Category Archives: Scotland

Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Edinburgh, Scotland

By Helen Parkinson

Surgeons Hall Museum, Edinburgh
Surgeons Hall Museum, Edinburgh, by I Like. Image licensed via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license.

Located in the heart of Edinburgh, near the University of Edinburgh’s Old College, is the Surgeons’ Hall Museums, a must-see collection of oddities and artefacts that collectively bear witness to how far we’ve come in our understanding of the human body and all that ails it.

The current museum building – a grand edifice with classical pillars – was built in 1832 by renowned architect William Playfair, but the idea for the museum dates back to 1699, when Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons made a collection of ‘natural and artificial’ curiosities available to the public. This description is still applicable.

The current museum features six permanent exhibitions: the pathology museum, which contains one of the largest collections of pathological anatomy in Europe; the history of surgery; the dental collection; ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’, which focuses on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s friendship with Joseph Bell of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, who was the author’s inspiration for Holmes; ‘Sight for Scotland: 100 Years of Ophthalmology’; and ‘Skin Deep: The Restoration of Form and Function’, which examines the history of plastic surgery, a practice that amazingly dates back to 800BC.

Each exhibit at Surgeons’ Hall is impressive or surprising in its own way: the dental exhibit, for example, is one of the most significant in the UK and contains rare dental artefacts from around the world, in addition to some of the crudest historical dental tools imaginable. Meanwhile, the history of surgery takes visitors through some of the key medical developments of the last several hundred years, from pre-anaesthesia surgery (imagine that – or don’t) to the discovery of chloroform as an anaesthetic, to the development of antiseptic by Joseph Lister in Scotland.

One of the delightful things about Surgeons’ Hall is that the science is made accessible to the general public. Quirkiness is a prevailing virtue of this museum, from telling about a quack eye doctor who blinded hundreds of patients throughout Europe – potentially including Handel and Bach – on visits he’d make in his carriage that featured painted eyeballs, to all the skeletons and body parts you can handle.

Temporary exhibitions at Surgeons’ Hall often focus on individual contributors to science and medicine, usually ones who have an Edinburgh connection; in 2012, Surgeons’ Hall featured a large exhibition on Joseph Lister, while the year before it was Sir James Young Simpson, an Edinburgh medical pioneer who introduced the use of general anaesthesia during childbirth, among other developments. If your next holidays take you to Edinburgh, Surgeons’ Hall is a worthy stop for anyone, especially scientists, physicians and those interested in history.

Further information:

Surgeons’ Hall Museum
Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
Nicolson Street

Museum website

Chemical Landmark Plaque for James ‘Paraffin’ Young, The Bennie Museum, Bathgate, West Lothian

By John A Hudson

Professor Lesley Yellowless and Ian Blackley with the plaque commemorating James 'Paraffin' Young
Professor Lesley Yellowless and Ian Blackley with the plaque commemorating James ‘Paraffin’ Young at the Bennie Museum, Bathgate, West Lothian. Copyright: Royal Society of Chemistry

This plaque will draw to public attention an individual who was responsible for starting a major chemical industry in West Lothian, but who hitherto has had no memorial in the conventional sense. However, anyone who visits the region to the west of Edinburgh cannot fail to miss the huge heaps of a pinkish colour known as “bings”. These are the physical remains of the shale oil industry started over 160 years ago by James Young.

Young was born to a cabinet maker in Glasgow, and after a rudimentary education he initially worked for his father. At the age of 19 he enrolled on evening classes at Anderson’s University where he came to the attention of the Professor of Chemistry, Thomas Graham, later to become the first President of the Chemical Society. By 1834 he was lecturing for Graham, and in 1837 he moved to London to join Graham at University College. By 1838 he was employed by James Muspratt at his chemical works in Newton le Willows, and in 1844 he was manager of the chemical works of Tennant, Clow & Co. in Manchester. It was while there that a former fellow student at Anderson’s, Lyon Playfair, told him about a spring of petroleum yielding 300 gallons per day at a colliery in Derbyshire. Young was soon refining the oil. At first the most important product was spindle oil to lubricate the machinery of the cotton mills of Manchester.

Young erroneously thought that the oil had been produced from coal by a natural underground distillation process, so he started to experiment in the production of oil by heating various coals and shales. He discovered that the best material to use was torbanite or cannel coal, found near Bathgate, which is so rich in oil that a pointed stick of it will act as a candle (the name “cannel” comes from the Gaelic “conneal” meaning candle). Young patented his distillation process in 1850, and opened his oilworks near Bathgate soon afterwards.

The industry flourished, but the torbanite was soon near exhaustion, so the local shale was mined instead. Although this was not so rich in oil, it was much more plentiful. Other companies were established to obtain oil from the mined shale, and Young was forced to defend his patent rights on a number of occasions. Soon after the patent expired in 1864 there was a boom in the industry, and by 1870 there were 97 firms processing oil shale in the area. Young retired at that time a very wealthy man. He devoted his remaining years to science, leisure and philanthropy. His philanthropic activities included endowing at Anderson’s University the Young chair of technical chemistry which still continues at the University of Strathclyde. He also financed two of the expeditions to Africa of David Livingstone (another former fellow student at Anderson’s), and he erected statues to Livingstone and Thomas Graham in Glasgow. He served as Vice-President of the Chemical Society from 1879-1881.

Eventually the industry supported some 40,000 people in the area, and the crude oil obtained in the primary distillation was being further refined into a wide variety of products including, in the early 20th century, motor spirit. After World War I the importation of oil from overseas made shale oil uneconomic, and although the industry enjoyed a revival during World War II, the final works closed in 1962.

The unveiling ceremony commenced with an introduction by Malcolm Simpson, Chair of the Bennie Museum, which houses an interesting local collection. We then heard a presentation on James Young from Dr Robin Chesters, Director of the Almond Valley Heritage Trust. Professor Lesley Yellowlees, RSC President-Elect, then spoke about the Chemical landmark Scheme and we also heard from Ian Blackley, a retired diplomat, who is a great-great-grandson of James Young. Then followed the unveiling of the plaque, on which the wording reads:

James ‘Paraffin’ Young (1811-1883)

In recognition of his outstanding contribution, started on a site close to here in Birniehill Bathgate, where in c. 1850 he processed torbanite (‘cannel coal’) to create the first commercial production of paraffin oil in the world, leading to the major shale oil industry in West Lothian.

27 April 2012

The event was attended by teachers and pupils from two local schools (the James Young High School and Bathgate Academy). Also present was Graeme Morrice, MP for the Livingston Constituency, which includes Young’s house and the sites of some of his later works. It was a pleasure to represent the Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group at this event, ably organised (as always) by Pauline Meakins. And it is nice to know that Young now has not only bings as his memorial, but a handsome plaque.

Postscript: Shortly after it was unveiled the plaque was stolen, apparently by scrap metal thieves. Luckily it was later recovered undamaged, but at the time of writing no decision has been reached as to where it should be re-sited.

Website: The Bennie Museum

Following in the footsteps of James Smithson

By Steven Turner

This article was originally published on “O Say Can You See?”, the blog of the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution, and has been reproduced here with the generous permission of the author, Steven Turner.

Somewhat late in the summer of 1784, James Smithson embarked on his first scientific expedition. This “expedition” might have seemed a bit odd to a modern viewer—as it consisted of four gentlemen, with their servants, driving north from London in carriages—but in the 18th century science was often a gentleman’s pursuit and this was how gentlemen traveled.

Their goal was to explore the remote island of Staffa, off the Northwest coast of Scotland. Staffa had recently been visited by Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society in London, and his description of the island’s distinctive basalt columns and remarkable marine caves had captured both the popular and scientific imaginations of the time. In the 19th century Staffa would become a major tourist destination, but in 1784 Smithson’s party would have been one of the first scientific groups – and certainly the first mineralogists – to attempt the rigorous overland journey to see it.

The island of Staffa
The island of Staffa. In Smithson's time there was great disagreement about how an island like this could have been formed. Staffa has also inspired a range of artistic works over the years.

Smithson would later become famous for leaving his fortune to found the Smithsonian Institution in the United States. But at this time he was only 19 years old and fresh from his studies at Oxford. The driving force behind the expedition was Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, a French geologist and mineralogist who planned to use the trip as field-work for a book on Scottish volcanoes. Smithson only learned about the expedition at the last minute from one of his professors, who urged him to join and provided letters of introduction. Smithson dropped everything and rushed to London, arriving just a few days before it departed.

Smithson's group's route to Staffa
The route Smithson’s group took to Staffa. Today's highways take essentially the same path.

The events he witnessed, the places he visited and the ideas he encountered propelled Smithson’s early scientific career and influenced much of his later scientific work. As a Smithsonian curator researching the science of James Smithson, I’ve spent much of the last year trying to unravel the story of what Smithson saw on this trip and what it would have meant to him. So much of the story is connected to the specific geology of Scotland and to Enlightenment-era Edinburgh that I came to realize the importance of seeing these places in person. And when I mentioned this idea to my intrepid volunteers Jeff Gorman and Frank Cole, it was not long before we all found ourselves on a unique vacation: following in the footsteps of James Smithson.


Averaging less than 20 miles a day, it took the expedition several weeks to reach Edinburgh (more than 300 miles from London), and for me this was their first important destination. This is where Smithson encountered the remarkable intellectual flowering now known as the Scottish Enlightenment.

We know that Smithson carried letters of introduction and that he met and later corresponded with the famous chemist Joseph Black. Black was noted for his use of the chemical balance and at the National Museum of Scotland we were able to see some of his actual instruments. Smithson wrote about carrying a balance “of Black’s design” when he traveled in Europe.

Scottish National Museum
The Scottish National Museum's galleries about 18th century life provided a glimpse into the world Smithson explored.

Smithson arrived in Edinburgh at a very interesting time. The city was home to some of the most brilliant men in Europe and they all seem to have been close friends. Smithson was able to meet many of them and although the expedition could not linger more than a few days, he seems to have been strongly affected by the experience and returned for a second visit on his way back to London.

In particular he seems to have been impressed by James Hutton, now known as the father of geology. At the time of Smithson’s visit Hutton would have been just developing his revolutionary theories about underground heat and pressure, and we know that he was recruiting visiting scientists to send him rock samples. Hutton seems to have recruited our hero as well, as Smithson later tried to send him fossils. If Hutton spent any time with Smithson, one of the places he would have taken him was “Salisbury Crags” – an ancient lava flow that literally loomed over the back yard of his house.

The Salisbury Crags
The Salisbury Crags, near Hutton's home

This image was taken just a short distance from where Hutton lived, and it’s easy to see why his attention was drawn to this formation. In his time the hard basaltic stone at the top was being excavated for use as paving stones. As new material was exposed Hutton would study it for evidence of structures that could only have been formed by underground lava. To help us understand the unique geology of Edinburgh we arranged a geologic tour of the city, and this turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. The Edinburgh area was shaped by ancient volcanoes and in Holyrood Park, in the center of the city, we were able to see some of the same formations that Hutton would have studied—and presumably shown Smithson.

On Salisbury Crags, in Holyrood Park


Edinburgh was the intellectual center of 18th century Scotland, but the expedition encountered a different side of the Enlightenment at the next place it lingered – Inveraray Castle. This was, and still is, the home of the Duke of Argyll, and Smithson’s group reached it only after a long, difficult journey up the west side of Loch Lomand and then overland to Loch Fyne. A modern highway now follows this same route and as we drove we were able to enjoy the rugged beauty of mountains and lochs. But we could imagine the challenge of getting carriages over muddy mountain roads and of finding food and lodging in the rain and dark. We could also imagine the joy of Smithson’s group when they finally reached the Castle.

Inveraray Castle
With large windows and a decorative moat, this castle was never intended for military use, but served as an example of enlightened ideals and manners for this part of Scotland.

Located on the shore of Loch Fyne and situated at the base of a low mountain, the Castle remains today much as Smithson would have seen it. Much more a home than a fortress, the Castle was just being finished when they arrived. The Duke and Duchess were famous for their hospitality and refinement, and Faujas later reported that French was spoken at dinner and that French wines, tableware and manners were at all times employed.

The Duke of Argyll, his family, and guests outside Inveraray Castle
Continuing the tradition of hospitality that Smithson experienced, the Duke of Argyll graciously welcomed us to his home.

For me, Inveraray Castle presents the romantic side of the Enlightenment. The artwork and tapestries, the elaborate gardens and hothouses, even the design of the Castle itself all express something of the idealization of nature and reason that characterized Smithson’s time. And there is also an underlying belief in progress and human improvement, which is an interesting connection to Smithson’s later founding of the Smithsonian.

Sculpture of Perseus and Andromeda by the Flemish sculptor Michael Van Der Voort, 1713.
Sculpture of Perseus and Andromeda by the Flemish sculptor Michael Van Der Voort, 1713.

Smithson almost certainly saw this work and one wonders how he would have understood it. Did he see, as many in his time would have, a metaphor of nature and the power of reason?

The expedition could only linger three days at Inveraray, although the Duke urged them to stay longer. They must have looked back fondly to this time during the subsequent days, because they now began the most difficult part of their journey.


The expedition now headed northwest to the fishing village of Oban, from which they would sail to the island of Mull and, from there, to Staffa. The road was the worst they had yet encountered and they were exhausted by the time they reached Oban.

Our own drive to Oban was much more pleasant and took only a few hours. We arrived in time to visit the local historical society and learn a bit about its’ history. Oban would have been a small fishing village when Smithson saw it, with a population of only about 600. It began to grow in the 1790s – partly due to interest in Staffa – and today is a pleasant community of about 8,500.

The launching point on Mull to Staffa
The launching point on Mull to Staffa

Today it’s an easy ferry ride from Oban to Mull, although for Smithson the 33 mile trip could have been daunting – it was the beginning of the stormy season. Once on Mull, Smithson’s group crossed to the west side of the island and the embarkation point for Staffa. They stayed at Torloisk, an estate the Duke had recommended, and from which (on a clear day) they could see Staffa. It took several days before the seas were calm enough to attempt to reach Staffa and even then Smithson reported a harrowing trip. He spent the night on the island, returning the next day with a cache of mineral samples and a genuine sense of accomplishment.

Our own expedition to Staffa was less successful. Modern tour boats leave Mull from the same spot that Smithson used, but on the days we were there the seas were too rough to venture out. The seas around Staffa are notoriously unpredictable—Smithson had to wait almost a week for good weather—but having gotten so close made me determined to come back and try again during another trip.


The Museum of Lead Mining in Wanlockhead
The Museum of Lead Mining in Wanlockhead. The mine Smithson visited is now closed, but this one is in the same area and dates from the same period.

At the museum in Wanlockhead we were able go a short way into one of the original lead mines, which was an interesting experience. I was intrigued to learn that this area had both lead and zinc mines. Smithson wrote about the chemistry of both minerals and the zinc ore Smithsonite is named after him. Did his interest in these ores begin during this visit?


Smithson’s last stop before returning to London was to visit a salt mine in the Northwich area, southwest of Manchester. The underground salt deposits in Northwich have been worked since Roman times and the extraction of salt has led to a series of subsidences (or “fells”) throughout the area. Many of the lakes in Northwich are actually old salt mines that collapsed after the salt was removed.

The Trent and Mersey Canal
The Trent and Mersey Canal. Finished in 1777, the canal was one of the first in England.

This was also our last stop, although the mine Smithson visited no longer exists. Instead we visited the Lion Salt Works in Marston which is one of the few remaining 19th century salt mines. It closed in the 1970s and is now in the process of being restored as an industrial museum. It used a “brine” method of extraction, which is different than the mine Smithson visited, but the site is adjacent to the Trent and Mersey Canal, which was completed just a few years before Smithson’s visit. The canal was built to facilitate shipping salt and, like so much of what Smithson saw on his trip, was what we now think of as the beginning of the British industrial revolution.


Smithson returned to London just over three months after he had left. His newfound reputation as an explorer opened doors for him, as did the large cache of mineral samples he brought back. Just 3 years later, in 1787, he was elected to the prestigious Royal Society, becoming its’ youngest member. Smithson’s scientific career had started.

Washington DC

Historians are more commonly found in libraries and archives than on road-trips, and I must admit to being a bit uncertain about how useful this trip would actually be. But having seen the places Smithson visited and having, in some ways, shared his experiences has proved immensely helpful as I try to piece his story together. In particular, the depth of his interest in geology has been a revelation and my research since returning has been largely devoted to exploring that topic.

Steven Turner is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science. He’d like to express his appreciation for his “support group” on this trip: Jeff Gorman, Ginni Gorman, Frank Cole and Mary Lou Cole; with a special thanks to Frank, who took on the daunting task of planning this trip and without whom it certainly wouldn’t have happened.

Darwin and Glen Roy, Scotland

By Alistair Sponsel

This article is © The Darwin Correspondence Project, University of Cambridge and is used with permission. The original article appears at along with links to the full text of Darwin letters concerning Glen Roy. The Darwin Project Glen Roy page also has a link to historian Martin Rudwick’s field guide to Glen Roy.

Woodcut showing the 'Parallel Roads' on either side of Glen Roy, from Darwin's 1839 paper.
Woodcut showing the 'Parallel Roads' on either side of Glen Roy, from Darwin's 1839 paper.

Although Darwin was best known for his geological work in South America and other remote Beagle destinations, he made one noteworthy attempt to explain a puzzling feature of British geology. In 1838, two years after returning from the voyage, he travelled to the Scottish Highlands to study the so-called parallel roads of Glen Roy.

These ‘roads’ were horizontal terraces on either side of a valley called Glen Roy, and though earlier visitors had supposed that they must be ancient hand-built features, geologists in the last two decades had declared them to be of natural origin. Two geologists, John MacCulloch and Thomas Dick Lauder, proposed in the late 1810s that the roads had been cut into the hillsides by standing water, and were the beaches of a former highland lake that had once filled the valley. They supposed the water in the lake to have stood at several distinct levels, each corresponding to the level of one of the roads.

Darwin’s interest in the parallel roads was piqued by his previous study of a series of terraces at Coquimbo, Chile, which he believed were former marine beaches that had since been pushed above sea level by the bulging of the earth beneath South America. He went to Scotland in hopes of demonstrating that the Glen Roy roads were also former sea beaches. If this were the case, their existence would indicate that Scotland had been elevated from the sea in a manner similar to the process he believed had lifted the continent of South America. In each case, the fact that the terraces remained essentially level indicated to Darwin that tectonic movements could be gradual and equable (as the upright pillars of the temple at Serapis had famously suggested to Charles Lyell).

In 1839 Darwin read a paper on the parallel roads to the Royal Society of London. He dismissed the notion that they were former lake beaches on the grounds that there was no satisfactory explanation for the temporary damming of Glen Roy, which must have occurred for the valley to fill with water and then be emptied. Instead, he advanced his theory: ‘the whole country has been slowly elevated, the movements having been interrupted by as many periods of rest as there are shelves.’ The roads were of marine origin, and each road represented a former stage in Scotland’s emergence from the sea.

While Darwin was thus able to avoid conjecturing about an event that could have dammed Glen Roy, he instead had to explain why the sea had left no marine fossils on the sides of the glen and why it had not cut similar terraces on other hillsides across Scotland. He argued that the preservation of both fossils and old sea beaches should be considered the exception rather than the rule. For instance, Darwin pointed to a number of locations, ranging from his home county of Shropshire to the coasts of Scandinavia, where exposed deposits of undoubted marine origin had been found not to contain any marine shells, presumably because they had been dissolved by acidified rain. Likewise, he pointed out that durable terraces like the roads might have been formed only where a special combination of currents and tides were acting on a coastline of a particular geological composition.

Scarcely had Darwin’s Glen Roy paper appeared in print than the Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz proposed an explanation for the roads that had not been considered by Lauder, MacCulloch, or Darwin. Agassiz was convinced that the earth had formerly experienced an ‘epoch of great cold’, and that glaciers had once been much more widespread across Europe. In 1840 he toured locations in Britain with many leading geologists, pointing out how many familiar phenomena could be reinterpreted with reference to the former action of glaciers. In the case of Glen Roy, Agassiz provided the missing component of the lake-beach theory of the formation of the parallel roads. A wall of ice extending across the foot of the valley could have dammed Glen Roy and formed a glacial lake like those seen in the present-day Alps.

In the hands of Agassiz and others in the succeeding decades, glacial theory prompted geologists to reappraise much more than the terraces at Glen Roy. Darwin was resistant to the glacial explanation for the parallel roads, even as he admitted the action of ice sheets elsewhere. On his last ever geological field trip, a return visit to North Wales in 1842, Darwin wrote that the signs of glacial action in the valley of Cwm Idwal could not have been more obvious ‘if it had still been filled by a glacier.’ Yet in letters written as late as 1861, Darwin continued to defend, albeit halfheartedly, the marine theory of the formation of the parallel roads (see sidebar to the right on the original Darwin Correspondence Project’s Darwin and Glen Roy page). Darwin was later to write, notoriously, in his autobiographical ‘Recollections’ that his paper on Glen Roy was a great failure: ‘and I am ashamed of it.’

Although Darwin eventually abandoned his original conclusions about Glen Roy, it is well worth trying to retrace Darwin’s footsteps there. To understand what led Darwin to ‘see’ what he saw in 1838 is to take a glimpse from the perspective of the young geologist when he was giving full expression to the theory of the earth that was his proudest product of the Beagle voyage.

William Denny & Brothers Test Tank, Dumbarton, Scotland

By Don Leggett

Few buildings along the famous River Clyde region of Scotland figure as importantly to the history of shipbuilding, naval science and the British maritime empire than the small and innocuous brick structure that holds the Denny test tank: the world’s first commercial tank (or model basin).

The Denny tank, opened in 1884, was only the second of its kind, built on specifications provided by William Froude, an Oxford-trained mathematician and one-time collaborator with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Froude designed the first private test tank to provide the British Admiralty with an accurate guide to how full-sized ships would perform at sea.

Well into even the twentieth century, shipbuilders continued to rely on the untrained eye, craft practice and a series of fairly arbitrary calculations to work out the optimum hull shape for ships of all varieties. Froude posited, and then demonstrated, that twelve-foot long model hulls propelled by railway carriage in a water tank 300 meters long would more accurately represent the behaviour of the same said design at sea.

The 300 metre long Denny tank at Dumbarton
The 300 metre long Denny tank at Dumbarton

The British shipbuilding industry was largely unconvinced of the benefits to be derived from Froude’s work, but he did find an influential supporter in the shipbuilder William Denny (whose firm built such ships as the King Edward, the first commercial vessel driven by Charles Parsons steam turbines). In a competitive business community where shipbuilders bid for contracts, accurately estimating ship speed and performance could provide a significant advantage.

William Denny (1847-1887) led his firm through a series of major shipbuilding reforms based on the use of experiments and rigorous sea trials to develop a working knowledge of efficient hull shapes. He instigated the practice of progressive trials to examine the relationship between engine power, speed and hull resistance in different ships; in the mid-1870s he began to closely work with Froude on the analysis of hull resistance; and in 1884 he finished work overseeing the construction of the test tank. He would later write of his firm’s approach to shipbuilding:

A quick and all-round approximation of any new proposal is the only platform from which a professional man can safely start; and it, again, can only be the outcome of years of laborious investigation, and observation, and experiment. The bulk of our brother-ship-builders, and I suspect pretty nearly all your men, don’t yet understand the meaning of this.

Today model testing remains a key part of shipbuilding practice, complimenting computer modelling. The machinery on display at the Dumbarton test tank (now part of the Scottish Maritime Museum) covers a wide chronology, but the museum displays have been presented as ‘Victorian’, complete with mannequin invisible technicians undertaking detailed study of ship curves and test tank measurements – while also moonlighting as night guards to the tank archives stored within the displays.

'Victorian' museum display complete with mannequin invisible technicians
'Victorian' museum display complete with mannequin invisible technicians

Dumbarton is a little over ten miles west of Glasgow. The frequent train service is recommended as it passes alongside the River Clyde, the birthplace of much of Britain’s former maritime empire.

For further details on visiting the tank visit the Scottish Maritime Museum website see

Camera Obscura, Edinburgh

By Chris Renwick

Outlook Tower
A diagram of the Outlook Tower (now Camera Obscura) from Patrick Geddes, Cities in Evolution: An Introduction to the Town Planning Movement and to the Study of Civics (Ernest Benn, 1915), p. 324

Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura is a building located at the far western end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, close to Edinburgh Castle, in the Scottish capital’s Old Town. Currently a tourist attraction featuring a “world of illusions,” the Camera Obscura should interest historians of science for two reasons: its late eighteenth-century origins as a museum for scientific instruments and the period during the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries when the biologist Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) transformed it into the “world’s first sociological laboratory.”

Constructed in the 1770s by the Short family, who were makers of scientific instruments, what is now the Camera Obscura opened as a museum displaying the finest examples of the family’s work. These collections – in particular, the telescopes – served as the basis for the development of the building into a “Popular Observatory” during the early nineteenth century. This identity was further developed in the 1850s when Maria Short – the daughter of the museum’s founder – purchased the townhouse next door to the museum, installed a camera obscura on top of it, and renamed the enterprise “Short’s Observatory and Museum of Science and Art.”

However, in 1892 the museum was bought by Patrick Geddes: a protégée of “Darwin’s bulldog” T. H. Huxley and the professor of botany at the University of Dundee. Although Geddes had begun his career in the late 1870s as an experimental biologist he was also renowned outside the scientific community for his efforts to use he what he had learned in Huxley’s laboratory to improve conditions in Edinburgh’s slums. Inspired by the belief that evolutionary ideas could be the basis for social progress, Geddes and his wife, Anna, had moved into James’ Court – a tenement block close to Short’s Museum – during the early 1880s and set about rejuvenating the area by repairing dilapidated buildings and establishing communal gardens. Such was the success of this programme that scientific thinkers and social activists, including the infamous Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, visited the Geddeses at James’ Court to see what they had achieved.

Exhibition Diagram
A diagram (drawn by Geddes’ collaborator Victor Branford) of an exhibition that was held at the Outlook Tower in 1910, which is from Victor Branford, “The background of survival and tendency as exposed in an exhibition of modern ideas,” Sociological Review, 18 (1926): p. 207.

This programme for social improvement was driven by Patrick Geddes’ efforts to develop a new theoretical framework for social science and his purchase of Short’s Museum was part of his plan to communicate his social scientific ideas to a wider audience. Renaming the museum the “Outlook Tower,” Geddes used the building to host exhibitions that explored how Edinburgh’s physical and cultural identity had evolved in the context of regional and world history. Beginning with the panoramic views from the roof of the Tower, visitors moved through exhibitions that encouraged them to think about how the Edinburgh they knew was the product of much wider forces. Geddes’ hope was that visitors would exit the Tower with a new perspective on the Scottish capital and an understanding of how they could play an active role in its future through schemes for social improvement such as his own.

On account of this effort to present a systematic picture of the shaping of people and society, the Outlook Tower was praised as “the world’s first sociological laboratory” in the American Journal of Sociology in 1899. However, despite this recognition and visits from the likes of the psychologists Lloyd Morgan and William James, Geddes’ project at the Tower gradually lost momentum during the early twentieth century. In part, this loss of momentum was a consequence of the financial problems that dogged Geddes’ work but it was also linked to his decision to leave Edinburgh for India in 1914.

In the mid-twentieth century the Tower passed into the hands of the University of Edinburgh, who subsequently sold the building to its current owners. Despite being renamed and turned to more explicitly commercial purposes, the Tower still retains much of the spirit of its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century usage. Whilst plaques celebrate Geddes’ work, the camera obscura and views from the building’s roof allow visitors to appreciate what a powerful tool the Outlook Tower must have been for communicating ideas about the wider context in which cities exist and develop. In this sense, Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura is a testament to late Victorian and Edwardian beliefs in the power of evolutionary ideas to make sense of the world around us.