EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
The city that changed the world. It's a bold claim - and one I've borrowed from a book by James Buchan - but Edinburgh really has been an intellectual crucible throughout history. One famous remark from an English visitor in the eighteenth century posited the idea that ‘‘you could stand at the Mercat Cross and, in half an hour, shake 50 men of genius by the hand’’.
And that may not even have been an exaggeration, as Edinburgh has been home to a great many thinkers, writers, inventors and scientists over the years.
The Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was undoubtedly a high point in the city's history, as the crowded and cramped streets of the Old Town created a natural environment for the sharing and developing of big ideas - indeed, I would make the argument that the physical geography of the city, forcing all classes and levels of society to live cheek-by-jowl within such constrained city limits, was key to many of the inventions and developments which are attributed to the Enlightenment period.
But even before and after the eighteenth century, Edinburgh has been home to some great minds, so here's my selection of key figures from Edinburgh (past and present) who have - in various ways - changed the world.
In a nutshell, Adam Smith is credited with shaping our understanding of the economic processes which underpin society, chiefly through his 1776 work The Wealth of Nations. It remains a key text in schools and universities around the globe and the ideas within it continue to influence modern economic practice. To some Smith is the father of economics, to others he's the father of capitalism.
Smith had been living at Panmure House in Canongate - which in those days was just beyond the city limits of Edinburgh - when he wrote his magnum opus, which was born partly of the boom in Scotland's presence in the international trade market during the mid-eighteenth century, when the tobacco plantations of America were among some of the most valuable trade links that Scotland had.
Edinburgh at that time had especially huge amounts of wealth inequality, with very rich and very poor living beside each other, and with cash pouring into the pockets of the fantastically rich coming from both domestic sources (the Scottish Highlands being a long-exploited resource) and overseas markets. Smith's philosophy of cash and trade couldn't have arrived at a more convenient time, although it's doubtful if he could have imagined it still having such resonance on our world two hundred years and fifty years later.
James Hutton was a geologist who drew inspiration from the landscape of Edinburgh (and across Scotland) to shape his theories of the Earth, which would transform not just our understanding of our planet but our experience of it.
In the eighteenth century, church teachings still had it that the Earth had been created in the space of just a few days, and only several thousand years ago. Hutton believed that the features he was observing around Arthur's Seat and up in the Highlands didn't fit that story - the rocks (he hypothesised) had actually been created at different periods of time, and not just a matter of days apart but hundreds of thousands of years. Today the age of the Earth is estimated around 4.5 billion years old, and it has been growing and developing and changing over all that time.
This was the key idea of Hutton's work - that our Earth was not a fixed object that had been created as we know it, but it had shifted ('evolved', as a later geologist, Charles Lyell would describe it) over millennia, with its landmasses, oceans and the life upon and within them constantly changing.
"From what has actually been," Hutton wrote, "we have data for concluding with regard to that which is to happen thereafter." This linking of past, present and future understanding would filter through to a whole raft of later figures, including a particular influence on Charles Darwin (himself briefly a student in Edinburgh) whose later theories of evolution and 'survival of the fittest' would in turn redefine humanity's place and experience in the world.
ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL
Born on Charlotte Square in the New Town of Edinburgh in 1847, and educated at the Royal High School and University of Edinburgh, Bell was living in North America when he lodged his patent application for the device which revolutionised human communication.
Bell's mother was deaf, as was his wife, which was a major factor in much of his early work in speech and language and his later efforts to improve communication, leading him to seek to develop a device which would allow sufferers of deafness to 'hear' again. The invention of electricity had opened a whole new world of technology and innovation, and Bell set his mind to being able to reproduce the sounds of a human voice using electrical impulses, which he characterised as a 'harmonic telegraph' system.
In 1876, Bell applied for a US patent for his telephone, submitting it on the same day as a second inventor, Elisha Gray, applied for a patent for a similar device - it remains a subject of debate which of them made their application first, but it was Bell who made the first demonstration of the successful device. On 10 March 1876, the first telephone 'call' was made, from Bell to his assistant Thomas Watson, and since then the telephone has come to be an integral component not just of communication but of many aspects of daily life.
