THIS week in 1781, one of the greatest Scottish scientists you might never have heard of was born in Jedburgh. David Brewster would become one of the pioneers of physical optics, design lighthouse illuminators and the binocular camera, write the best biography of Isaac Newton and plenty other books on science, have a discovery named after him – Brewster’s Angle – help found the British Science Association, be the principal of both St Andrews and Edinburgh Universities and end up as knight of the realm and an officer of France’s Legion d’honneur.

Just about everyone who has ever had a kaleidoscope should thank Brewster – he invented it, and that’s a story in itself. Another story was this devout Presbyterian’s leading role in opposing Darwin’s theory of evolution, proving that no-one gets everything right.

Brewster was, by any standards, a genius. He was that archetypal product of the Scottish Enlightenment, a lad o’ pairts whose empirical approach to science brought him fame and glory in his own lifetime, and continuing renown afterwards.

He has a bust in the Hall of Heroes at the Wallace Monument in Stirling, he features in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, he has streets named after him in Jedburgh and Edinburgh and has one of the great honours of contemporary culture in that he features in the Assassin’s Creed video game series.

He is also yet another example of why we Scots do not know enough about our own history, and on Tuesday in The National I will demonstrate why by re-writing the Tea Towel – hope that’s got you intrigued… Born in Jedburgh on December 11, 1781, Brewster was the son of the rector of the town’s grammar school, and was recognised early on as a prodigy who constructed his own telescope at the age of 10.

His family sent him to Edinburgh University at the age of 12 and the intention was that he should study to become a minister of the Church of Scotland.

He remained a firm Presbyterian all his life but even though he qualified for the ministry, he had a fatal flaw – he just couldn’t preach.

The author James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, knew Brewster well and wrote: “He was licensed, but the first day he mounted the pulpit was the last, for he had then, if he has not still, a nervous something about him that made him swither when he heard his own voice and saw a congregation eyeing him; so he stacked his discourse, and vowed never to try that job again. It was a pity for Kirk, but it was a good day for Science … for if the doctor had gotten a manse, he might most likely have taken to his toddy like other folk.”

At the age of 20, Brewster threw himself into his “natural philosophy” – science by another name – and quickly amassed a whole range of discoveries associated with light and optics. His writing on science began to gain him even more distinction and he became the editor of the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, a post he held for 20 years.

Brewster also invented a whole range of scientific instruments, which he described in A Treatise Upon New Philosophical Instruments, published in 1813. His studies of light led him to the discovery of polarization and theories on reflection and refraction that are still central to the development of fibre optics, lasers and the study of meteorology and cosmology.

His invention of the kaleidoscope in 1816 brought him fame but no fortune – though the entire world went quite mad for it, problems with the patent meant that other people developed their versions first. Brewster eventually was rewarded with a knighthood in 1831, one of many honours given to him both in the UK and across Europe.

He had also saved many lives by persuading the government to install the Fresnel lens – developed by the French inventor on principles outlined by Brewster – in lighthouses around the British coast, so that their lights were vastly more powerful.

More than 2000 scientific papers were written by him, and his popular books included two biographies of Sir Isaac Newton. The development of photography fascinated him and he was a founder member of the Edinburgh Calotype Club, the world’s first photography society, having earlier founded the Royal Scottish Society of Arts.

Though he admired Charles Darwin’s commitment, he deprecated the naturalist’s work and wrote The Flights and Fancies of Mr Darwin, which can be read online – basically, he disliked the fact that Darwin’s theory of evolution missed out God.

What sort of man was he? Brewster married Juliet Macpherson, daughter of the Ossian writer James, in 1810. They had five children and were happily married for 40 years. After Juliet’s death, Brewster married Jane Purnell and fathered a daughter in his seventies.

His daughter Margaret in her biography of her father wrote that he could be “irritable, impatient, litigious, and verbally aggressive,” but that “he was a man with a strong personality, strong constitution and possessed a great personal charm when he chose to exercise it.”

For his science and contribution to our modern world, we should remember more this extraordinary Scotsman.