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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter XLII - Anderson's University


IT was in the midst of the disturbance and uncertainty of those years of revolution that another new and valuable institution had its origin in Glasgow. Professor John Anderson, its founder, was a somewhat formidable figure in the life both of the city and the University. His grandfather, an earlier John Anderson, had been the first minister of the Northwest Church, otherwise St. David's or the Ramshorn. A tombstone near the east end of the south front of the church, details how he was preceptor to the famous John, Duke of Argyll and Greenwich, minister, to begin with, in Dunbarton, and author of several ecclesiastical and political tracts. The inscription further describes how this minister's eldest son, James, was minister in Rosneath, and how his eldest son, again, John Anderson, was Professor of Natural Philosophy in the University of Glasgow and "Founder of an Institution in the City of Glasgow for lectures in Natural Philosophy and in every branch of knowledge." [Cleland's Annals, ii. p. 118.]

An account of the life of Professor Anderson appears in the Glasgow Mechanics Magazine for 1825, and his portrait forms the frontispiece of the volume, while a medallion of him by G. Tassie is in possession of the Governors of the Glasgow and `'Vest of Scotland Technical College. These representations give the impression of a stalwart and combative personality, which indeed he was. The most complete account of the character and university career of Anderson, written with a not too friendly pen, is given by Dr. David Murray in his Memoirs of the Old College of Glasgow (pages 379-393).

After his father's early death Anderson was brought up by an aunt in Stirling, and there at the age of nineteen he helped to raise a regiment to defend the town against the Jacobite rising under Prince Charles Edward. That taste of war gave him an interest in things military which he never lost, and his gun, sword, and bayonet were among the relics he bequeathed to the college he founded. When the rebellion was over he betook himself to Glasgow, completed his education, and graduated Master of Arts. In 1755 he was appointed to the Chair of Oriental Languages in the University, and two years later was transferred to that of Natural Philosophy.

It was in those early years that he befriended James Watt. In 1756 Watt was appointed mechanician to the University and allowed a workshop within the College, and there is reason to believe that the young professor's ideas and the use of his library served as a stimulus to the struggling craftsman. As all the world knows, it was Anderson's commission to repair the model of the Newcomen engine which led to Watt's invention of the separate condenser and all his later improvements in the use of steam. [See supra, p. 279.]

The originality and forcefulness of Anderson's character kept him in conflict during a large part of his career with the authorities of the University, who, as is apt to be the case, were all for precedent and tradition. His most notable quarrels with them took place over the method of electing a Rector and the keeping of accounts. [Coutts, History of University of Glasgow, pp. 272-294. A generation previously the same subjects had been the cause of one of the most regrettable quarrels in the history of the University, when the high-handed action of Principal Stirling not only excluded the students from the election of the Rector, but threw the whole affairs of the University into serious confusion. Ibid. p. 198.] On an appeal to the courts of law he lost his case. In their hour of triumph his opponents presented their factor, Morthland, with a silver bowl inscribed with a testimonial of their confidence. Later, however, the tables were turned. Alorthland was charged with defalcations amounting to 10,000, and in his extremity cited as his chief defence the testimonial he had received from the professors.

In the work of his own chair Anderson saw the possibility of a very great development. Hitherto it had been purely academic, dealing with the history of physics and with reasoning regarding the facts of the material world by means of mathematics. In his new development he taught, not by mathematical reasoning, but by a direct appeal to the senses through demonstration and experiment. Four days in the week he lectured on the academic system, and two days on the practical. With a view to the benefit to be conferred on industry by the introduction of something better than mere rule of thumb methods, and with a view, at the same time, to the educational effect upon the workmen themselves, he encouraged the mechanics of the city to attend his practical lectures. Further, to make it as easy as possible for them to do this, he invited them to come in their working clothes, and excused them from wearing the usual scarlet cloak of the student, calling theirs the Anti-toga Class. An innovation of this kind was not looked upon with favour by Anderson's fellow professors, but he persevered with it to the end. The differences between his two courses were explained in his Institutes of Physics, published in 1786, a book which ran through five editions in its author's lifetime.

From the first also Anderson made it his practice to keep in touch with the industrial life of the city. In his intercourse with masters and men he ascertained how their processes could be improved by a knowledge of the laws on which they were based, and he set himself in his popular lectures to place that knowledge within their reach.

