Cargill Gilston KNOTT

and Penicuik links with JAPAN

Notes from an exhibition by Penicuik Community Development Trust in January 2006



A Cowan Connection


Mary Wood Cowan (born 1837) was the daughter of Alexander Cowan, the surprisingly benevolent Penicuik papermaker of Valleyfield Mills. She took up residence in Japan from the 1860s.


Her engineer husband Colin Alexander McVean was employed there by the Imperial Government to carry out surveys.  They were married in 1868.  He’d been trained by MacCallum & Dundas, civil engineers of Edinburgh, had spent some years on the Admiralty Survey of Hebrides, giving his name to McVean Rock off Eriskay, and had also gained engineering experience in the Ottoman Empire in the Black Sea port and telegraph hub of Varna.  Invited to Japan by the Meiji Government, his surveying expertise was needed to assist in the lighthouse-building activities in Japan of fellow Scot Richard Henry Brunton

Yokohama harbour in 1870


Colin and Mary McVean stayed in Japan for many years, and their children were born there.  McVean’s autobiographical “Little Journal" is now in the care of Rutgers University.  On returning to Britain, by 1881 McVean was based in Cheshire with an advisory post in the Queen’s service : his sons were sent to the school run by Grenfell of Labrador’s father in the Wirral.


The Cowan family link with Japan continued when the McVean’s eldest daughter married John Harington Gubbins of the British Legation in Tokyo, and their children too were brought up in Japan.  One of them, Colin Gubbins, became well known as director of Special Operations in Europe from 1940.




Cargill Gilston Knott


 Cargill Gilston Knott was born at Valleyfield, Penicuik on 30th June 1856 and spent his early career in Japan. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society, Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, an internationally acclaimed physicist and mathematician and a pioneer in the study of earthquakes.


Family History


Cargill Gilston Knott’s father, Pelham Knott, married Helen McIntyre McOmish on 2nd August 1848. Cargill was their sixth son and was born in Valleyfield on 30th June 1856.


Helen McOmish descended from the brother of the Covenanter Donald Cargill – hence her son’s unusual Christian name.  Donald Cargill had been ejected from his living as the minister of Glasgow in 1655 for opposing the Restoration of King Charles II. He became a wandering field preacher, took part in the Battle of Bothwell Bridge where the Covenanters were defeated, and was one of the group who posted the Covenanters Declaration on the Market Cross in Sanquhar in 1680. A price was put on his head for proclaiming the King’s excommunication, and he was captured and executed in Edinburgh in 1681.


In contrast, Knott’s paternal grandfather may have been a music teacher. It is said that he eloped to Scotland with a daughter of the Duke of Newcastle whose family name was Pelham. Whether or not this is fantasy, John Knott did marry a Sophia Pelham in Edinburgh in 1818 and their son, Pelham Knott, was Cargill Knot’s father. Pelham Knott wrote a book of poetry.  He was the clerk to Alexander Cowan & Sons’ paper mills at Valleyfield.  Later, he became the firm’s paper commission agent.


Knott’s Education


Young Cargill Knott was seven years old when his father Pelham died.  The boy was set from Penicuik to an aunt and uncle in Arbroath where he studied for eight years at the High School and then went directly to the University of Edinburgh. Three years before he graduated, he started work as a laboratory research assistant to the Dalkeith-born Professor of Natural Philosophy, Peter Guthrie Tait. The laboratory was in a garret overlooking the quadrangle of Old College in South Bridge. There, he worked alongside another young scientist James Alfred Ewing. For the next ten years, Cargill Knott worked on various aspects of electricity and magnetism, gaining a doctorate from his researches in contact electricity in 1879.


Physics at Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities


At that time, collaboration between William Thompson at Glasgow University (later Lord Kelvin) and Peter Guthrie Tait at the University of Edinburgh created a core around which British physics developed. This was not the kind of ‘New Physics’ of Einstein and Planck that gave us quantum theory and relativity, but the practical kind called ‘Classical Physics’ needed to understand global warming, build more efficient engines and connect Europe and North America with telegraph cables.

The Treatise on Natural Philosophy (1861) by W. Thompson and P.G. Tait laid the foundations of a rigorous mathematical description of matter and the natural world on which a generation a famous scientists built.


Scots and the Birth of Seismology in Imperial Japan


One unlikely outcome of the new force of Physics in Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities was the birth in Japan of the modern science of Seismology. After the downfall of the Shoguns in 1871, Japan re-established a centralised imperial state. They looked outward and brought in western science, industry and ideas. 


One initiative was to build up lighthouses for trade and navigation and transform the port of Yokohama. Richard Henry Brunton came to Japan in 1868 on the recommendation of Edinburgh’s lighthouse-building Stevenson Brothers and the Board of Trade.  Brunton sent for equipment and began to set up training in surveying and mathematics.  And the new lighthouses had to be secure against the disastrous earthquakes that frequently strike Japan.

Richard Henry Brunton


To understand, predict and mitigate the effects of earthquakes, a group of British scientists received imperial invitations to visit Tokyo and contribute the latest ideas of western science. From their work emerged the modern science of seismology and Earthquake engineering.


First, in 1874, John Milne was appointed as Professor of Geology and Mining at what was to become the now-famous Earthquake Research Institute.  Milne had been one of the first research scientists at Prince Albert’s new Royal School of Mines in South Kensington, designed to promote excellence in industrial education. Most of the others were Scots. In 1878, four years after Milne’s arrival in Japan, James Alfred Ewing of Dundee was appointed Professor of Physics and Engineering in Tokyo. After Ewing graduated with an engineering degree from Edinburgh University, he had paralleled Cargill Knott’s career by becoming a research assistant to first P G Tait then Lord Kelvin in Glasgow.  With Japanese colleagues, Milne, Ewing and another Briton, Thomas Lomas Gray, devised the prototype instruments from which modern recording seismographs developed. Their instruments remained the workhorse of worldwide seismological observatories until the 1950s.

