James Bowman Lindsay

Quick Info

8 September 1799
Carmyllie, Angus, Scotland
29 June 1862
Dundee, Scotland

James Bowman Lindsay was a Scottish mathematician and inventor who made early progress in telegraphy and the incandescent light bulb.


James Bowman Lindsay was the son of John Lindsay (1762-1820) and Elizabeth Bowman (1767-). John Lindsay, the son of James Lindsay and Jannet Adam, was born into a farming family at Carmyllie in Angus, Scotland in January 1762 and baptised on 15 January. Elizabeth Bowman, the daughter of William Bowman and Elizabeth Eston, was born in Dunnichen, Angus, Scotland in March 1767 and baptised on 20 March. John Lindsay married Elizabeth Bowman in the Church of Scotland at Carmyllie on 9 March 1793. John and Elizabeth Bowman had four children, two daughters and two sons, all baptised in the Church of Scotland at Carmyllie: Mary Lindsay (baptised 21 June 1795); Jean Lindsay (baptised 19 March 1797); James Lindsay (the subject of this biography, baptised 15 September 1799); and John Lindsay (baptised 16 January 1804).

The Lindsay family were poor farmers living in poverty at Carmyllie, near Arbroath. James had only a minimal formal education and, had his health been stronger, would have followed a career as a farmer. Fearing that their son was too frail for hard physical work, his parents decided to send James to be an apprentice to a local handloom-weaver. At this time Scotland had a reputation as a nation in which working people would study from books while they did their physical work. Farmers often ploughed the fields reading a book as they worked and James followed the tradition by studying books while he worked at the loom. But James went further than most [19]:-
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.
James' parents saw how enthusiastic their son was about learning and how quickly he could assimilate knowledge. Saving money that James was receiving for his work as a handloom-weaver, they were able to pay for his education at the University of St Andrews. He matriculated at the University of St Andrews in 1821 and began his studies. At this time the university course was largely a standard one followed by all students but there was the opportunity to make deeper studies into certain chosen topics. Lindsay chose to make a deeper study of mathematics and natural philosophy. Despite the fact that the other students had years of schooling behind them while Lindsay was self-taught, he still managed to be one of the best students in all the courses and was clearly the best student in mathematics and physics.

Lindsay was taught mathematics at St Andrews by Thomas Duncan, the Regius Professor of Mathematics. Duncan had studied mathematics at St Andrews under Nicolas Vilant, then was appointed the first Rector of the Dundee Academy on 2 December 1801. In October 1820 he was appointed to the chair of mathematics in the University of St Andrews. Lindsay studied John Playfair's Elements of Geometry (1795) and James Wood's The Elements of Algebra (1795). Thomas Duncan published a supplement to these two books, namely Supplement to Playfair's Geometry and Wood's Algebra, Completing a Course of Mathematics in Theory and Practice (1822) which he used for courses taken by Lindsay on the theory of Mensuration, Land surveying, Geography, Navigation, Fortification, Conic Sections, the application of Algebra to Geometry and Trigonometry, and the Direct and Indirect Method of Fluxions. Here is a description of Duncan's lectures that Lindsay attended [29]:-
When we enter his classroom, we find him seated on the platform contemplating his shoes and making faces at them. Unceremoniously he starts up and calls upon a student to state the proposition, the figure of which he has drawn on the board. He is an excellent teacher, his method is thorough and his explanations are clear; but his grotesque demeanour distracts somewhat the attention of his pupils. With chalk and duster in his hands, rubbing out and drawing in figures on the board with great earnestness, he forgets himself till he has painted his black attire all over with patches of white. Then throwing away the duster as being too dirty, he uses the palm of his hand to rub out the lines. But this method too, has its disadvantages, for he is in the habit of clutching his nose in order to warm it, he very soon imparts to that prominent member a ghastly hue.
In addition to his university studies, for the first years Lindsay returned to his job as a weaver in the summer vacation. Then he spent the vacations teaching which allowed him more time for his own studies. He was allowed to use an empty barn at Dilty Moss, near Carmyllie, which he made into a school to teach children of those who worked on the local farms. He charged a very small fee.

