Robert Bryson & Sons: time-keeping, innovation and useful learning in Edinburgh

Publication Date
Kenny Kemp

Author Kenny Kemp highlights the innovation and influence of clockmaker Robert Bryson FRSE in the 18th and 19th centuries.


A chance encounter in an Edinburgh clock restorer’s workshop led to a fine historic timepiece made by an RSE Fellow being presented to the RSE. Douglas McLennan, the owner of Grange Clocks, has spent more than 40 years repairing and caring for the clocks of Edinburgh and the Lothians, including the time piece in the famous Balmoral Hotel clock tower.

RSE Chief Executive Professor Sarah Skerratt and her partner were browsing the antique shops on the Southside of the capital when they discovered Grange Clocks. When Douglas learned about Professor Skerratt’s work with the RSE, he showed her two cherished Robert Bryson & Son clocks from around the 1820s.

Robert Bryson, born in 1778, and one of his two sons, Alexander, were both active Fellows of the RSE. Robert is renowned as the maker of a sidereal clock which gave the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh the ability to calculate the precise timing of the Earth’s revolution on its own axis, allowing astronomers to align their observing instruments with the planets and constellations.

Alexander, born in 1816, was older than James Clerk Maxwell, born in 1831, yet both young men shared an interest in the geometry of pendulums and balances, which were influenced by the gravitational rotation of the Earth, and the science of electro-magnetism. Alexander Bryson delivered several papers at the Edinburgh School of Arts, the Mechanics Institute and the RSE, including an 1846 paper on the ‘description of a new Clock impelled by a combination of Gravitation and Electro Magnetism’. His paper on pendulums and electric clocks was presented at an RSE meeting, attended by Professor James Forbes, who encouraged a young Clerk Maxwell’s work at the University of Edinburgh. However, it was Alexander’s brother, Robert, who carried on the commercial work of Robert Bryson & Son, later taken over by Hamilton & Inches in Edinburgh.

Douglas McLennan trained for five years as an apprentice horologist at Hamilton & Inches, and during his early career maintained many of the timepieces in the RSE’s George Street building. After restoration and polishing of all internal brass work, Douglas donated the 200-year-old Bryson clock to the RSE. It was unveiled by RSE President Sir John Ball and Grange Clocks’ horological historian Kenny Kemp gave a brief talk on the history of Bryson & Son and the connection with James Clerk Maxwell.

Professor Skerratt said: “I’m delighted to have such an elegant 19th century clock – made by such an illustrious Fellow – chiming in the office. It was a chance meeting with Douglas which led to his kind and generous gesture of the donation of this Bryson timepiece.”

The legacy and innovation of Robert Bryson FRSE

There is no account to be found of any Scottish person registering a patent in connection with clock-making during the whole of the 18th century. Nevertheless, by the middle of the century Scottish clockmaking had reached a “high state of excellence in the making of ordinary movements of a timekeeper.”1

Ordinary was not enough in Enlightened Edinburgh of the 1790s. John Smith, who published a volume on Scotland’s clockmakers in 1903, said: “As the 19th century rolled on this class of work fell into abeyance, and out of it arose the manufacture of astronomical clocks, which not only required greater ingenuity in the construction, but very accurate calculations of their performance. Fortunately, Scotland had men equal to the task of making such clocks, and we need only mention Thomas Reid and Robert Bryson, whose productions in that class of work bear testimony to the great skill and excellence our native craftsmen arrived at.” 2

A man wearing glasses
Kenny Kemp, author, writer and journalist, Kemp Communications

As James Craig’s New Town of Edinburgh took shape, another great construction project was underway in the Old Town, now linked to the fine new settlement via the North Bridge. An Act of Parliament was necessary to create the South Bridge, and foundations were laid in 1785 and the work, designed by Robert Kay, and built by Alexander Laing, was a roadway carried on 19 vaulted arches, which was 1,075ft long. It remains a remarkable feat of pre-Victorian engineering, now a popular tourism venue, yet at the time it caused the displacement of many businesses, eventually leading to new premises taken up by Robert Bryson.