In one field of applied mechanics he distinguished himself in a highly practical way. Inspired by his early military experience at Stirling, he devoted time to the study of war and weapons. So clearly was his knowledge recognized that in 1759, when the French commander, Thurot, with four frigates and 1200 men, was threatening the western coast of Scotland, he was engaged to plan the fortifications at Greenock. He experimented extensively with shot and shell, and demonstrated the superiority of spheroid over round shot. He also invented a field gun in which the recoil was stopped by the condensation of air in the gun carriage. This invention he offered to the British Government, but was met with a somewhat rude refusal. In 1791, however, he took a model of his invention to Paris, and presented it to the National Convention. That body received it with thanks, and ordered it to be hung in the Hall of Assembly with an inscription, "The Gift of Science to Liberty." Anderson then had a six-pounder made to his design, and carried out a number of experiments near Paris, in the presence of the famous Paul Jones, who declared his decided approval of the new device.

Of strong Radical views, Anderson, like many others, hailed the French Revolution as the dawn of a new era of greater freedom for mankind. He was present in Paris when Louis XVI was brought back from Varennes, and, amid the acclamations of half a million of his subjects, and to the thunder of five hundred cannon, took the oath to uphold the constitution.

Further, in sympathy with the new movement the inventor translated his Essays on Way and Military Instruments into French, and distributed copies in Paris. And when the German government drew a military cordon along the frontier, and forbade the importation of French revolutionary literature, Anderson suggested the use of small paper balloons, varnished with boiled oil, and filled with hot air ; and thousands of these were sent sailing over Germany carrying inflammatory messages of "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity."

What the Glasgow professor thought of the later excesses of the Revolutionaries is not recorded. No doubt, as with thousands more in this country, these proved a sad and serious disillusionment. At any rate when he died in 1796 he left his fortune, not for the propagation of wildcat projects for the immediate creation of a millenium, but for the development of intelligence, knowledge, and skill among the classes who would most benefit from the turning of these possessions to account in the business of their lives. [Burgh Records, 9th June, 1796.]

Anderson's University, as planned by its founder, was to consist of four colleges—Arts, Medicine, Law, and Theology, each with nine professors. The funds bequeathed by Anderson amounted to no more than 1000, and of course were not enough for the whole ambitious plan. The work began with only a single course of lectures on Natural Philosophy and Chemistry by Dr. Thomas Garnett. [The district of Garnethill is said to derive its name from the fact that Dr. Garnett had a cottage there.] It was equipped, however, with the splendid apparatus and library of the founder, valued at 3000, and in the first year the lectures were attended by no fewer than a thousand students. From these beginnings "the Andersonian" proceeded to grow. Its classes were started in rooms lent by the Town Council in the new Grammar School in George Street, and it included among its professors a succession of distinguished men, such as Dr. George Birkbeck, A. S. Herschel, Thomas Graham, afterwards Master of the Mint, and Dr. Frederick Penny. Among the students who owed much of the success of their careers to its instruction were James Young of Kelly, creator of the great paraffin industry, David Livingstone, the explorer of Africa, and Lord Playfair, the celebrated chemist and politician.

Anderson's was the first university to admit women students as well as men, and it appears to have afforded Count Rumford the suggestion for the Royal Institution which he founded in London, and in which he induced Dr. Garnett to become the first professor. Out of it also grew the movement, under Dr. Birkbeck, for the founding of Mechanics' Institutes in London and throughout the country, which for many years played a notable part in the education and social life of the artizan classes.

For some thirty years the work was carried on in buildings in John Street, but these became unsuitable, and in 1827 Anderson's trustees acquired the buildings of the Grammar School in George Street, which had likewise become too small for their original purpose, and had been unoccupied since 1821. A lecture hall and galleried museum were added behind. In these buildings the work was carried on for sixty years, chair after chair being added, till in 1893 the staff consisted of ten professors, nineteen lecturers, five extension lecturers, and twelve industrial teachers, with seventeen chief assistants, while in the day classes there were 223 students, and in the evening classes 2685.

In 1887, under the Educational Endowments (Scotland) Act, Anderson's College was united with three other institutions to become the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College, the first of its kind in the kingdom; and a few years afterwards, on the site of the old Andersonian in George Street, and sites adjoining, was erected the great building which houses what is probably the most notable industrial university of our time. At the same date the Medical department of the Andersonian, which since the year 1800 had had a highly useful and distinguished career, [For many years the professorships in Anderson's College medical faculty were regarded as an almost certain step to chairs in Glasgow University; no fewer than seventeen of the holders having their services transferred in this way.] was made an independent institution, and established in Dunbarton Road as Anderson's College Medical School. [A very full account of Anderson's College and its developments is contained in The First Technical College, by Professor A. Humboldt Sexton, 1894.]


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