James Bowman Lindsay

By the late Bill Dow


In 1529 Michel de Notredame graduated in medicine from Montpellier. He practised at Agent and later at Salon where he did fine work during the plagues at Lyon and Aix. Is he remembered for this work? Judge for yourself!

Michel wrote 4-line verses of poetry called quatrains, churning them out by the hundred. They were published in hundreds in 1555 in a book called Centuries. The 33rd quatrain in the 5th Century states " … The city's leaders, in the name of liberty, will slaughter the population without regard to age or sex. There will be howls and piteous sights in Nantes." Years later in 1793 the Committee of Public Safety at Nantes - established during the French Revolution - drowned several of its inhabitants.
What is in the hundreds of other quatrains? Vague visions that can be interpreted any way you like.
sp; In the 1830s a Dundee resident, James Bowman Lindsay (JBL), prophesied publicly that " … houses and towns will shortly be lighted by electricity instead of gas, and heated by it instead of coal, and machinery will be worked by it instead of steam … ".

Lindsay made an accurate forecast but he is forgotten. Michel, who had one vague success amongst hundreds, is now the Icon of astrologers and soothsayers - he is Nostradamus.

The Early Years

James Bowman LindsayJames Bowman Lindsay was born at Carmyllie, Angus on September 8th 1799. His father was at times, according to the season, a farmer and a handloom weaver. His first wife, by whom he had four sons, had been Isabella Langlands but he had remarried after her death. Elizabeth Bowman was then mother to James and two sisters.

About 1810 JBL became a handloom weaver. Various accounts of this period depict him as "weak" and "unsuited to farming" yet the same accounts recount how, as a child, JBL had been seen frequently walking from Carmyllie to Arbroath (about five miles) reading a book and carrying his woven cloth on his back.

In the the first decade of the Nineteenth Century my ancestors were occasional farmers, soldiers and handloom weavers at Coupar Angus. Family legends were emphatic that carrying the heavy and valuable finished cloth to the markets at Dundee was a job for the big strong lads. It might be stolen on the way. Perhaps my ancestors were less trusting than Lindsay's but I question if he was "weak". He may have had an allergy. Despite neglecting himself and his daily food intake, he lived to be 62 - well above the median age at that time.

Lindsay was a matriculated student at St Andrews University 1820 - 23 and 1825 - 26. We don't know why there was a break between 1823 and 1825. He may have been ill or short of money. We do know that he studied:
1820 - 21  Junior Latin, Junior Greek
1821 - 22  Senior Greek, Junior Maths, Logic
1822 - 23  Senior Latin, Maths 2 & 3, Ethics
1825 - 26  Physics, Chemistry
He did not graduate, but let it be absolutely clear he could have graduated if he had paid six shillings for the "piece of paper". The archivists at St Andrews University are adamant that "graduation" was an almost worthless, empty act. There was no ceremony and, until 1868, there were no recognised academic gowns or hoods. Students applying for jobs had to rely on references from their professors regardless of whether they had "graduated" or not. More than half of all successful students at St Andrews did not bother to "graduate". The "piece of paper" would have been required for a job in England but JBL began to give private tuition locally when he left university.

The Watt Institute and Beyond

James Bowman Lindsay was appointed lecturer, mainly in physics and chemistry, at the Watt Institute in Lindsay Street, Dundee in 1828. A year later Lindsay received the present of a new hat from his students and he would go on to serve as a lecturer for several years despite the changing fortunes of the Institute. Enrolments of students kept declining in spite of various concessions for payment of fees. Education at post-school level was never "free" in Scotland - it only appeared to become "free" after the Second World War when the government paid student fees direct to the university or college concerned. In 1833 JBL became a divinity student at St Andrews University. Archivists think that much of the course was completed by assignments that could be posted. Who said "distance learning" and "modules" were new?

An advertisement in the Dundee Advertiser on 11th April 1834 indicated that Lindsay was resuming private tuition and conducting classes at his own house. Then a statement in the same newspaper on Saturday 25th January 1836 indicated that JBL had obtained continuous electric light. A year later, on Thursday 15th January 1836, he demonstrated his electric light at a public lecture given in the Thistle Hall, Dundee, which later became the main dining room of the Royal Hotel, Union Street. The demonstration was repeated at the same location on Friday 21st April 1837. The electric light was not powerful although JBL explained that he could read a book by its light when the lamp was about 10 inches from the page. No details of the bulb were ever published. I find this surprising and suspect that it was simply a fine platinum filament, possibly not even enclosed by glass or quartz.