There appears to have been a clock-making ‘arms race’ in Edinburgh in the years after Lord Nelson’s success at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. Thomas Reid adopted William Auld as his partner in 1806. Reid & Auld’s business was carried out in a luckenbooth in Parliament Close, beside St Giles’ Kirk. Then, in 1809, they moved to No. 33 Princes Street, later No. 66 Princes Street, where they advertised their clocks and regulators for astronomical purposes. They also offered the service of a Transit instrument which “is kept for the obtaining of true time, without which rate of the going of time-keepers of whatever description cannot be well ascertained.”

A timely return: RSE President Professor Sir John Ball and Chief Executive Professor Skerratt receive the early 19th century Robert Bryson clock.
A timely return: RSE President Professor Sir John Ball and Chief Executive Professor Skerratt receive the early 19th century Bryson clock.
© Stewart Attwood Photography 2022

A Reid timepiece was made in 1813 for the Royal Observatory on Calton Hill. According to the late Professor Copland, of the Blackford Hill Observatory, the clock “always seems to have been rated to show Mean Time, and was eventually employed for many years to drop the time ball on Nelson’s Monument, Calton Hill, and to transmit the signal to the time gun at Edinburgh Castle.” This was also used to help the vessels at Leith set their time for departure. The clock became the property of the City of Edinburgh in 1895.

Robert Bryson remained in gentle competition with Reid & Auld in the Old Town. In June 1815, after the completion of South Bridge, he announced in the Edinburgh Courant that he had moved from the Mint, in the High Street to the “commodious house, No.5 South Bridge Street, opposite to Hunter Square, [a new square named after the city’s Lord Provost, James Hunter Blair, 1784-1786] “where he will be happy to see those friends who so liberally patronised him at the Mint.” He remained on South Bridge until 1840.

Bryson was unusual in that he did not become a fully paid-up member of the Hammermen’s Incorporation until 1815, when his entry money and other dues amounted to £70, a very substantial amount. The Incorporation of Hammermen of Edinburgh, founded in 1483, was one of the most powerful guild organisations in Scotland. Membership included blacksmiths, gold and silversmiths, cutlers, armourers, pewterers and locksmiths, trades that were closely related to clock-makers.

Bryson had been designing sidereal regulator clocks. His best-known clock was made in 1832 and was used by Professor Henderson at the Royal Observatory, Calton, for all his observations of the position of the stars. The Sun passes overhead 365 times per year, yet fixed stars are observed 366 days a year in the same position. Bryson’s timepiece had a ‘differential dial’ which measured the three minutes and 56 seconds difference per day between the normal clock and the sidereal regulator.

A vintage photo of Robert Bryson
Robert Bryson, 1778–1852. Chronometer and clockmaker. Creative Commons CC by NC.

It was during this time in South Bridge that Robert Bryson became closely associated with Leonard Horner, who has had a profound influence on learning and education in Britain.

“I draw attention to Horner’s passion and journey as a backdrop for my assertion that the development of the first Institute of Mechanics [in Edinburgh] arose from a warmth and concern for the development of human talent to meet local needs, not from a political or religious movement or other external drivers,” says Professor Richard Williams, the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, marking the 200th anniversary in 2021 of the first Institute of Mechanics, known as the Edinburgh College of Arts.

“Leonard Horner was one of those truly extraordinary individuals who did not complete formal university education, was largely self-taught and acquired a deep knowledge of society, geology and significant proficiency in French, Dutch, German, Italian and Latin,” says the professor.3

Williams is right in that the meeting of Horner and Bryson was a “meeting of passion” for learning. They shared a vehement belief in the importance of useful education, but there can be little doubt this was tempered with an acute appreciation – and the perceived danger – of a rise in Radicalism.

“Horner and Bryson talked of the difficulty of developing mathematical skills in employees, since knowledge of physics and maths was so important for the design and manufacture of these technical objects.”4

The First Industrial Revolution was exploding in all directions through massive industrialisation and societal upheaval. From the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars in 1812 with victory at the Battle of Waterloo, through to the arrival in Scotland of James VI in Edinburgh in August 1822, and beyond, there was long periods of depression in commerce and manufacturing across Scotland. Luddism in post-war Britain posed a major threat as looms, and threshing machines were destroyed and the coal mines of land-owners with bonded workers were deliberately flooded. Over 12,000 troops were dispatched to deal with an insurrection against unrestrained industrial capitalism.

