Skip Nav
Connect > Blog > East Lothian Inventors; fabulous, fantastic and fantastical! More numerous than I knew and some very Wallace and Gromit-like!

Last week the ‘Inventions Bus’, a travelling museum showcasing British inventions, visited East Lothian. I hope you got a chance to visit it whilst it was around our towns. I had the wonderful job of selecting and installing the objects to highlight the inventions from East Lothian, which meant doing research and then searching the museum collection. I was amazed to find just how many inventions there have been!

The first inventor that I found out about was James Meikle (1690c–1718c), who lived at Houston Mill on the Phantassie estate in East Linton. He invented a device for winnowing grain and a barley mill. His son Andrew Meikle (1719 – 1811) invented a threshing machine, used to remove the outer husks from grains of wheat that could be powered by wind, water, horse or steam (very ecological and forward thinking) and also redesigned windmill sails to be made from shutters operated by levers, allowing windmill sails to be quickly and safely controlled in the event of a storm. He also helped in the invention of the Rotherham Plough; regarded as one of the key developments of the British Agricultural Revolution in the late 18th century.

James and Andrew had an apprentice, John Rennie (1761 – 1821), the Phantassie farmer’s son, who showed a taste for mechanics at a very early age and who was allowed to spend much of his time in the workshop. He went on to become a prolific civil engineer. At the age of 23, Rennie accepted a job with James Watt at Soho, Staffordshire but after a short stay left for London to take charge of the works at the Albion Flour Mills, Blackfriars, for which Boulton & Watt were building a steam-engine. The machinery there was all designed by Rennie and used iron instead of wood for the shafting and framing. In 1791, Rennie set up his own engineering business, starting with the construction of canals. His early projects included the Lancaster Canal, the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation, the Crinan Canal, Rudyard Lake, the Dundas Aqueduct on the Kennet and Avon Canal and the Rochdale Canal. For many years he was engaged in extensive drainage operations in the Lincolnshire and Norfolk fens (1802–1810) and in the improvement of the River Witham. The Eau Brink Cut, a new channel for the River Ouse, was completed just before his death. Over the next few years Rennie attained a reputation also as a builder of bridges, combining stone with cast-iron to create low, wide, elliptical arches such as Leeds Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, the old London Bridge, Southwark Bridge and the Old Vauxhall Bridge. Rennie was also responsible for designing and building docks at Hull, Liverpool, Greenock, London (including London, East India and West India docks) and Leith. He also improved the harbours and dockyards at Chatham, Devonport, Portsmouth, Holyhead, Ramsgate and Sheerness and designed the breakwater at Plymouth Sound; a mile long wall across the Sound, in about 20 metres of water and containing over 3 million tons of stone and 16,934 m3 of masonry on the surface and constructed to provide safe passage for naval vessels entering the river Tamar at Devonport. You can see his portrait and bust in East Linton library.

East Lothian also produced Robert Blair (1748–1828) from Garvald, a surgeon and the first Regis Professor of Astronomy at Edinburgh University, who created small telescopes. James Paterson (1770–1806) of Musselburgh developed the machine process for manufacturing fishing nets. Sir William Fergusson (1808–1877), a surgeon from Prestonpans, invented a number of surgical instruments. Robert Wilson (1803–1882) of Dunbar invented the screw propeller that was eventually used in torpedoes and James Porteous (1848–1922) from Haddington, invented the Fresno Scraper, a type of digger.

John Muir, the famous conservationist born in Dunbar in 1838, was also an inventor. He designed locks, water wheels, barometers, clocks and an automatic feeding machine for horses. At university, John invented a ‘study desk’ that could open books in the correct order and turn the pages. A thread connected to a lens, burnt through by sunbeams, ensured that it began at sunrise, so you had to make sure you were at your desk by then! Several images and drawings of John’s inventions survive today and his study desk can be seen at the Wisconsin State Historical Society Museum in the U.S.A.

Inevitably though someone gets left out and I was lucky enough to be on the bus in Prestonpans when a visitor informed me about a Mr Howden.  James Howden (1832–1913) from Prestonpans worked as an apprentice with James Gray & Co., a Glasgow engineering firm and progressed to became their chief draughtsman. In 1857 he set up his own company, James Howden & Co., manufacturing boilers and steam engines for the marine industry. His patented ‘Howden System of Forced Draught’ dramatically reduced the amount of coal used in ships’ boilers and became fitted to hundreds of boilers, including the ‘Lusitania’ and ‘Mauretania’ which were the fastest ocean liners in the world when they were built. In the 1900s Howden designed a fully enclosed high-speed marine steam engine that was later modified for land-based systems as the Howden-Zoelly steam turbine. At the onset of the First World War, a year after Howden’s death, the Admiralty ruled that all ships were to be fitted with Howden “blowers” so that they could outrun U-boats. Howden’s factory in Glasgow was also the place where the boring machines were made that dug the Channel Tunnel.

Brunton WireworksBut where to start with choosing objects to put in the case? The case was too small to fit in large inventions such as a bridge! So I selected some surgical instruments of the like invented by Sir William Fergusson and a photograph of John Muir’s study desk. I also found a souvenir piece of wire rope made by Brunton’s wire mill in Musselburgh, that stood on the site now occupied by Tesco. It turns out that during WWI (1914–18), Brunton’s was the sole UK supplier of many aircraft components, including the wire between bi-plane wings! By the 1940s Brunton’s was one of the largest employers in Musselburgh and was a world leader in the production of wire and cables. Their wire was also used in the Forth Road bridge (opened in 1964); the longest suspension bridge outside the U.S.A. at the time.

What amazing inventions to have come out of East Lothian over the last couple of hundreds of years! However, my favourite invention just has to be John Muir’s ‘Early Rising Machine’. Attached to a bedstead, it set the sleeper on his feet in the morning. I bet we could all do with one of those, some mornings!

Claire, the Collections Officer.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *