Blog 29 Jan 2024 

Six Scottish innovations that have changed the world

Going all the way back to 1748, up to our modern world, these six Scottish inventions had immeasurable impact on a wide range of industries and sectors.

Matthew Herbert

Matthew Herbert

Director of Marketing Communications

Scotland is steeped in rich history, beautiful castles and ancient traditions, yet it has always looked to the future, and its great scientists have improved that future immeasurably.

For centuries, Scots have developed innovations that play a fundamental role in modern life, from the medical treatments we receive to the household appliances we can’t live without. 

Here are six Scottish scientific innovations and inventions, from past and present, that are building a better world. 


The refrigerator

The very first fridge was demonstrated at Glasgow University in 1748. It was the brainchild of Scottish physicist, chemist and agriculturalist William Cullen.

Cullen used a pump to create a partial vacuum in a container of diethyl ether, lowering its boiling point. The reaction, once it boiled, absorbed heat from the surroundings to create a chilling effect — and even produced a small amount of ice. 

This wouldn’t evolve into household fridges until the 1920s, but today our food and medicine supply chains depend upon refrigeration, which owes its start to Cullen’s brilliant experiment. Without it, COVID-19 vaccination roll-outs around the world would have been severely curtailed. 


Dolly the sheep

The world’s first cloned mammal was created by Professor Ian Wilmut at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, using a single mammary gland cell from a Finn Dorset sheep and an egg cell from a Scottish Blackface Sheep. The days-old embryo was implanted in a surrogate mother sheep and Dolly was born on the 5th of July 1996

Although she only lived to the age of six, dying of a form of lung cancer common in sheep, Dolly had lambs of her own — and her legacy is huge. The resulting surge in stem-cell research continues to this day, with the development of genetic-engineering techniques across several animal species that could lead to improvement in animal health, vaccines and treatments of disease. 


The MRI scanner

Professor John Mallard was the first to publish work which suggested cancer might be diagnosed with the use of magnetic resonance. That was in 1964 — with little response. A year later he was appointed chair of Medical Physics at the University of Aberdeen, where he set about proving this. And it was in the Granite City’ in 1980 that the work of Mallard and his team came to fruition when the first Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scanner was used at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.

Since then, MRI scanners have transformed medical imaging and diagnosis. These non-invasive machines can provide very detailed images of organs and tissues, helping with the diagnosis of a range of conditions, including cancers and soft tissue injuries. The technology is still being developed to this day, with scanners continuously improved and repurposed for new applications. In fact, research into improving its diagnosis of lung cancer was recently selected for a share of £149 million in UK funding. This innovation born in Scotland has undoubtedly saved millions of lives.


Pelamis Wave Energy Converter

The world’s first offshore wave energy converter was tested and operated off the Orkney mainland in 2004, where it successfully generated electricity using the motion of waves. The Pelamis system prototype was made up of four connected steel tubes, 120 metres in total length and 3.5 metres in diameter, designed to flex and bend with the waves. 

Although Pelamis closed in 2014, it paved the way for innovation in marine-based energy systems in Scotland and further afield. Today, another Scottish company, Orbital Marine Power, operates the latest tidal stream energy generator, known as the Orbital O2, in the strong tides around Orkney. It has the capacity to power around 2000 homes. Research in 2021 suggests tidal stream power could generate 11% of the UK’s electricity demand.


Blue-green algae mitigation for safe drinking water

Led by Professor Linda Lawton and Dr Christine Edwards, a team at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen has developed a cutting-edge method of making safe drinking water by detecting and eliminating toxins. 

Using a nature-based system which combines elements of biotechnology, environmental biology and applied engineering, the method can breakdown toxins in a low-cost and sustainable way. It can prevent illness in animals and humans, particularly in low to middle income countries where water supplies are increasingly under pressure and prone to pollution. 

Lawton and Edward’s research team is internationally renowned and its previous work has had a global impact and informed guidelines, good practice and strategies with regulators and water treatment facilities worldwide.


Defeating disease-causing proteins

The Cuilli Laboratory in Dundee has just landed £38 million in funding for the work of its spinout company, Amphista Therapeutics, which is set to lead the way on game-changing treatment. 

The lab’s biopharmaceutical pioneers are harnessing the body’s natural processes to selectively degrade and remove proteins, known to cause illness, from human cells. A new way of tackling disease, the Amphista project is set to make treatments for a wide range of conditions more effective as well as reducing potential drug resistance. The Series B funding that Amphista Therapeutics recently received was one of the largest of its kind in Scotland. It’s a success story that demonstrates the strength of the country’s science and research capabilities.

CPI in Scotland

Just six picks across 600 years is a tiny sample of Scottish innovation in science and technology. We’re proud to be continuing this tradition of cutting-edge science for the benefit of people, places and planet. Our Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre in Glasgow, bringing together pharma, business and academia, will be crucial in using research to address unmet health needs.

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