Inventors of the Modern World

There was a recent episode of The Grand Tour where Clarkson opened the show (from the bank of Loch Ness) by pointing out what various countries around the world had invented; USA invented the aeroplane; France the hairdryer etc. One invention of note on each “slide” that he presented. Then up popped a list of things invented by Scottish people, and it was a stirring reveal; 3 columns full to bursting of things that Scottish people had invented. Very well done, but a reminder of the masses of things Scotland has brought to the world.

In researching a new idea, I started reading about one great Scottish family; Stevenson. At the top of the hierarchy you have Robert Stevenson, a civil engineer and most famed for his beautiful lighthouse designs and constructions. He had 3 sons. David, Alan and Thomas; also famed Lighthouse designers. Furthermore Thomas had a son called Robert Louis Stevenson. I think we all know who that guy is.

Robert Stevenson pioneered and innovated a variety of fields in his days, including an innovation of Lighthouse light sources and the use of Fresnel lenses. His most recognised work, however, is the Bell Rock Lighthouse, built in 1811. Despite pretty much all of Scotland’s lighthouses being Stevenson designed, the Bell Rock Lighthouse stands out due to the sheer engineering marvel and challenging location.

Situated off the coast of Arbroath, by about 11 miles or so, stands a group of (just) sub-surface rocks that were responsible for the destruction of around 6 ships every winter. Looking at Wikipedia I read that in the 18th Century, one storm alone took the lives of 70 ships and their crews! It took the loss of life and trade to reignite the previously shelved plans from Robert Stevenson to build a life-saving lighthouse on this group of rocks. The challenge of constructing anything of note on the Bell Rocks was the reason plans were shelved – the rock surface is exposed for only 4 hours every day.  The workers, once stationed off-shore on a boat, ended up constructing a small wooden hut on the Bell Rock to live in, if only to reduce the lost time from rowing to-and-fro the rock face.

More can be read on this on Wiki and countless other sources (like the official Bell Rock website) but at the weekend there we headed to the National Museum of Scotland (again) to have a wander and let the baby stretch her legs. We usually wander about the glorious atrium balconies and pop in and out of the exhibitions therein. This time however we ventured off in to the new extension, a place we never visited before. Lo and behold this new extension holds the history of Scotland exhibitions and to my amusement, a section on Robert Stevenson, and the Bell Rock Lighthouse!

Fascinating. It’s amazing to see all these artefacts up close and examine their construction. I’m always looking for things to influence and inspire designs so whilst I pressed my nose against the glass, the ladies went off and had a wander around the labyrinth of nooks and crannies within this new extension.

The biggest thing I took away from all of this was that Robert Stevenson didn’t do built in obsolescence; the Bell Rock Lighthouse’s granite block construction is made so beautifully and accurately that it has not required any sort of maintenance or replacement in 200 years. That may be startlingly impressive for a building constructed in the middle of dry land, but the Bell Rock Lighthouse is constructed on a small rock in the middle of the North Sea, with foundations submerged for 20 hours of the day. That, dear friends, is how it’s done.

Scotland: Inventors of the Modern World. You are welcome.