James Bowman Lindsay

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James Bowman Lindsay (8 September 1799 – 29 June 1862) was a Scottish inventor and author. He is credited with early developments in several fields, such as incandescent lighting and telegraphy.  He was described by one local newspaper as "perhaps the most remarkable man that ever lived in Dundee".[1] He pursued knowledge for its own sake and not for his own personal enrichment, freely imparting to others the learning he had acquired by long and laborious study.

Other reference.[2]

Early life

James Bowman Lindsay was born in 1799 in the parish of Carmyllie near Arbroath in rural Angus. The son of John Lindsay and Elizabeth Lindsay (nee Bowman), he came from a poor family of four children and received in extreme poverty the bare rudiments of an education. Because of the delicacy of his constitution he was spared the hard farming life of his family and placed as a boy under the care of a local handloom-weaver, and was reared to follow that occupation. Like many others doing the same job, Lindsay would invariably tie a book to his loom during working hours: but what marked him out was that he would continue to read on his way to and from work:

Often he would be seen on his way to Arbroath, his web of cloth firmly tied on his back, and his open book in his hand. After delivering his cloth and obtaining fresh material he returned to Carmyllie in the same fashion.[3]

When he got home at night Lindsay would continue reading for as long as his candle flickered. Through such studious pursuit he educated himself to a high level. Recognising his potential, his parents saved-up to send him to college and in 1821, at the age of 22, he matriculated at St Andrew's University. He majored in divinity. Despite his disadvantaged background, he was a distinguished student, passing all his examinations and obtaining licence to preach. However, he was never ordained to the ministry, preferring instead to pursue his studies in mathematics and physical science.

Man of learning

In 1829 Lindsay was appointed lecturer in science and mathematics at the Watt Institution in Dundee, but as a polymath his interests were many and also included subjects such as philology and astronomy. His extensive learning enabled him to conduct private classes in all the languages and in mathematical science. There was almost no branch of learning which he was not capable of teaching and many people sought his assistance in prosecuting their studies. Indeed, his house had acquired a celebrity as one of the curiosities of the town, and men of learning from distant parts of the world often went out of their way to pay him a visit.[1] He was a frequent contributor to local journals on scientific subjects and he wrote several learned works.

During his time as a teacher, even the miserable pittance which he earned officially was not expended upon the nourishment which he should have had. His passion for purchasing books relating to his studies, and for acquiring instruments necessary for his researches, led him to starve himself so that he might cultivate literature.[3]

Mr Lindsay devoted his entire time to study, denying himself even the necessary exercise for health. He lived alone, buried, we may say, in his books, collections of which, embracing all periods of history, in all languages, were heaped in every corner of his dwelling. His habits were abstemious, bread and coffee forming his usual sustenance. This did not arise from penuriousness, for his mind was liberal, and his nature open and generous.[1]
His order of life was a hard one, and would have worn out men with far more robust constitutions; but Spartan-like, he persevered in it almost up to the end. He rose every morning at 4 am, and after a frugal breakfast worked on till noon, when he would go out to a restaurant for dinner. After dinner a short walk round the docks was his rule, then back to his studies, refreshing himself with a cup of tea in the evening and retiring to bed about 11 pm."

Lindsay, who was a bachelor, devoted his entire time to study

He would not allow anyone to interfere with his sitting-room, which also served as his library, and this rule applied also to his workshop. For many years he lived alone, having an arrangement by which a neighbour came in daily and performed the household duties. But about 1860, when his health was not so strong, a niece from Carmyllie was induced to take up her residence with him, and he envinced every confidence in one who for the time added so much to his comfort. She was beginning to take an interest in his studies, and he had resolved to give her a thorough education in French and German and sent her out for music. When her parents came to know of this project they ordered her home, and he again relapsed into his habits of utter seclusion.[2]

In his later years he lived in South Union Street, where a small signboard appeared in front of his house, "James B. Lindsay, Teacher of Languages". This was intended to attract pupils as well as those requiring interpretation of foreign letters.[2]

The fame of his learning spread rapidly, and by special request he joined the British Association at their meeting in Edinburgh and readily obtained admission as a member.

Electric light

In 1832, in the single, dirty room of the Dundee house in which he lived, Lindsay commenced a series of experiments in magnetism and electricity. He immediately saw the application of electricity to power, light and a telegraph. He fixed upon the light as the first investigation. Prompted by several fires which had claimed the lives of workers in the local jute mills, he saw the need for a safe method of lighting and became interested in the subject of constant electric light. In a newspaper advertisement in 1834 for the opening of his science classes, Lindsay made a far-sighted prediction, announcing his belief that...

