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The Scottish Nation
Dick


DICK, THOMAS, LL.D., author of ‘The Christian Philosopher,’ and other works devoted to the literature of religion and science, was born in the Hilltown of Dundee, 24th November 1774. He was the son of Mungo Dick, a linen manufacturer there, and a member of the Secession church. He was taught his letters at home, chiefly by his mother, and could read the New Testament before he went to any school. He first had his attention drawn, and the whole after-bent of his mind directed to astronomical studies, and the investigation of the arcane of nature, by the following circumstance: About nine o’clock in the evening of the 18th of August, 1783, a meteor appeared in the heavens, which at the period created an extraordinary amount of wonder and alarm among all who saw it. At that very time, Thomas Dick, then a boy of nine years of age, was in his father’s garden with a female servant, who was folding linen. On the first flash of the meteor, the girl looking towards the north whence it came, exclaimed, “You have never seen lightning before. See! There’s lightning.” Overcome by the remarkable phenomenon, they both fell to the ground, and it was some time before they could recover themselves. From that day, anxious to penetrate the mysteries of astronomy and meteorology, he eagerly inquired for all books that treated of such difficult and abstruse subjects, preferring them to every other.

His father intended him for his own business, and accordingly set him to the loom. In consequence, he received but a limited education. A severe attack of small-pox, followed by measles, greatly weakened his constitution, and, with his desire to pursue mental investigations, gave him a decided distaste to any mere mechanical employment. In his 13th year he was enabled, by saving his pocket money, to purchase a small work on astronomy, entitled ‘Martins’ Gentlemen’s and Ladies’ Philosophy,’ and it became his constant study, even while plying the shuttle.

To enable him to have an accurate knowledge of the planets described in the book, he contrived a machine for grinding a series of lenses of different foci, for simple and compound microscopes; and, purchasing from the old women in the neighbourhood of his father’s house, all their spectacle glasses for which they had no use, by the help of pasteboard tubes, he constructed for himself telescopes, and began to make observations on the heavenly bodies. His parents thought his pursuits very foolish, and frequently expressed their belief that he would never make his bread by gazing at the stars. His mother, in particular, compared him to “the folk o’ whilk the prophet speaks, wha weary themselves in the fire for very vanity.” They had the wisdom, however, to allow the youth to follow his own inclination, and at the age of sixteen he became assistant teacher in one of the schools at Dundee. With the view of going to college, he now began the study of Latin.

In 1794, being then twenty, he became a student in the university of Edinburgh, supporting himself by private teaching. In the spring of 1795 he was appointed teacher to the Orphan’s Hospital, Edinburgh, and in that situation he continued for two years, devoting himself, in his leisure hours, to the study of the scriptures, and to the perusal of books upon theological criticism. In November 1797, he was appointed teacher of the school at Dubbieside, near Leven in Fife. Thence he removed to a school at the Path of Condie, Perthshire. While in the latter place, he began to contribute to various publications, essays on the subjects most congenial to his mind and studies. In November 1800, he was invited to resume his situation as teacher in the Edinburgh Orphan’s Hospital, and in the following year he was licensed to preach in the Secession church. He officiated for several years as a probationer of that church in different parts of Scotland, but at last, at the earnest invitation of the Rev. J. Jamieson and his session, he became teacher of a school in connexion with the Secession church at Methven. In that place he instituted classes for teaching the sciences, established a people’s library, and founded what may be termed the first Mechanic’s Institute in Great Britain, having in the London Monthly Magazine proposed the establishment of these institutions six years before the foundation of any one of them in the kingdom.

After being ten years settled in Methven, he removed to an educational establishment at Perth, where he remained for ten years more. It was while residing in the “Fair City,” that he wrote his ‘Christian Philosopher,’ published in 1827, which speedily ran through several editions, each of large impression, and at the time of his death was in its eleventh. The success of this work induced him, in the 53d year of his age, to resign his position as a teacher, and to retire to Broughty Ferry, near Dundee, where, on the high grounds overlooking the Tay, he had built a cottage, in which he spent the remainder of his days. The little plot of ground around his dwelling was a barren, irregular spot, where nothing would grow, until eight thousand wheelbarrow loads of soil had been laid upon its surface by the learned philosopher himself. A room on the top of his house, with openings to the four cardinal points, was fitted up as an observatory, and in this was placed his philosophical instruments, which were both valuable and numerous.

His taking up his abode in such an elevated position excited, at the time, the wonderment of the country people around, who looked with awe upon his observatory, and speculated greatly on his reasons for dwelling so much above them. The only motive that they finally could fix upon to their own satisfaction was, that he wished to be “near the stars.” From that period, until a few years of his death, when the chill of age and the ravages of disease stayed his energies, his pen was constantly employed in preparing those numerous works in which, under different forms and by various methods, he not only, as an American divine has said, ‘brought down philosophy from heaven to earth, but raised it from earth to heaven.’

