegians had been born in Ireland. Locals resented them because they were Catholics. Most were stuck in “casual” or part-time employment at the lowest possible wage. Most were also women. Women, married and unmarried, made up fully 60 percent of workers in the Glasgow mills. Their children found jobs as chimney sweeps as young as five or six. When wages fell and the mills closed, as they did in 1815 and later in the 1820s, life became as horrible as anything portrayed in a Dickens novel—certainly worse than what Friedrich Engels saw in Manchester in the early 1840s, which moved him to write his Conditions of the Working Class in England.

Squeezed between squalid living conditions and falling wages, Glasgow’s workers fought back. The violent confrontations between employers and employees in those years surpassed anything happening in any other British or European city of the time. Labor unrest culminated in the general strike and massive uprising of the so-called Radical War of 1820, which Glasgow activists hoped would spark workers’ revolts across the rest of Britain. Instead, it ended in a battle with local cavalry at Bonnymuir, and the hanging of three rebel ringleaders: James Wilson, Andrew Hardie, and John Baird—all this little more than two years before the royal visit.

These battles foreshadowed the future of relations between labor and capital for the next hundred years, the “class struggle” that would embroil Europe’s major industrial cities and perplex politicians and intellectuals right down to our own day. It also foreshadowed its end. Glasgow’s workers did not set off a revolution of the proletariat because that was not what they wanted. In the end, early Scottish unions such as the Operative Turners Association and the Glasgow Cotton Spinners Association simply wanted a decent living, with a higher wage but also a sense of individual dignity and independence. In other words, like Scots everywhere, they wanted to be part of progress, not head it off at the pass.

This working-class challenge required a middle-class response. It came in two forms.

David Dale was a self-taught industrial entrepreneur who rose from weaver’s apprentice to branch manager of the Royal Bank of Glasgow and founding member of Glasgow’s Chamber of Commerce. In 1786 he set up a cotton mill at New Lanark, in partnership with the English inventor of the spinning jenny, Richard Arkwright. Deeply religious and personally scrupulous, Dale wanted the factory to be a model of its kind. His employees put in an “easy” schedule of only eleven hours a day, with a two-hour break for dinner, and had free housing. By 1800, New Lanark employed more hands than any factory in the world, two-thirds of whom were women and children recruited from local orphanages. Dale gave them clothes, including a Sunday suit, schooling, and a wholesome diet of porridge and milk, potatoes and barley bread, with beef and cheese. A visitor said, “[I]f I was tempted to envy any of my fellow creatures it would be men such as . . . Mr. Dale for the good they have done to mankind.”

Dale’s son-in-law, an English industrialist named Robert Owen, took over that same year. Owen was determined not just to maintain Dale’s magnanimity, but to expand it. He wanted to turn New Lanark into A New Kind of Society, as he titled his first book, in which the character of man, debased by the greed of commercial society, would be elevated and transformed by Owen’s orderly but benevolent regime. It became the first secular utopian community, and a new political system—socialism—was born.

In 1824 Owen moved his utopian dreams to America. In New Harmony, Indiana, he eventually found a home for his experiment in abolishing private property. It never worked out quite as well as Owen had imagined; the residents quarreled over who got what and refused to work, and after only three years New Harmony had to be abandoned. It turned out Lord Kames’s basic law of human motivations—“Man is designed by nature to appropriate”—was more durable than Owen’s belief, or that of subsequent generations of socialists, that man should be made to share.

The other type of response proved more long-lasting. Scottish middle-class liberalism learned to extend the benefits of civilization to those it had left behind. Liberal lawyers such as Francis Jeffrey and Henry Cockburn volunteered to defend labor leaders and radicals in the great sedition trials of 1817. The Scottish Reform Act of 1832 broke the back of the old Dundas patronage system by extending the franchise and giving the vote to Scottish cities. It set in motion events and trends that would ultimately bring the vote to working-class Scots and heal old wounds. Political change did not come as quickly or with as wide a reach as in England, but by 1868, fully two-thirds of Glasgow’s electorate was working class. They and their middle-class employers cast their votes together for a Liberal Party that totally dominated Scottish politics for the next fifty years. During the second half of the nineteenth century, historian Thomas Devine has stated, “Liberal values represented Scottish values.”

More immediately and perhaps more crucially, middle-class Scots took on the formidable job of cleaning up the mess that headlong industrialization had left behind. Scottish doctors took the lead as champions of municipal public health and hygiene as early as the 1780s, first in England, then in their own country. Manchester, the heart of the English Industrial Revolution, was totally transformed by Scots. Charles White, an Edinburgh M.D., founded the Manchester Infirmary and Lying-in Hospital. Another Edinburgh-trained doctor, Thomas Percival, browbeat Manchester hospitals into keeping statistics of births and deaths in order to allow doctors and officials to trace the progress of epidemic diseases in the city. John Farrier created the Manchester Board of Health, the first in England, set up special hospital wards for fever patients, and required the disinfecting of wards and private homes where fever was found. All these measures helped to limit the spread of infectious diseases such as typhus, and served as the model for other cities and public health officials.