...houses and towns will in a short time be lighted by electricity instead of gas, and heated by it instead of coals, and machinery will be wrought by it instead of steam — all at a trifling expense.[4]

Then, in 1835, 40 years before Thomas Edison announced the invention of the lightblub, Lindsay exhibited a working electric lamp in his room:

[A] story is told of him rushing into the sanctum of the editor of a Dundee newspaper, shouting "Eureka! eureka!" and insisting upon the editor accompanying him to his humble lodging. Arrived there, the editor saw, for the first time, the electric light."[5]

That editor's experience may well have been the one that was recounted in an article in the Dundee, Perth & Cupar Advertiser:

Mr. Lindsay, a teacher in town, formerly lecturer to the Watt Institute, succeeded on the evening of Saturday, July 25, in obtaining a constant electric light. It is upwards of two years since he turned his attention to this subject, but much of that time has been devoted to other avocations. The light in beauty surpasses all others, has no smell, emits no smoke, is incapable of explosion, and not requiring air for combustion can be kept in sealed glass jars. It ignites without the aid of a taper, and seems peculiarly calculated for flax houses, spinning mills, and other places containing combustible materials. It can be sent to any convenient distance, and the apparatus for producing it can be contained in a common chest.[6]

The following letter, written by Lindsay, was printed a couple of months later in the same publication:

Sir, - As a notice of my electric light has been extensively circulated, some persons may be anxious to know its present state, and my views respecting it. The apparatus that I have at present is merely a small model. It has already cost a great deal of labour, and will yet cost a good deal more before my room is sufficiently lighted. Had circumstances permitted, it would have been perfected two years ago, as my plans were formed then. I am writing this letter by means of it at 6 in. or 8 in. distant; and, at the present moment, can read a book at the distance of 1-1/2 feet. From the same apparatus I can get two or three lights, each of which is fit for reading with. I can make it burn in the open air, or in a glass tube without air, and neither wind nor water is capable of extinguishing it. It does not inflame paper nor any other combustible. These are facts. As I intend in a short time to give a lecture on the subject, my views on the further progress will be unfolded then. A few of these, however, may be mentioned just now.

Brilliant illumination will be obtained by a light incapable of combustion; and, on its introduction to spinning mills, conflagrations there will be unheard of. Its beauty will recommend it to the fashionable; and the producing apparatus, framed, may stand side by side with the piano in the drawing-room. Requiring no air for combustion, and emitting no offensive smell, it will not deteriorate the atmosphere in the thronged hall. Exposed to the open air it will blaze with undiminished lustre amidst tempests of wind and rain; and, being capable of surpassing all lights in splendour, it will be used in lighthouses and for telegraphs. The present generation may yet have it burning in their houses and enlightening their streets. Nor are these predictions the offshoots of an exuberant fancy or disordered imagination. They are the anticipated results of laborious research and of countless experiments. Electricity, moreover, is destined for mightier feats than even universal illumination.

J. B. Lindsay, Dundee, October 28, 1835.[7]

Two lectures were given by Lindsay in the Thistle Hall, Dundee on 15 January 1836 and 21 April 21 1837.[3]

In a letter written on 26 January 1847 Lindsay stated:

About fifteen years ago I made a great variety of experiments in Electricity, and constructed an apparatus for procuring electric light for illumination instead of gas. About ten or twelve years ago I gave two public lectures on this subject, illustrated by experiments, in Dundee. About fifteen years ago I also perceived the applicability of Electricity as a telegraph, and mentioned it to many persons, but such an idea was generally ridiculed as Utopian. This was long before such an application was hinted at in the public prints, and before Electric Telegraphs were in existence. I also made many experiments on the application of the same science for power instead of steam, but do not claim the merit of being the first that did so. About nine or ten months [corrected in next letter to 'nineteen months'] ago I proposed and described a submarine Telegraph, and, I am convinced, was the first that made such a proposal. In reference to this, I made many experiments, and telegraphed through ponds in Dundee. An account of this was then given in the local newspapers. The Lexicon alone has kept me from turning my whole attention to Electricity, but, were it finished, I would once more be free. The Electric Light I have obtained, being from a model, is necessarily small, the plates being only one inch square; but by enlarging them, a light could be got far surpassing gas in brilliance.[3]