Lindsay graduated with an M.A. in 1825 and then continued studying theology at the University of St Andrews. He completed the theology course in 1829 but never presented himself for a licence as a minister.

The Watt Institution in Dundee was a mechanics' institute set up in Dundee in 1824. The aim of the founders was set out as follows [27]:-
Although the institution is named after Mr Watt ... it is not proposed to confine the instruction to mechanics alone. All classes of tradesmen will be readily admitted as members and lectures will be given on subjects which are interesting and applicable to those who attend, whatever their occupation might be. It is proposed to have a spacious and comfortable lecture room with adjoining apartments for library and philosophical apparatus and a well qualified lecturer will be employed to give lectures as often as may be judged necessary.
Lindsay was employed as a full-time lecturer in mathematics and science and began teaching at the Institution in October 1828. The 'New Mathematical School' at the Institution had already been advertised in the Dundee Advertiser on 4 September 1828. Although the Watt Institution was only four years old, it was already suffering financial problems and Lindsay was asked to give a public lecture to raise the profile of the institution. He gave the public lecture in December 1828 but the report in the Dundee Advertiser on 25 December 1828 suggests it was not as successful as the directors had hoped. It was described as [27]:-
... a specimen of powerful and impressive eloquence, the effect of which was perhaps weakened by the breathless rapidity with which it was delivered.
The 'New Mathematical School' was not a great success [27]:-
The time, however, was not ripe for such a novel educational venture and the school did not prosper. During May 1829, there were only eight scholars in regular attendance and by July of that year it was apparent to the directors that with such slender support it was futile to keep the school open any longer. Consequently the school was closed and Lindsay presented with all the money accruing from scholars' fees.
One of Lindsay's problems as a researcher was that he was interested in languages, in mathematics and in science so kept moving from one topic to another. He began constructing a dictionary of 53 languages in 1828. In fact he had originally started with 150 languages but, calculating this would require three lives, and he only had one life, he decided to restrict himself to 53 languages. In autobiographical notes which Lindsay wrote, he gives a description of his early experiments on electricity and magnetism conducted in the single, dirty room of the Dundee house in which he lived alone [19]:-
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.
After a couple of years when he did not teach at the Watt Institution, he returned to teach there in 1834. The following appeared in the 'Dundee Advertiser' of 11 April 1834 [3]:-
J B Lindsay resumes classes for cultivating the intellectual and historical portions of knowledge and instruction on April 14, 1834, in South Tay Street, Dundee.

In a few weeks hence a course of lectures will be formed on frictional, galvanic, and voltaic electricity; magnetism; and electro-magnetism. The battery, already powerful, is undergoing daily augmentation. The light obtained from it is intensely bright, and the number of lights may be increased without limit.

A great number of wheels may be turned [by electricity], and small weights raised over pulleys.

Houses and towns will in a short time be lighted by electricity instead of gas, and heated by it instead of coal; and machinery will be worked by it instead of steam - all at a trifling expense.

A miniature view of all these effects will be exhibited, besides a number of subordinate experiments, including the discoveries of Sir Humphry Davy.
The Watt Institution flourished with numbers reaching 470 by 1838, but after this there was a rapid decline. In January 1841 the position of teacher at Dundee Prison was advertised and Lindsay applied for the post. He was appointed in March 1841 but [23]:-
... shortly after entering upon the duties of this office, he might have obtained an appointment at the British Museum - a situation that would have been more congenial to Mr Lindsay's taste, and, in all probability, would have led to a fuller recognition of his rare abilities; but being unwilling to leave his aged mother, he declined the tempting offer.
Lindsay taught at the Dundee Prison for seventeen years, mostly giving instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic. There were, however, exceptions [23]:-
... one youth, who was detained a much longer period than usual in the Prison, was carried by Mr Lindsay so far in mathematical knowledge, that he was able to calculate eclipses.
Let us quote from [17] regarding Lindsay's researches:-
In 1841 he was appointed teacher at the Dundee prison, which appointment he held till he resigned it in 1858. During the whole of this time he scarcely ever moved from his house, except to the prison and back, and the result of a portion of his labours was discovered to his friends in conversations and experiments relating to electrical phenomena, which revealed to them the fact that, alone and unaided - from the sheer force of his genius - he had discovered as early, if not earlier, than Morse or Wheatstone, the principles of the present system of electric telegraphy. Immediately after the public adoption of the present system of land-telegraphy, Mr Lindsay directed his attention to the sending of messages across water by means of insulated wires, and succeeded - after several trials on ponds and sheets of water in the neighbourhood - in establishing on a sure basis the principles of electric communication by means of insulated submerged wires.

