James Bowman Lindsay

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James Bowman Lindsay was born 200 years ago in the parish of Carmyllie near Arbroath. He came from a family of four children and being in somewhat delicate health, he was spared the hard farming life of the day and began work as a linen weaver.

James Bowman Lindsay

James Bowman Lindsay
8 Sept 1799 – 29 June 1862

He often read books on his long journey to work and his bookishness eventually helped him gain at the University of St. Andrews. A distinguished student, he soon made a name for himself in the fields of mathematics and physics before returning to Dundee in 1829 as Science and Mathematics Lecturer at the Watt Institution.

In 19th century Dundee, later to be dubbed the City of Discovery, Lindsay's talents flourished. In 1835, 40 years before Thomas Edison announced the invention of the lightblub, he demonstrated constant electric light, whereby he could read a book at a distance of one and a half foot. His concern with electric light was mainly prompted by the need to provide a safe method of lighting the jute mills, where severe fires had devastated the lives of the workers.

Lindsay was heavily involved in the debates and ideas which were not to see widespread practical application for many years to come. In 1854 Lindsay took out a patent for his system of wireless telegraphy through water. This was the culmination of many years' painstaking experimentation in various parts of the country. The device, however, had an unfortunate flaw - it needed as many miles on land as in the water for the device to work. Lindsay was an accomplished astronomer and philologist, skills which he used to investigate scientifically the historical accuracy of the Bible. The great love of his life was his Pentacontaglossal Dictionary of fifty languages through which he hoped to shed light on mans origins and prove the Bibles accuracy.

In 1858, on the recommendation of Prime Minister Lord Derby, Queen Victoria granted Lindsay a pension of £100 a year. He died on June 29th 1862, having never married, and still engaged in his various researches.

Like Preston Watson, the Dundee pioneer of flight, Lindsay possessed neither the will nor the sheer ruthlessness to promote his innovations as effectively as he might. A deeply religious and humane person, he refused the offer of a post at the British Museum so that he could care for his aged mother.

Lindsay's chief glory lay in his vision, which helped to propel scientific advancement through the 19th and 20th centuries. His Lecture on Electricity effectively foretold the development of the information society and he confidently predicted cities lit by electricity. 140 year after his death, James Bowman Lindsay is finally achieving a certain recognition.

Date Event
1799 Born 8th September at Cotton of West Hills, Parish of Carmyllie
Baptised 13th September before the Associate Congregation of Dunbarrow Childhood at “Windyedge”, Carmyllie
? Apprenticed linen weaver
1820 Matriculated at St. Andrews University, aged 22

Classes taken
1820/21 Junior Latin, Junior Greek
1821/22 Senior Greek, Junior Mathematics, Logic
1822/23 Senior Latin, Mathematics 2 and 3, Ethics
1825/26 Physics, Chemistry

In summer holidays, taught Carmyllie children in the school built for him at Diltymoss

1828 Began compiling Pentacontaglossal Dictionary
Appointed lecturer in Mathematics and Sciences at the Watt Institution, Dundee
Organised classes in magnetism and electricity
1832 Demonstrated electric telegraph in classroom
1833/34 Divinity Occasional (registered student but not residential)
1833 Took up residence in South Tay Street, Dundee
25th July obtained constant electric light and demonstrated this in Thistle Hall 31st July
Electric arc welding proposed
1836 Demonstration of electric light at Thistle Hall, Dundee
1840 Moved to South Union Street, Dundee
1841 Appointed teacher in Dundee Prison at a salary of £50 per annum
1843 Proposed uninsulated submarine cable with earth-batteries across the Atlantic
Telegraphic messages on two wires reported in “Northern Warder”
Electric welding proposed for Trans-Atlantic cable
1846 Published Pentacontaglossal Paternoster
1849/52 “Chrono-Astrolabe” in preparation
Proposed wireless transmission (through water) across the Atlantic
Carolina Port, Dundee, transmission of 120 feet
Lecture in Glasgow entitled “Telegraphy to Other Countries”
Earl Grey Dock, Dundee, transmission
Granted Patent No. 1242
“A Mode of Transmitting Messages by Means of Electricity through and across a Body or Bodies of Water”
Dundee to Woodhaven transmission, 2 miles across the River Tay
Portsmouth transmission, 500 yards across a pool
Published “Chrono-Astrolabe”
Granted a pension of £100 p.a. by government for services to science
Relinquished teaching post at Dundee Prison
Paper to the British Association at Aberdeen and gave demonstration across the River Dee
Commendations by Lord Rosse, Michael Faraday, Sir G. B. Airy (Astronomer Royal) and Professor J. J. Thomson (Lord Kelvin)
1861 Published treatise on baptism and joined Baptist Church
1862 Died Sunday, 29th June, buried in Western Necropolis, Perth Road, Dunde
1899 Marble bust by George Webster presented to Dundee Free Library
Marble tombstone erected by public subscription
Unveiled by Sir William Preece, K.C.B., Postmaster General
Graveside eulogy by Sir John Leng, M.P., one of Lindsays former pupils


The following items are held in the Local History Department’s Collection:

  • Mathematical jottings. MS. (Record One)
  • Mathematical jottings. MS. (Record Two)
  • Mathematical jottings. MS. (Record Three)
  • Notebook of experiments on wireless telegraphy, together with a portrait (photograph) MS.

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