By March 1841 the Watt Institute was folding up and JBL was appointed as teacher at Dundee Prison. The salary of £50 per annum would maintain a single man above the poverty line. He resided in a four-room tenement flat at South Tay Street.

The Northern Warder reported on 26th June 1845 that JBL had proposed an Atlantic telegraph. He gave a clear statement of how the sections of pure copper cable could be welded together electrically. However, he was quite wrong in thinking that no insulation would be necessary. Although telegraph systems using wires over land were numerous by 1845 and increasing as new railways were built, few submarine cables had been laid. Those that did exist were short and confined to harbours and even then they had proved short-lived. The insulation either perished or it frayed as the waves and tides moved the cable to and fro where it came ashore. No successful Atlantic telegraph cable was laid in Lindsay's lifetime.

In 1846 James Bowman Lindsay published his Pentacontaglossal Paternoster - a book giving the Lord's Prayer in 50 different languages with notes on the derivations of most of the words. In the particularly long Preface Lindsay sought to allay the doubts that scientific discoveries had been casting on the authenticity of the Bible stories about the origin of the Earth and human creatures in the 1840s. He used information from the "head counts" of the entire population in Britain in 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831 and the full census in 1841 to calculate the rate of growth of the population. This figure led him to make appalling assumptions about the populations of other countries and their rates of growth and so to work back to find a time when there would have been only one man and one woman. Since his answer was between 5000 BC and 9000 BC he could assert confidently that "the Bible is true". It is as well for us to remember that, even now, we make equally appalling assumptions in our long-range forecasts. Only subsequent generations can see how ridiculous the conclusions of their forefathers were.

James Bowman Lindsay took out a patent for the transmission of telegraph signals (Morse code) through water in June 1854, demonstrating the method in a large pond adjacent to Dundee Gas Works. He gave several public demonstrations of the system over the next five years. The paper he read to the Aberdeen meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1859 and the associated demonstration seem to have been well received. A brilliant young "electrician" called William Henry Preece heard of the system at the meeting. He would go on to become Chief Engineer of the Channel Islands Telegraph Company in 1862, divisional engineer to the Post Office in 1870, and Engineer-in-Chief to the Post Office in 1892.

"Members of Dundee Radio Club repeated Lindsay's experiments on transmission through water in September 1999. Messages were received clearly across Discovery Dock despite the presence of a great deal of metal in the dock gate, the dock wall and the hull of the Discovery itself, which has a copper lightning conductor amidships and timbers bolted by large steel pins."

In his "Chrono Astrolabe", prepared while his electrical experiments were proceeding and published in 1858, JBL copied out and translated huge chunks of the Latin and Greek texts of ancient astronomers, such as Ptolomey and Hippardius, as well as many ancient Chinese texts. From these originals, he worked out the times of the ancient lunar and solar eclipses in terms of our dating system, using Julian dates prior to 1752 although he does not actually say so. He shows no working so it is impossible to confirm that he worked out the dates from first principles. The Chinese translations provided a "first" but JBL would have known that the Classical eclipse data had already been translated, calculated and dated in our system. It is to his credit to have repeated the work and found much the same results: such confirmation, with no credit or financial reward, is rarely undertaken nowadays although checking the accuracy of the earlier results may be valuable. All of this work was aimed at dating eclipses mentioned in the Bible so that he could date biblical texts accurately.

JBL received a pension of £100 per annum from Queen Victoria in 1858 and resigned his post at Dundee Prison. The main focus of his endeavours became his dictionary in 50 languages which remained unfinished at his death, aged 62, on 29th June 1862. The Local History Department of Dundee City Libraries in the Wellgate Centre holds the manuscript. He died of dehydration at his home at 11 South Tay Street and is buried in the Western Cemetery, Dundee.

James Bowman Lindsay's Telegraph System 1854

JBL Telegraph 1854


Lindsay's achievements in science may now be long forgotten but his contemporaries held him in high regard. Sir William Henry Preece KCB, FRS, LLD, past president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, represented the Association for the Advancement of Science and gave the main oration at a large gathering in the Technical Institute after a monument had been unveiled over Lindsay's grave. The second oration at the ceremony on Saturday 14th September 1901 was given by Sir James Sivewright KCMG who had succeeded Preece as Engineer-in-Chief of the Post Office.