In 1893 several documents regarding Lindsay were given to the Dundee Public Library[3]. Among these was a brief autobiographical sketch of Lindsay in which he stated:

Previous to the discovery of Oersted, I had made many experiments on magnetism, with the view of obtaining from it a motive power. No sooner, however, was I aware of the deflection of the needle and the multiplication of the power of coils of wire than the possibility of power appeared certain, and I commenced a series of experiments in 1832. The power on a small scale was easily obtained, and during these experiments I had a clear view of the application of electricity to telegraphic communication. The light also drew my attention, and I was in a trilemma whether to fix upon the power, the light, or the telegraph. After reflection I fixed upon the light as the first investigation, and had many contrivances for augmenting it and rendering it constant. Several years were spent in experiments, and I obtained a constant stream of light on 25th July, 1835. Having satisfied myself on this subject, I returned to some glossological investigations that had been left unfinished, and was engaged with these till 1843. In that year I proposed a submarine telegraph across the Atlantic, after having proved the possibility by a series of experiments. Inquiries on other subjects have since that time engaged my attention, but I eagerly desire to return to electricity.

Dundee Prison teacher

In March 1841 he was appointed teacher at Dundee Prison on a salary of £50 per annum, a position which he held for 17 years. It was said that before he had entered on his duties he could have obtained a position on the scientific staff of the British Museum, but as this would have forced him to leave his aged mother, he gave up the brilliant prospects open to him. Despite the fluctuating population of a prison, Lindsay's skill as a teacher was so great that one of his subjects became an astronomer of some note after he left prison.[3]

He resigned from Dundee Prison in 1858 after being granted an annual Civil List pension of £100 by the Prime Minister in recognition of his great learning and extraordinary attainments (see below).

Long distance wireless telegraphy

In 1832 Lindsay demonstrated the possibility of an electric telegraph by experiments in his classroom. Here, as in the case of electric lighting, he was induced to devote more of his attention to philology than to electricity, and thus lost the opportunity of becoming one of the most distinguished scientists of his day.[3]

In newspaper articles in 1845 he made his first suggestions on marine wireless telegraphy, but proposed to do so using an uninsulated copper wire as the medium.[8] It was not until 1853 that he suggested doing it without wire and using the water as a conductor instead. As the Dundee Advertiser reported ahead of a public lecture Lindsay was due to give at the Thistle Hall:

Mr Lindsay claims to have been the first that proposed and described the modern electric telegraph. He was the first that executed and announced a submarine one, and he has now discovered that instantaneous intelligence can be transmitted to all parts of the world without the aid of a submerged wire."[9]

Having demonstrated wireless telegraphy as a laboratory experiment, Lindsay was determined to try his system on a larger scale. His first attempt was made at Carolina Port, Dundee, and was described in the Dundee Advertiser the following month:

On Saturday last we had the opportunity of seeing in operation, on a large scale, Mr Lindsay's Marine Telegraph... the breath of the 'electric leap' was about 60 feet.[10]

So sanguine was he of the feasibility of his method that, on 5 June, 1854, he took out a patent for it.

In that same year, at London and Portsmouth, telegraphed messages a distance of 500 yards without wires.[5]

"Ten years after he had introduced electric light, Lindsay announced [in 1845] to an incredulous public that it was possible to telegraph to America. Those who did not laugh felt sorry for the poor man, who was clearly breaking up mentally! When, further, in 1853, he told his immediate friends that he intended to telegraph messages without the aid of wires they became despondent. They did not know that two years previously a successful experiment had been made in London."[5]

He pursued his experiments at all hazards and was so sanguine of its success that a patent was taken out in his own name and others. Communication over short distances was finally achieved in 1857 when, in the presence of several local scientific men at Earl Grey Dock, Dundee, he succeeded in sending messages from one side of the dock to the other. He repeated his achievements at Portsmouth.

He then extended his experiments, placing plates and batteries on each side of the River Tay at Dundee and Woodhaven, where the river is nearly two miles wide, and again succeeded in sending messages from one side to the other without wires.

By 1858 his fame attracted the attention of Government, at that time presided over by Lord Derby, by whom he was recommended to her Majesty for a Civil List pension in recognition of his scientific achievements. The £100 he received yearly relieved him from the necessity of labour, allowing him to give up his teaching in the prisons. Lindsay considered the money as given solely for the purpose of enabling him to produce further scientific and literary work for the benefit of others. This he did, although he began to spent more time on his literary pursuits and the compilation of his Pentecontaglossal Dictionary of 50 languages (see below). His infatuation for this work was to a large extent the cause of his failure to develop his important electrical discoveries.