In Edinburgh, now an expanding and boisterous city attracting displaced cottars from the nearby countryside, Horner was concerned about increasing Radicalism which led to the Peterloo massacres in Manchester, when mounted Yeomanry and Hussars killed 11 protesters and injured many more with their sabres, and the Cato Street Conspiracy, an alleged plot to assassinate the Cabinet, in London in 1820. There were attempted at uprisings in Glasgow were a band of weavers rose with their famed banner: “Scotland Free or a Desart’ [sic], and in April 1820 two Radical weavers were executed and 19 transported to Australia after a skirmish with the army and Yeomanry at the Battle of Bonnymuir, near Falkirk. Uprising was in the air.

Horner developed the idea of a night school for the technical arts, increasingly important as the standardisation of the manufacture of nuts, bolts and screws was determining the pace of progress. Bryson understood better than anyone the requirement of precision components, especially in the moulding of brass for gears and regulatory mechanisms.

On 19 April 1821, Horner created the first prospectus for the Edinburgh School of Arts “for the instruction of mechanics in such branches of physical sciences as are of practical application in their several trades.” A network of wealthy Edinburgh subscribers, such as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Cockburn, Robert Stevenson, Alexander Nasmyth, and William Playfair, agreed to support the venture. This allowed working men to afford the nominal fees. Prospective students purchased tickets in instalments from Bryson’s shop on South Bridge. Within a month, 450 had enrolled.

The first lecture in chemistry, on 16 October 1821, was at the St Cecilia’s concert hall, the beautiful oval concert hall completed in 1762, in the Cowgate, the home of the Grand Lodge of the Freemasons of Scotland. The curriculum was founded on mechanics, physics and chemistry, including elementary geology. [Horner was President of the Geological Society of London.] The initial subjects also included farriery, smithery and the motion of machines, all practical and relevant for the massive needs of the Industrial Revolution.

Historian EP Thompson in his classic work The Making of the English Working Class5 points out that the arrival of useful learning for the artisans of labour was both politically and religiously motivated to stem rising class consciousness, the increasing clamour for universal suffrage and prevent widespread revolt.

“The early history of the Mechanics’ Institutes, from the formation of the London Institute in 1823 until 1830, is a story of ideological conflict. From the standpoint of Radical artisan or trade unionist, the enthusiasm of Dr Birkbeck [founder of evening classes and later university in London] and of some Dissenting clergy and Benthamite professional men to assist them to establish centres for the promotion of knowledge was very much to be welcomed. But they were not prepared to have this on any terms.”

Birkbeck was founded on the evening of 11 November 1823, when around 2,000 people flocked to the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand to hear Dr George Birkbeck speak on the importance of educating working people. Supporters at the event included Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher and originator of Utilitarianism, and Henry Brougham, a Whig MP, anti-slavery campaigner, educational reformer, and founder of the Edinburgh Review. Edinburgh-born Lord Brougham was elected as a Fellow of the RSE at the age of 25.

The early 19th century Robert Bryson clock gets some final checks as it is gifted to the RSE by local horologist Douglas McLennan. ©Stewart Attwood Photography 2022
The early 19th century Bryson clock gets some final checks as it is gifted to the RSE by local horologist Douglas McLennan. ©Stewart Attwood Photography 2022

The London Mechanics’ Institute, following Edinburgh’s example, was formally created on 2 December 1823, with the stated aim of educating working people. What was emerging was the importance of useful learning for the common man, so he might raise himself and his family out of poverty. In 1826, a year of devastating Scottish harvests which became known as ‘The Year of the Short Corn’, Reverend Henry Duncan, the Minister for Rothwell, near Dumfries, and the founder of the savings bank movement, hailed the establishment of the Mechanics’ Institutions, and said: “Truth cannot oppose truth. Intelligent men – though but half-educated – in an age like ours, will inquire into doubtful and difficult subject, and no one has a right to prevent them, even were it possible. Surely, then, it is but a duty – on the part of those who have power – to afford them the aid they need, in cultivating mental faculties, and in seeking to discover whatever is genuine in science.”6

Duncan was part of an enlightened Christian movement eschewing the dogmatic belief in Creationism and exploring the more moderate, democratic intellectual tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. In 1826, Henry Brougham sought Duncan’s help for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which was disseminating publications for the instruction of working people.

