National Museums of Scotland

Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF

National Museum of Scotland

The oldest part of the building that houses the National Museum of Scotland was called the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art when it was opened by Prince Albert in 1866. Construction had began in 1861 and work was to continue on the first phase of the building until 1888. It was renamed the Royal Scottish Museum in 1904 and became the National Museum of Scotland in 2004. Initially much of the collection came from the University of Edinburgh’s natural history collection, which had become too big for the University’s own museum in what is now the Talbot Rice Gallery.

Free entry, although some temporary exhibitions may charge.

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Site of the first balloon ascent in Britain

General Register House, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH1 3YY

General Register House

James Tytler, who made the first successful balloon ascent in Britain in Edinburgh, exhibited his ‘Grand Edinburgh Fire Balloon’ here in Robert Adam’s Register House in 1784. Protected by a cork jacket, he rose more than 100 metres into the air and travelled almost a kilometre. Tytler was a multi-talented individual who had made a living at various times as a surgeon, writer, publisher, composer and poet before his foray into aeronautics. He had to flee to Ireland in 1792 after being arrested for producing subversive pamphlets, before emigrating to America a few years later.

The General Register House houses the National Records of Scotland and is open to the public.

James Tytler (1745–1804).

James Tytler (1745–1804).

James Tytler's 'Edinburgh Fire Balloon', 1784.

James Tytler’s ‘Edinburgh Fire Balloon’, 1784.

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Old Edinburgh cistern, Castlehill

555  Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2ND

Old Edinburgh cistern

This ornate drinking fountain marks the site on Castle Hill where the mathematician George Sinclair constructed a cistern to supply water to the city of Edinburgh in around 1675. The original reservoir was demolished to make way for a new, larger one in 1849. Sinclair was professor of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow from 1654 to 1666.  In 1655 he made some very early descents in a diving bell off the Isle of Mull. He was not only a leading mathematician and engineer, but also an expert on demonology and author of Satan’s Invisible Works Discovered (c.1685).

Nineteenth-century drinking fountain on the site of the old Edinburgh cistern.

Nineteenth-century drinking fountain on the site of the old Edinburgh cistern.


The Talented Mister Turing

June 23rd marks the centenary of Alan Turing’s Birth. In the 100 years since his birth, science and technology have advanced dramatically. Turing only lived into his 40s, but even so his contributions to science and technology were profound, provocative, and lifesaving.

Turing’s work in computability put him on the radar at Bletchley Park, where several of Britains brightest worked to crack the code of the German Enigma Machine. The team could be thought of as an early band of hackers, trying to extract information from German military command.


One of the Enigma Machines Turing's team worked to beat was stolen. Fortunately, it was returned a few months later. (ENIGMA CODING MACHINE THEFT. ITV Lunchtime News. 04-03-2000)

Turing’s work centered around the development of the bombe, an early electromechanical device that eventually led to modern computers. The bombe could repeatedly test potential Enigma codes and pass along promising candidates to cryptanalysts at Bletchley. In succeeding, the team’s efforts are credited with bringing about Allied victory years before it might otherwise have.

Bombe Replica

The bombe, and other British inventions were showcased in this exhibition (BRITISH GENIUS EXHIBITION. News At Ten ( ITV Late Evening News). 26-05-1977)

Computability was conceptualized through the processes that a Turing machine would go through to complete tasks. Turing believed that most tasks could be broken down into something machine readable, an algorithm. This is a set of instructions for calculating a result or solving a problem. When done repeteadly and precisely, potential applications are limitless.

3D representation of the surface of the human brain

An algorithm generated this three dimensional brain scan (Surface detail of a human brain. Wellcome Images)

As algorithms and the machines that analyzed them became more powerful they eventually developed into what we now think of as supercomputers, laptops, smartphones, and so on. As the creator of the Turing machine concept and one of the early thinkers in computability, Turing is considered the grandfather of computer science and the computer itself.

Woman standing amongst a supercomputer array

Now supercomputers can be used to run stock markets, model the climate, and calculate trajectories for objects launched from Earth to destinations hundreds of thousands of miles away (Fastest Supercomputer in the World. Getty (still images). 28-06-2000)

The impact of Turing’s work in computing enabled the rise of the internet and societal development toward an information or knowledge economy.

Man talking about an internet exhibition

An early look at the internet (INTERNET EXHIBITION. ITV Lunchtime News. 25-04-1995)

Modern computer and internet integration aren’t all positive of course. The world is now more susceptible to viruses than ever. A virus from the turn of the millennium, Love Bug, made headlines simply because it was widespread. A little over a decade later, viruses often aren’t newsworthy unless they cause significant problems at noteworthy sites.

Man giving a conference on the Love Bug Virus

The Love Bug virus caused quite a stir (COMPUTERS: LOVE BUG VIRUS. Channel 4 Early Evening News. 05-05-2000)

The Turing Test raises an array of questions about knowledge, what it means to be human, and how artificial intelligence will develop. The test attempts to determine whether a person might be able to tell if they are interacting with a human or a machine during computer-mediated socialization. Those of you who’ve seen Blade Runner may recall the Voight-Kampff test, a modified Turing Test that revealed whether or not a humanoid was human or a Replicant machine.

Sony president at a podium

Sony already has robots commercially available in Japan for various purposes. Some of them help to comfort and socialize isolated individuals. They may not pass the Turing Test yet, but they are on their way (Japan's electronics giant Sony president Ryoji Chubachi. Getty (still images). 03-06-2008)

The University of Leeds is the epicenter for a whole year of events that celebrate the man’s life, including the TURING 100 Conference on the days surrounding the anniversary. There, major figures in the world of science and technology will gather to give lectures and honor a short life’s work. It’s been 100 years since Alan Turing’s birth, and in that time we’ve come from no computers to smartphones in half of British pockets. Who knows what innovations will have come by the next time we celebrate this anniversary. Any ideas?

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