On the occasion of the British Association visiting Aberdeen in 1859, Lindsay read a paper on "Telegraphing without Wire", in which he briefly described how his method could be extended to send signals over much longer distances. He made calculations to show that, by selecting two stations in Britain — one in Cornwall and the other in Scotland — and two corresponding stations in America, it would be possible to transmit messages across the Atlantic without employing cables.[11]

The day after his talk he was accompanied by a large number of scientists and members of the public to Aberdeen Harbour, from where he carried through successful experiments across the River Dee. The demonstration was staged in the presence of Jacobi, the scientist, Earl Rosse and a number of personal friends, among them: Sir John Ogilvy, MP for Dundee; Prof William Henderson, the physician who became an influential advocate for homeopathy in Scotland; C. C. Maxwell and G. B. Fraser.[2]

About this time, Lindsay, at the request of his Alma Mater, arranged to deliver an address on 'electricity' in the hall of the United Colleges of St Andrews. On his appearing the students greeted him in their usual vociferous fashion, which completely unnerved Lindsay and, although prepared with a carefully studied address, he retired to the anteroom and refused to appear again.[2]

However, Lindsay's theory on long-distance wireless telephony was never attempted in practice and he died a few years later in circumstances bordering on penury. Even so, as Marconi wrote many decades later in 1925, his system would not have been practical:

Guglielmo Marconi's tribute

In 1925, in a foreword to A. H. Millar's biography, James Bowman Lindsay and Other Pioneers of Innovation, Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor and electrical engineer famous for his own pioneering work on long-distance radio transmission, paid a generous tribute to Lindsay:

The experience of seventy years has demonstrated that Lindsay's system was not at the time of practical utility on account of the large amount of electrical energy required for even the most moderate distances, and also on account of the considerable distance apart at which it was found necessary to place the two immersed plates connected to his circuit. In order to communicate over the distance of one mile it was necessary that the two plates at each station should be placed at more than one mile apart, a distance which, of course, was utterly out of the question in applying the system to ships, which, though now of large construction, had hardly attained such dimensions as a mile long yet. Had Lindsay been alive at the present time, when the developments of modern electrical engineering have placed such very powerful means in the hands of the electrician, I do not think it in any way rash to predict that Lindsay would have done very much more than he was able to do.

In any case the name of James Bowman Lindsay must go down to posterity as that of the first man who thoroughly believed in the possibility and utility of long distance wireless telegraphy. He worked patiently at the problem, and first found a solution which came nearer to practical realisation than many were inclined to admit.[3]

Pentecontaglossal Dictionary

In his spare time, from 1828 to his death, Lindsay laboured on the great work of his life, a dictionary of synonyms in 107 languages which he called his Pentecontaglossal Dictionary. In his final days he devoted his entire time to it and was just a year away from completion when he died in 1862. His work was later handed over to the Trustees of the Albert Institute and is now deposited at Dundee Central Library.

The 50 languages were: English, Scottish, Anglo-Saxon, Gothic, Icelandic, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, German, Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Gaelic, Tibetan, Cornish, Armorie, Manx, Welsh, Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, Arabic, Persic, Sanserit, Hindustani, Russian, Polish, Bohemian, Malay, Chinese, Tonquin, Turkish, Armenian, Koptic, Tonga, Kurdish and Georgian, Susu and Haussa, Ethiopic, Hungarian, Finnish, Tahitian, Raratonga, New Zealand, Madagascan, Sechuana, Esquinaux and Bengali.

"Every nation and people on the face of the earth, however remote, had his sympathy and tenderest consideration, for through the study of their languages he had become intimate with their ways of thought and aspirations, their sufferings and their toils. He probably knew more of the Chinese than any other single man, for Lord Lindsay took special care and trouble to procure for him such Chinese literature as would further his investigations, including a copy of the works of the great Confucius."[2]
"Had Mr Lindsay finished his work, he proposed taking a tour over Europe, visiting the Universities and securing their orders; thus, as he thought, saving the initiatory expense of the publishers and putting the information directly within the reach of all students. He hoped also to visit some remoter parts to get blanks filled up through conversation with the native speakers of the language or dialect."[2]


Lindsay was supposed not to have had an average income of more than £50 a year, his library was estimated to have cost £1300. This, however, must be partly accounted for by his receiving presents of books from various admirers.