In 1796, Farrier also established the link between unhealthy working conditions in the Manchester mills and the spread of disease and high mortality. He proposed that the mills “be subject to a general system of laws, for wise, humane, and equal treatment of all such works.” The notion of government regulation of workplace safety and health was born, which took another forty years for Parliament to finally address.

What Farrier and others did for Manchester (the founders of the city’s medical school in the early 1820s took Edinburgh as their direct model), John Heysham did for Carlisle in the 1780s, including introducing inoculation against smallpox. A similar group of unsung Scottish heroes took on Sheffield. Glasgow and Edinburgh had to wait until much later. William Alison, dean of the medical faculty at Edinburgh, took up public health issues only in the 1840s, and reform and slum clearances reached Glasgow still later.

By then the reforms of middle-class medicine were almost complete. James Simpson had introduced chloroform as an anesthetic for surgery in 1847, and then for childbirth. At the Glasgow medical school, William McEwen took up Joseph Lister’s idea of sterilizing surgical instruments and bandages, and together with Edinburgh’s Lister, made the use of antiseptics standard practice in British medicine. Over the long run, these changes, along with the gas streetlighting invented by one of Watt’s assistants, William Murdoch, may have done as much to save lives and raise living standards as many of the large-scale public hygiene projects of the same years.

Scottish public health efforts also differed from their English counterparts in two crucial respects. They tended to look more to the private sector to supply the necessary support and capital, and were unwilling to involve the state if private resources were available. They also laid heavy stress on the need for education and moral uplift, as well as cleanliness and sanitation. Some of this sprang from religious motives: the Glasgow Sunday School Union, for example, was very active in the troubled early decades of the nineteenth century, and by 1819 had enrolled nearly 7 percent of the city’s population. Thomas Chalmers preached voluntary relief as the solution to poverty, as part of the Kirk’s traditional parochial responsibilities. But part of it, too, was the classical liberal faith in the power of the individual to do good, both for himself and for others. No one exemplified this more than Dr. Samuel Smiles, the author of that classic tract on the Victorian faith in the individual, Self-Help.

The book, and its famous motto, “God helps those who help themselves,” used to be derided as self-delusional propaganda, or Victorian hypocrisy at its worst. It is a more complex book than that, and its author a more complex man. Smiles was born in Haddington, and was an knowledgeable fan of the emerging scientific industrial culture his fellow Scots had done so much to create. He wrote an admiring biography of Thomas Telford; his great heroes were James Watt and James Nasmyth, inventor of the industrial steam hammer. He was also a doctor, trained at Edinburgh medical school. In Smiles, in fact, all the strands of Scottish faith in science, industry, and technology come together, along with its enlightened liberal belief in individual freedom and responsibility. The second edition of Self-Help, published in 1869, opened with a quotation from the Scottish-descended philosopher John Stuart Mill: “The worth of a state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.”

Smiles wanted to inspire in his readers a sense of their own self-worth, both as individuals and as part of the rise of Britain as a great nation. Self-Help is the ancestor of all self-help and motivational books and audio tapes, the indispensable vade mecums of the person who feels overwhelmed by the tide and tempo of modern life. The emotional anchor Smiles offered his readers was the example of the great inventors, scientists, and businessmen who had risen above humble beginnings and conquered adversity to become useful and productive human beings. His examples were not exclusively Scottish or even British; they included Germans, French, and Italians (they were, however, all men). Each revealed the power of the individual to remake his life and his environment through hard work, perseverance (most of his examples are haunted by early failures), moral discipline, ceaseless optimism, and the energy to seize opportunities when they present themselves—Scottish virtues presented as a “personal power” to match the new mechanized power unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. You can be who you want to be, so choose carefully and learn to live with the result.

Smiles also stressed, like Telford, that success should not be measured just in material terms, or even personal, selfish ones. “National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy, and uprightness,” he admonished, “as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice.”

Self-Help was published on the heels of Britain’s embarrassing performance in the Crimean War, and its humiliation in the Indian Mutiny. It was a time when the future of the British Empire seemed once again very dim. There is a distinct note of patriotic pleading to aspects of the book, especially in this striking passage: “The spirit of self-help, as exhibited in the energetic action of individuals, has in all times been a marked feature in the English character, and furnishes the true measure of our power as a nation.”

The English character? If the eighteenth-century Scot had subordinated himself to a larger whole as a “North Briton,” Smiles was now willing to carry things a step further. Scottish scientists and inventors such as Watt and Telford and Nasmyth, he was suggesting, were displaying a creative national character that turned out not to be Scottish at all, but English! It was an extraordinary piece of national selfeffacement, especially since Britain was becoming more reliant on its Scots than ever. If England’s claim to greatness in the second half of the nineteenth century rested on its laurels of empire, it was an empire largely built and organized by Scots.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!