Nor did he stop here - his searching experiments inspired him with the hope of transmitting messages across rivers and seas without the aid of wires, and he so far perfected his invention as to transmit currents across several small pieces of water - the last occasion on which he publicly experimented with this invention being in Portsmouth, about two years ago, when he was highly successful and the results afforded great satisfaction to the scientific gentlemen who assisted. He directed almost every penny he could spare, after procuring the bare necessaries of existence, to the acquisition of philological, as well as scientific and philosophical tomes - and with an income that never till the last few years, we believe, exceeding 50, collected a library of rare and profound works, valued, by competent judges at from 1300 to 1500. At several times however, he was assisted by friends who took an interest in his efforts, and chief among these the present Lord Lindsay. The last gift from this nobleman was a splendid copy of the works of Confucius, in the original, which is said to be the only complete copy of the works of that philosopher in Great Britain.
For further details of his work on Telegraphy, see THIS LINK.

In a letter written on 26 January 1847 Lindsay gave more information about his experiments with electricity (see [19]):
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 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.
Lindsay spent much time on his 53 language Lexicon, which he never completed. The 53 languages were Anglo-Saxon, Arabic, Armenian, Armorie, Bengali, Bohemian, Chaldee, Chinese, Cornish, Danish, Dutch, English, Esquinaux, Ethiopic, Finnish, French, Gaelic, Georgian, German, Gothic, Greek, Haussa, Hebrew, Hindustani, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Koptic, Kurdish, Latin, Madagascan, Malay, Manx, Modern Greek, New Zealand, Persic, Polish, Portuguese, Raratonga, Russian, Sanserit, Scottish, Sechuana, Spanish, Susu, Swedish, Syriac, Tahitian, Tibetan, Tonga, Tonquin, Turkish, and Welsh. As a preliminary work, he did publish the Lord's Prayer in these 53 languages.

Religion had always played a large part in his researches and, as a young man, he had doubted the biblical account that all humans were descended from two people. Feeling that the dates of ancient history were unsatisfactory, in the late 1840s he decided to compute his own chronology [23]:-
... he proposed to determine his chronology by such records as he could find of eclipses. He could easily determine the date of any eclipse, whether of the sun, or moon, or planets; and he accordingly searched the records of ancient history for authentic accounts of these phenomena. Notwithstanding the collection of ancient and learned books he had already amassed, he found himself involved, before he had completed fifty pages of his 'Astrolabe,' in an additional expense for new purchases amounting to full 200. [Note by EFR. This seems unlikely since this would be around 35,000 in today's values.] These purchases included the works of Ptolemy, the Byzantine historians, the Asiatic Researches, and the Nautical Almanac in a series of forty-four volumes. His progress was, however, after all arrested by the want of the works of Confucius, the Chinese historian and philosopher, which he could not obtain, and which he knew to contain some valuable materials for his projected work. With the view of securing these books, he took a journey to London, only to find they were not to be had there, and to be informed that they could not be procured in Europe. In these circumstances, he mentioned his difficulty to his clansman, Lord Lindsay; and that nobleman, with prompt and considerate generosity, betook himself to supply the want; and in June 1852 Mr Lindsay received the much coveted prize. The 'Chrono-astrolabe' was published in January 1858, and its appearance attracted the attention of the most eminent astronomers.
Throughout his career, Lindsay was a member of a number of different churches. When he was young he was a member of the Established Church of Scotland. In 1843, however, there was a split in the Church when 450 ministers left to form the Free Church of Scotland. Thomas Chalmers, who had studied mathematics at St Andrews under Nicolas Vilant and later served as his assistant, was appointed the first Moderator of the Free Church. Lindsay joined the Free Church and attended St Paul's Free Church, in the Nethergate, Dundee, after it was built in 1852. William Wilson, who had served as minister at Carmyllie from 1837 to 1843, became the minister at St Paul's Free Church. Lindsay's obituary in the Dundee Courier and Argus explains why he felt he had to leave the Free Church [2]:-
At this time Lindsay 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.
This treatise is the 48-page book Treatise on the Mode and Subjects of Baptism (1861).