Who knows what would Bell make of our reliance on the modern version of the device he developed and patented. He died in 1922 and was buried near his family's home in Nova Scotia, Canada - and at the conclusion of his funeral, every telephone in North America was temporarily silenced as a tribute to the man who had revolutionised communication.
JAMES CLERK MAXWELL
Whilst figures like Bell and Adam Smith have become household names, one major figure from the world of science and technology is yet to be fully recognised by the general public.
James Clerk Maxwell was born in the New Town in Edinburgh in 1831, but moved with his family to an estate in Kirkudbrightshire while still an infant. His early years were spent in a spate of inquisitiveness, asking questions and probing for information from the world around him, a curiosity that would later serve him as a pioneering physicist and polymath who introduced a new understanding of our world.
Returning to Edinburgh to be educated at the Edinburgh Academy, young Maxwell was given the nickname 'Daftie' at school, due to his distracted attention - his mind was often elsewhere, creating the appearance of being slow and unknowing when in reality his brain was seeking out answers beyond those that his teachers could offer. Later studies at the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge demonstrated that he was far from academically stunted.
Maxwell has several major discoveries and theories attributed to him. His investigations into the properties of light and electromagnetism led to colour photography and (later) television. His writings inspired Albert Einstein, who had a portrait of Maxwell in his office and once commented, "I stand not on the shoulders of Isaac Newton, but of James Clerk Maxwell".
In his 20s, Maxwell had used pure mathematics to prove what the rings of Saturn were made of - a problem that astronomers and physicists had debated for years. But it was only when we were able to get a spacecraft close enough to take photographs - colour photographs - of Saturn's rings that we proved with a visual image what Maxwell had proven with maths over a century earlier.
Today one of the gaps between the rings of Saturn is named the Maxwell Gap.
DOLLY THE SHEEP
Actually the figure to celebrate here is the whole team at the Roslin Institute, who have been pioneering the understanding and application of genetics.
Established in the 1990s from earlier departments of the University of Edinburgh, the Roslin Institute is based on the outskirts of the city and has been involved in several major developments in genetics. But the groundbreaking project that still captures the public imagination came in 1996, when the world's first genetically cloned mammal was announced by the institute.
Dolly, as she was named by Keith Campbell and Ian Wilmutt, who led the team that created her, was developed from a single cell taken from a ewe's mammary gland. She was named Dolly in honour of what the scientists suggested were the world's finest mammary glands, on the singer Dolly Parton...
Dolly gave birth to several lambs who continued her genetic inheritance, before her death at the age of six from an illness unrelated to her genetic origins.
Such was the importance of Dolly's existence (and the genetic leap that had helped to create her) that after her death she was stuffed and mounted for display in the National Museum of Scotland, where she stands in the science and technology gallery as a statement of Scotland's world-leading scientific endeavour.
One of Edinburgh's great minds remains a resident of the city today, confirming the notion that not all of the major figures who have had an influence on the world are consigned to history!
Peter Higgs became a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in 1960, teaching at their institute of Mathematical Physics, after gaining his PhD from King's College in London in 1954. His writing in the 1960s featured the study of subatomic particles, and in 1964 Higgs hypothesised a new particle - dubbed the Higgs boson - which would resolve some of the difficulties physicists had encountered in explaining some of their observations of sub-atomic matter.
Although predicted in the 1960s, it wouldn't be until 2012 that the existence of the Higgs boson would be proven, following experiments made possible by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.
In 2013 Peter Higgs and François Englert, who had been a part of the 1960s team that made the original predictions, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work.
Peter Higgs is today the Honorary Patron of the James Clerk Maxwell foundation, and has a department of Theoretical Physics named after him at the University of Edinburgh's School of Physics and Astronomy, which is based in (appropriately enough) the James Clerk Maxwell building at the university's King's Buildings campus.
This is just a very small, personal selection from the many great minds and figures who have been associated with Edinburgh over the years.
Explore more of Edinburgh's world-changing residents on one of my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-21