Yedo (Tokyo) in 1880


Cargill Knott in Japan


When J A Ewing returned to Dundee in 1883, Cargill Knott replaced him as Professor of Physics and Engineering in Tokyo. For the next nine years, he worked closely with Milne, Gray and the Japanese seismologist Fusakichi Omori.  Knott took part in establishing a network of recording seismometers across the Japanese Empire. From this, the team were able to locate the time and place where Earthquakes occurred using only the recordings made at remote seismological observatories.


Illustration from Knott’s 1908 book The Physics of Earthquake Phenomena showing one day’s recording of ground vibrations at Tokyo on 17 November 1900. The record was made with Omori’s development of the Milne Seismograph. This form of recording remained a global standard until digital recording was generally introduced in the 1980s.



Photograph from Cargill Knott’s former colleague Professor Fusakichi Omori, 1906. The Baishiko Fault formed in Formosa during the Earthquake of 17 March 1906. Here the foreground has sunk six feet and been displaced six feet to the left.


Milne’s horizontal seismograph for one horizontal component


Diagram of the Milne seismometer from Knott’s 1908 book Physics of Earthquake Phenomena

Seismic hazard maps


Milne, Ewing, Gray, Knott and Japanese colleagues produced a catalogue of Japanese earthquakes, recording where and when each earthquake occurred. It was based on recordings made at remote seismological observatories, rather than eye-witnesses of the damage. From the catalogue, they produced a map showing the regions in Japan where Earthquakes were most frequent.

Map showing the frequency of Japanese Earthquakes during 1885-1890 published by Professor D. Kikuchi in 1909 from Milne’s Catalogue of Japanese Earthquakes.


Fourier analysis


Knott’s key contribution to the pioneering group of seismologists in Tokyo was to supplement their skills as instrument makers by his own flair for mathematics and data analysis. One of his innovations was to apply the technique of Fourier analysis to the occurrence of Earthquakes. Fourier analysis seeks to break down a pattern, like the pattern of when earthquakes occur, into components with different recurrence periods. He looked for daily, monthly, seasonal, annual, and astronomical periodicities. Two whole chapters in his 1908 book The Physics of Earthquake Phenomena were devoted to this subject, hoping that he would be able to deduce something about the probability of when earthquakes occur. We know now that earthquakes do not recur in regular periods, but Knott’s legacy in Japan bore interesting fruit half a century later.


The Magnetic Survey of Japan


Cargill Knott spent more than eight years in Japan busying himself with seismology. But he also expanded his interests to other parts of what we would now call geophysics: he trained local people and introduced geomagnetic surveying to Japan, undertaking a survey of the whole country in only three months. For this, the Emperor awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun in 1891. He was one of the few westerners to be honoured in this way.



Later developments in Japan


Fourier analysis is now a very widely used tool, and is applied in analysing all sorts of time-series and even spatial patterns. The Imperial Earthquake Research Institute in Tokyo remained a bastion of civil science in Japan in the middle parts of the twentieth century: there, in 1940, Chuji Tsuboi pioneered the use of Fourier analysis to determine the thickness of lithospheric plates, nearly three decades before Plate Tectonics was first described; and, in 1941, Takesi Nagata used Fourier methods to describe the magnetic effect of Mount Fuji. Neither application re-appeared until the 1970s.

Understanding seismic waves


In Japan, Knott also began to develop the mathematical description of how seismic vibrations are reflected and transmitted across the boundary between sea-water and the rocks of the sea bed. After returning to become Lecturer in Physics at Edinburgh University in 1892, he was able to extend this description to include the behaviour of earthquake vibrations or waves at the interface between two different rock types. The Knott equations are now the basis for many new developments in seismology, including modern seismic exploration tools for petroleum gas and oil.

Modern seismic image showing not only the layering of rocks below the sea bed but even subtle laying in the overlying sea due to small differences in water temperature and salt concentration. Such images use properties worked out by Knott in 1899 of how strongly seismic waves reflect at the boundary

 between two different materials.


Knott’s later academic life


The year after his return from Japan, Knott was a founder of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society. He also became the President of the Scottish Meteorological Society. While still in Japan, he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.  He became its General Secretary in 1912 and remained active in that role until his death.  Amongst his many books, he wrote the biography of his former physics mentor, Professor Peter Guthrie Tait.


Religion and Family Life

Thomas Carlyle(1795-1881) from the painting by Millais.      Carlyle’s birthplace, now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland

Cargill Knott followed the religious traditions of his mother’s side of the family. Among important influences may have been the works of Thomas Carlyle.  Cargill Gilston Knott is one of the first names recorded in Thomas Carlyle’s birthplace at Ecclefechan when it was opened to the public in 1883, before Knott’s departure for Japan.     In June 1885, he married Mary Jane Gray Dixon, the daughter of the minister of the Free Martyrs Church in Paisley. This ceremony took place in the British Legation in Tokyo.  Mary’s brother, William Gray Dixon, was another Scot employed at the Imperial University of Tokyo. He wrote of his experiences in Japan in a book published Edinburgh in 1882: The Land of the Morning: An Account of Japan and Its People, Based on a Four Years’ Residence in That Country, Including Travels into the Remotest Parts of the Interior. William went on to travel the world as an evangelist for Presbyterianism, visiting New Zealand, Canada and Australia.


Back in Edinburgh, Cargill Knott held office in the United Free Church of Scotland.  He died at his home in Newington, Edinburgh,

in 1922.


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