Commercial Use of Lindsay's System: Problems and Application
In commercial use several systems would have had to work side by side - one to France, one to Belgium, one to Holland, etc. Since all of the transmissions would have then be fed into the sea in the same way, any one receiver might have picked up any or all the transmissions - some stronger than others but all mixed up. It would have been impossible to separate the signals, only with one system in operation, could  messages be passed successfully.
In 1882 the submarine cables to the Isle of Wight failed. Substantial traffic had built up and new cables would take months to construct and lay. At that point, William Henry Preece, then divisional engineer to the Post Office, remembered Lindsay's system and realised that it offered a quick and cheap solution to his pressing problem.

1882: William Preece's Circuit to re-establish telegraphic communication between Southampton and Newport, Isle of Wight. There were no cables between Hurst Castle and Sconce Point nor between Ryde and Clarence Piers - only salty sea water.
I am indebted to McDonald Black, a retired Dundee dentist, for providing details extracted from The History of the Post Office Engineering Department  about what happened when William Henry Preece, at that time divisional engineer to the Post Office, was faced with a submarine telegraph cable failure to the Isle of Wight in 1882. The substantial traffic which had built up would be interrupted for months while new cables were manufactured and laid. A quick replacement was necessary and Preece, remembering the meeting in Aberdeen, realised that a single Lindsay system could be constructed quickly and cheaply and would solve the problem. At later dates, when submarine cables connecting Rathlin, Mull and several lighthouses to the mainland failed on various occasions, the method was used to re-establish contact quickly.

Land based telegraph systems were established and working by the 1840s but cables below water were not immediately successful. A few short submarine cables had been laid across rivers and harbours by 1850 but their useful lives had varied enormously - from a few hours to a few years. In that year the first international cable was laid between England and France: working for only one hour it was abandoned. Thereafter:    
1851 - Cable between Dover and Calais - successful for a few years.

1857 - First attempt to lay a Transatlantic cable - cable broke when vessel was over 2000 fathoms of ocean and could not be recovered.

1858 - Cable laid successfully from Ireland to Newfoundland - insulation of cable failed after a few weeks. The scrap value was much less than the cost of recovery so the installation was abandoned.

1866 - First Transatlantic cables laid which would be successful over a reasonable number of years - one had been started in 1865. Lord Kelvin, then William Thomson, and the American financier Cyrus Field were associated with both cables.

1867 - Third Transatlantic cable laid by the French. - UK Parliamentary Inquiry, involving Preece and Culley, held into submarine cables and conduction in liquids.
   [Arrheius would not publish his theory of conduction in liquids until 1887.]


1753 - Proposal for first electric telegraph published, of all places, in the Scots Magazine. The proposer is identified only as CM so it could possibly be the posthumous publication of a paper by the brilliant mathematician Colin Maclaurin. What was described was an electrostatic device with 26 wires - one for each letter of the alphabet.

1774 - A system of this type was constructed at Geneva by Georges Louis Lesage

1786 - Galvani invented simple cell using two metals in certain solutions in water.

1800 - Several Galvani cells in series used to make a Volta pile.

1819 - Oersted discovered that a current in a copper wire deflected a magnet needle.

1825 - Sturgeon constructed an electromagnet.

1828 - Ohm published his version of his Law: nowadays V= Ri.

1832 - Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction. So did Henry in America but he did not think the discovery worth publishing. The discovery is now regarded as one of the most important ever made: it is the source of all our "mains" electricity. Daniell Cell invented - the first "steady" voltage cell that made accurate measurements possible.

1840 - Dalton postulated his "Atomic Theory": atoms regarded as tiny solid spheres.

ca 1840   Kitchoff's Laws stated, allowing branching circuits to be analysed. Other theorems such as Thevenius' and de Morgan's soon followed, allowing more complex circuits, such as telegraph networks, to be analysed.

1862 - In September the British Association for the Advancement of Science proposed the centimetre, gram, second (c.g.s) system of electrical units from which the practical units - the volt, the ampere and the ohm - were derived.

1890 - The electron discovered and postulated.

1914 - Neils Bhor type atom postulated.

Story by by the late Bill Dow.


James Bowman Lindsay's Memorial in Western Cemetery, Dundee

(Photos by Iain D. McIntosh)

Lindsay Memorial