Religious faith

As a young man Lindsay attended the Established Church of Scotland, but after the Disruption of 1843 he adhered to the Free Church and remained a consistent member of St Paul's Free Church until a year before his death in 1861. He ministered at stated periods to the Church with much acceptance, his addresses always being characterised by earnestness and much research.

His obituary in the Dundee Courier states: "At this time he was elected to the eldership in Free St Paul's, and had signified his acceptance of the office; but before his ordination, his views in regard to the doctrine of Baptism underwent a change, and with that honesty by which he had all along been characterised, he communicated the same to his pastor, the Rev. Mr Wilson, and stated his intention to withdraw from the communion of the Free Church. He joined the Baptist congregation at Meadowside, and received the ordinance of baptism according to the rules of the Baptist body. In explanation of his views he published a treatise in Baptism — a remarkable document — exhibiting the extent of the author's learning, and his intimate acquaintance with the languages and writers of antiquity."[1]

Death and commemoration

Although Lindsay enjoyed "tolerable health", perhaps better than those who knew his strictly studious habits could expect, he fell ill and died at the age of 63, passing away peacefully in his Dock Street house in the early hours of Sunday 29 June 1862. He was interred in the Western Cemetery.

Public memorial

A memorial to Lindsay was erected at public subscription at Dundee's Western Cemetery, where his body was buried. The public unveiling was performed by William Preece at midday on Saturday 14 September 1901. Half an hour later he delivered an address in the Technical Institute on 'Lindsay's Anticipations as an Electrician'.[12]

An inscription on the stonework extols his work thus:

A pioneer of electrical science; foretold the application of electricity as an illuminant, a motive power to replace steam and a substitute for coal in heating. He devised an electric telegraph (1832), suggested welding by electricity, produced a continuous electric light (1835), proposed a submarine transatlantic telegraph (1843), and accomplished wireless telegraphy through water (1853), as a philologist his attainments were extraordinary, in 1828 he began the compilation of a dictionary in fifty languages, uncompleted when he died. An accomplished scientist, a profound student and an earnest Christian."

At the unveiling of his monument, Sir William Preece said:

Wireless telegraphy has already been developed on other lines than he proposed; but it is unquestionable that the idea of establishing communication without the intervention of wires first originated with James Bowman Lindsay.

Sir John Leng MP, who had been a student of languages with his brother under Lindsay said:

The poor recluse — the timid, unassuming man, who late was known in Union Street by his humility of manner, his threadbare clothes, his meagre diet, his childlike ignorance of common things, and by that honest, dreamy, downcast face of his..... Because he forgot the world, the world forgot him.[3]

The bronze hand grasping a thunderbolt which appears at the top of the memorial has become the emblem of the Dundee Amateur Radio Club. Members of the club have attempted to replicate Lindsay's experiments on several occasions, with varying degrees of success, including in May 2007 when they tried to communicate across Victoria Dock.[13]

Books and works

  • Chinese-English dictionary (c.1830), held at Dundee University.
  • Pentecontaglossal Paternoster (1846). Versions of the Lord's Prayer in fifty different languages.
  • The Chrono-Astrolabe, a full set of Astronomical Tables (1858). Intended to assist in calculating chronological periods, it attracted the attention of the most eminent astronomers. (Dundee Courier review)
  • A Treatise on Baptism (1861)
  • Pentecontaglossal Dictionary (uncompleted before his death)



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Death of Mr James Bowman Lindsay, Dundee Courier and Argus, 30 June 1862, 2.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 A genius in humble life, Dundee Advertiser, 24 October 1894, 3.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 A. H. Millar, James Bowman Lindsay and Other Pioneers of Invention, (Dundee: Malcolm C. Macleod, 1925), 18-27.
  4. Dundee Advertiser, 11 April 1934.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Wireless telegraphy, Aberdeen Journal, 5 May 1899, 8.
  6. Dundee, Perth & Cupar Advertiser, 31 July 1835. (another source suggests it was 7 August however)
  7. Dundee, Perth & Cupar Advertiser, 30 October 1835.
  8. See letter in the Dundee Advertiser, 6 May 1845; Northern Warder, 26 June 1845; both sourced in Millar, 27, 30.
  9. Dundee Advertiser, 11 March 1853, sourced in Millar.
  10. Dundee Advertiser, 12 April 1853.
  11. Various sources.
  12. 'Public notices', Evening Telegraph, 14 September 1901, 1.
  13. 'About Dundee Amateur Radio Club'