Lindsy died in the early hours of Sunday 29 June 1862 at his home at 11 South Union Street, Dundee. He was buried on 2 July 1862 in Dundee's Western Cemetery. A memorial, paid for by public subscription, was erected at the Cemetery and unveiled on Saturday 14 September 1901. The inscription reads:-
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.
Sir John Leng had been taught by Lindsay, and was an editor of the Dundee Advertiser from 1851. He was a Member of Parliament for Dundee from 1889 to 1906. He gave this tribute to Lindsay (see [16]):-
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.

References (show)

  1. A genius in humble life, Dundee Advertiser (24 October 1894), 3.
  2. Death of Mr James Bowman Lindsay, Dundee Courier and Argus (30 June 1862), 2.
  3. Dundee Advertiser (11 April 1934).
  4. Dundee Advertiser (6 May 1845).
  5. Dundee Advertiser (11 March 1853).
  6. Dundee Advertiser (12 April 1853).
  7. Dundee, Perth & Cupar Advertiser (31 July 1835).
  8. Dundee, Perth & Cupar Advertiser (30 October 1835).
  9. Dundee's eccentric scientist, Glasgow Herald (29 June 1962).
  10. J J Fahie, A History of Wireless Telegraphy (Dodd, Meade, and Company, New York, 1902), 13-32.
  11. J J Fahie, James Bowman Lindsay, electrician, astronomer, linguist, Electrical Engineer (6 Jan 1899).
  12. J J Fahie, James Bowman Lindsay, electrician, astronomer, linguist, Electrical Engineer (13 Jan 1899).
  13. James Bowman Lindsay, About Dundee ARC, Dundee Amateur Radio Club.
  14. James Bowman Lindsay, Dundee Advertiser (16 September 1901).
  15. James Bowman Lindsay: memorial celebration in Dundee, Dundee Yearbook (1901), 186-195.
  16. James Bowman Lindsay, Scotland On Air.
  17. Lindsay, James Bowman, The British Millennial Harbinger (Arthur Hall and Company, London, 1861), 353-355.
  18. Lindsay and Bowman families, ScotlandsPeople.
  19. A H Millar, James Bowman Lindsay and Other Pioneers of Invention (Malcolm C Macleod, Dundee, 1925), 18-27.
  20. A H Millar, Lindsay, James Bowman, in Sidney Lee,(ed.), Dictionary of National Biography (1st supplement) (Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1901).
  21. A H Millar, James Bowman Lindsay, the pioneer of electrical lighting and wireless telegraphy, People's Friend (9 September 1901).
  22. A H Millar, James Bowman Lindsay, scientist and philologer, in A W Paton and A H Millar (eds.), British Association handbook and guide to Dundee and Forfarshire (1912), 491-514.
  23. W Norrie, Dundee celebrities of the nineteenth century (William Norrie, Dundee, 1873), 212-219.
  24. Northern Warder (26 June 1845).
  25. T Procter, Lindsay, James Bowman (1799-1862), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  26. 'Public notices', Evening Telegraph (14 September 1901), 1.
  27. J V Smith, The Watt Institution Dundee 1824-49 (The Abertay Historical Society, 1977).
  28. Wireless telegraphy, Aberdeen Journal (5 May 1899), 8.
  29. Student Reminiscences: Thomas Duncan, Special Collections, University of St Andrews.
  30. Professor Thomas Duncan, St Andrews - 18th October 1820, From the Book of Eminent Burgesses of Dundee 1513 to 1885, Friends of Dundee City Archives.
  31. F J Swetz, Mathematical Treasure: Duncan Clarifies Playfair & Wood, Convergence (June 2018).

Additional Resources (show)

Other pages about James Lindsay:

  1. Telegraphy by James Bowman Lindsay

Other websites about James Lindsay:

  1. Dictionary of National Biography
  2. Lamptech

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update September 2023