The School of Arts for the Instruction of Mechanics prospered first in Drummond Street and moved to larger premises in Adam Square, becoming the Watt Institution and School of Arts. The Watt Institution would become the Heriot-Watt College in 1885, and later Heriot-Watt University.

Robert Bryson invented an apparatus for turning on and shutting off gas which illuminated a translucent dial, and was awarded the Royal Scottish Society of Art’s Silver Medal for this paper in 1842. He went on to invent a self-registering barometer in 1844, and a year later “On a Method of rendering Baily’s Compensation Pendulum insensible to Hygrometric Influences.”

Bryson, who took on a number of apprentices, moved his workshop to No. 66 Princes Street in 1840. This was the address of Reid & Auld, who both retired in 1823. Bryson gained Royal Appointment as Watch and Clockmaker to the Queen. He was an excellent chronometer maker, elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and made a ‘Congreve’, rolling-ball clock before it was patented. It is on display in the National Museum of Scotland. He died on 8 August 1852, aged 74.


Robert Bryson was succeeded by his two sons, Alexander and Robert. Alexander, who continued the clock-making business, was several years older than James Clerk Maxwell, Scotland’s leading mathematician of his day and the discoverer of the colour spectrum. But Robert Bryson appears, by some degree, to be more accomplished than his father in the cross-over between mechanical applications and physical science. In his own right, he attained a level of intellectual knowledge which even allowed him to determine the presence and position of icebergs in fog and darkness at sea, using electromagnetic assessment.

The extraordinary discovery of electromagnetic induction by Michael Faraday formed the “nucleus of everything electric since 1830” and his theory of the electric field was to have a massive impact of clock-making and clock makers.

The precocious genius of James Clerk Maxwell was fostered by his early engagement with the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and he became acquainted with Alexander Bryson’s body of discovery.

In 1831, the year of James Clerk Maxwell’s birth, John Clerk Maxwell, his father, published an RSE paper on an automatic printing press. By 1840, he was a prominent member of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts and would have been known to both Robert and Alexander Bryson.

In 1845, while James Clerk Maxwell was still attending Edinburgh Academy, his father encouraged him to join him at a meeting of the Society of Arts and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Maxwell formed a friendship with Peter Guthrie Tait, later Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University, who presented a paper on the elliptical state of oval curves and of a pendulum, then critical parts of a time piece.

The young prodigy continued to attend several RSE meetings, where two of his mathematical investigations were read by Philip Kelland, because Clerk Maxwell was judged to be too young. He became increasingly fascinated by the principles and mathematics of the conical pendulum and pendulum clocks. In his improvised workshop at the family’s country home in Glenlair, in Galloway, he experimented with charcoal, copper wire, zinc plates and Smee’s Galvanic apparatus. The electric cell and battery apparatus was developed by Alfred Smee (1818-1877). The cell consists of two positively charged zinc plates and one negatively charged platinized silver plate immersed in dilute sulphuric acid.

Alexander Bryson, also a prominent member of the Royal Society of Arts, was regularly bringing forward such concepts and ideas, including a demonstration of the mechanism of clocks, watches, various escapements, pendulums and balances, in May 1843. On 9th February 1846, he submitted a Royal Society of Arts paper “Description of a new Clock impelled by a combination of Gravitation and Electro Magnetism.”

The precocious genius of James Clerk Maxwell was fostered by his early engagement with the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and he became acquainted with Alexander Bryson’s body of discovery.

It was an era when several clockmakers, such as Wheatstone and Jones of Chester, were bidding to build a reliable electric clock which could control the pendulum’s swing.