In 1828 appeared his ‘Philosophy of a Future State, which also proved a successful work. At the time of his death it had gone through five editions. In America his popularity was as great, if not greater than in this country, and the Senatus Academicus of Union College, Schenectady, state of New York, voluntarily and unanimously conferred on him the degree of doctor of laws, the diploma being sent to him, without expense, through the medium of the Rev. Dr. Sprague of Albany.

In 1837 Dr. Dick visited London, where he published his ‘Celestial Scenery.’ He availed himself of that opportunity to go over to France by way of Boulogne, visiting Versailles, and other celebrated places in that country. IN Paris he inspected the observatories and colleges, as he did afterwards, on his return, those of Cambridge.

In the spring of 1849 he was reduced to the verge of the grave by a severe illness, from the effects of which he never altogether recovered. In November of the same year he was subjected to a severe surgical operation on his breast, from which a large tumour was extracted. Through careless arrangements with his publishers he did not always receive that reward for his writing which was commensurate with their merits and popularity, and in his old age he was deprived, from the narrowness of his circumstances, of many comforts, and forced to live with the most rigid economy. Towards the end of 1849, an appeal was made, through the press, on his behalf, and a number of gentlemen in Dundee, Inverness, and other places, subscribed a small fund, from which between £20 and £30 a-year were afterwards paid him, and at the time of his death about £70 remained in hand. In a letter, written by Dr. Dick at the time, the following information was given about some of his works: -- “My writings,” he says, “have not produced so much pecuniary compensation as some have supposed, notwithstanding they have had a pretty extensive sale in this country, and much more so in America. For the entire copyright of the ‘Christian Philosopher,’ which has passed through more than ten large editions, I received only £120; while the publisher must have realized at least about £2,000 on this volume alone, and I have no claim to any further compensation. For the copyright of the ‘Philosophy of a Future State,’ which has gone through four or five editions, I received only £80, and a few copies. For the ‘Practical Astronomer,’ I received fifty guineas, and so of the rest, some larger and some smaller sums.”

An effort had been made in 1846, when Lord John Russell was first lord of the treasury, to procure a pension for Dr. Dick, which did not succeed. The memorial presented to his lordship was drawn up by P.H. Thoms, Esq., afterwards provost of Dundee, and was subscribed by Lord Duncan, Lord Kinniard, G. Duncan, Esq., M.P. for Dundee, and about half-a-dozen other official persons in that neighbourhood. Another memorial was subsequently laid before Lord John, backed by Hon. Fox Maule (eleventh earl of Dalhousie), and Mr., afterwards, Sir Francis Peto, M.P. In 1847 the application was renewed, and this time it was successful, £50 per annum having been then awarded to him. After his death it was continued to his widow. Dr. Livingstone, the celebrated traveller and missionary in Africa, in his interesting narrative, speaks very gratefully of Dick’s ‘Philosophy of Religion,’ and ‘Philosophy of a Future State,’ which he read in his youth, when a factory boy in Glasgow.

Dr. Dick died July 29, 1857, at the age of 83. His principal works are:

The Christian Philosopher, 2 vols, 1827. 10th edition, 1856.
The Philosophy of Religion; or an Illustration of the Moral Laws of the Universe. Several editions.
The Philosophy of a Future State. 1828.
The Improvement of Society by the diffusion of Knowledge; or an Illustration of the Advantages which would result from a general dissemination of rational and scientific knowledge among all ranks; with engravings.
The Mental Illumination and Moral Improvement of Mankind; or an Inquiry into the means by which a general diffusion of knowledge may be promoted; with engravings. This work illustrates, among other topics, an outline of moral and intellectual education.
Christian Beneficence contrasted with Covetousness, illustrating the means by which the world may be regenerated.
Celestial Scenery; or the Wonders of the Planetary System displayed, illustrating the perfections of Deity and a plurality of worlds. London, 1837.
The Sidereal Heavens, and other subjects connected with Astronomy, as illustrative of the character of the Deity and of an infinity of worlds. London, 1840, 12mo. 4th edition, London, 1840, 12mo.
The Practical Astronomer, comprising illustrations of Light and Colours – a practical description of all kinds of Telescopes – the use of the Equatorial, Transit, Circular, and other Astronomical Instruments – a particular account of the Earl of Rossie’s large Telescopes – and other topics connected with Astronomy. 100 cuts, 570 pages. London, 1845, 12mo.
The Solar System, adapted to beginners.
The Atmosphere, and Atmospherical Phenomena, with cuts, 192 pages.
Besides a variety of communications in literary, philosophical, and theological journals, which would occupy two moderate-sized volumes; and two or three lectures, published separately. Most of his works have gone through several editions.


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