Edinburgh World Heritage - The Absent Minded Professor - Adam Smith, 1723-1790, Economist

The Absent Minded Professor - Adam Smith, 1723-1790, Economist

Adam Smith, the philosopher and economist whose work influences how we live today. He was also a bit absent minded, talked to himself, and occasionally also fell into holes; yet, like his friends, he was a genius.

If you suddenly found yourself in Edinburgh’s Old Town in the late 1770s and 1780s you might have seen a well-dressed, but rather heavy featured man wearing a wig and walking to work, talking to himself.

It would be hard to believe that this absent minded individual, who was Commissioner of Customs in Edinburgh, would be one of the most influential figures in the modern world. Indeed Adam Smith, a Kirkcaldy man, seemed so vague he needed his mother and his cousin Jeanie to look after him. Like many great minds he was often thinking of other things, which is why when making a pot of tea, he put bread in the pot rather than tea leaves and once when out walking with a friend he fell into a tanhole. Tan holes are part of the process of making leather and the process is very smelly and unpleasant, indeed it could have killed him. Adam seems to have been a little afraid of his cousin who ran a tight household, but he had a very sweet tooth and would take little pieces of sugar to suck when she was not looking.

Adam was modest and said the only attractive thing about him was his library. We should never judge a book by its covers, for he was not only a brilliant intellectual, but he had been a Professor of Logic and then Moral Philosophy at Glasgow. He also went with Henry the future Duke of Buccleuch on the Grand Tour of Europe, acting as his tutor.

In his famous book The Wealth of Nations, he said governments should not try to control commerce and trade and that if people were allowed to follow their own best interests it would benefit the whole country.

Why was he important?
-    Smith's ideas about free trade still influence governments and businesses today- he believed that the fewer restrictions that there were on who could trade with whom, the more trade would take place, and the more money people would make.
-    He believed that people's choices about what they bought and traded in highlighted what they valued most highly, and in turn, helped shape society and establish a social order

Things to do:
Business start-up
Start up a business in your class? What are you going to make or what service are you going to provide? Who will benefit? Will someone regulate it?

What banknote does Adam Smith appear on? Which celebrity would you feature on a banknote and why?

Adam Smith’s library at the University of Edinburgh

Curriculum Links: Social studies, Religious and Moral Education, Health and Wellbeing, Technologies, Languages, Mathematics

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