In this clock the common pendulum is used. It is kept vibrating in equal arcs, by a small falling bar or detent, which is raised every alternate second by the attraction induced in a soft electro-magnet. The magnetism is excited by constant batteries place in the bottom of the clock case, which may be kept in action for any desirable period, and when changed it is not necessary to stop the clock, as before the spent battery is out of action, which is newly charged, is in full operation,” according to Smith.7

The wheelwork, showing the minutes and the seconds, was moved by a gravitation bar or detent when attracted by the electro-magnet. A piece of ivory broke the circuit and allowed the falling bar or detent to fall on the pendulum, to keep it vibrating.

“By this method of coincidences it was stated the pendulum was found to keep its motion with the utmost steadiness as compared with a compensation mercurial pendulum beating seconds.”

Interestingly, Bryson withdrew this academic paper after it emerged that a rival Edinburgh clockmaker and Royal Society of Arts member, Alexander Bain, a long-forgotten genius who had a shop in South Hanover Street, had been working on an electric clock, then called ‘electro-horology’ and had secured five patents from 1841 to 1845.

Bain’s original electrical source was a kind of heat pump, using Alfred Smee’s principles, where he buried a quantity of coke in the ground and a few feet or more away buried one of more plates of zinc. These element with the intervening soil formed a galvanic battery from which a uniform current of low-level electricity was obtained. The current was led from the coke and the zinc by copper wires. The constancy of this current rendered a motive power for time keepers. The advantage was the clock did not need to be wound up.

Bain’s innovations helped the burgeoning railway system to instigate its own electric clock which allowed the development of national timetables, including the electric telegraph giving exact time between Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1846. Bain’s genius also led to the invention of an electro-chemical printing telegraph which had superior qualities to the emerging Morse code system of communication – with speed of up to 1,000 words a minute – but it was never championed by Thomas Edison. His legacy remains in the science of electricity and its application to horology.

It was this frenetic local interest in the new field of electricity which propelled Clerk Maxwell as he entered Edinburgh University in 1847, leaving in 1850 to attend Cambridge University. His interest in science and the geometry of spherical objects, which ultimately led him to explain the rationale for the rings of Saturn, had been formed by the Society of Arts and the Royal Society of Edinburgh meetings.

Alexander Bryson’s own invention continued with a new lubricant for large machinery, which was a compound of oil, sulphur and vulcanised caoutchouc, and an aneroid barometer for measuring the heat expansion of mercury. He died in December 1866, aged 50.

“His early death created a blank not only in the Society of which he was so illustrious a member but throughout Scotland,” said Smith.8

Alexander’s brother, Robert, who was born in 1820, became a partner with his father. He became Master of the Merchant Company of Edinburgh in 1874. The Merchant Company owned land in the Merchiston district of Edinburgh and Bryson Road, which was developed from 1880, was named after Robert Bryson, junior. He lived on Bruntsfield Place with his wife, Mary, and their children, Elizabeth, born in 1853, and Alfred, born in 1856. Alexander died in 1886 and the business passed to Hamilton & Inches, but traded under the Bryson name until around 1900. Hamilton & Inches, formed in 1866 by Sir Robert Kirk Inches, and James Hamilton, was a jewellery business, based in No.90A Princes Street, before moving to George Street in 1952.

1 Old Scottish Clockmakers, From 1453 to 1850, John Smith. Reprinted by EP Publishing, 1975
2 Old Scottish Clockmakers, Ibid.
3 Leonard Horner: Pioneering Reformer, Patrick O’Farrell. Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University, 2010.
4 Article in Panmure House Perspectives magazine, Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University, Issue 4, 2019.
5 The Making of the English Working Class, EP Thompson, Pelican Books, 1963. Edition 1977.
6 Memoir of Rev. Henry Duncan, Minister of Ruthwell. By Rev. George John C. Duncan, William Oliphant & Sons, 1848.
7 Ibid, John Smith. Page 71.
8 Old Scottish Clockmakers, ibid

Kenny Kemp is an author, writer and journalist based in Edinburgh. He has an Honours Degree in Politics and Economic History from the University of Strathclyde. His final year dissertation was on the British Fisheries Society 1786-1893, and his tutor at Strathclyde was Professor Tom Devine. He was co-winner of WH Smith Business Book of the Year in 2004 for his book: Go: An Airline Adventure, and is an Associate of the University of Edinburgh Business School.

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