LL.D., a distinguished mechanical philosopher, was born at Boghall,
Stirlingshire, in 1739. His father, of the same name, a respectable
merchant in Glasgow, had acquired some fortune in business, and
purchased the estate of Boghall, where he resided during the latter
period of his life. Young Robison received his education at the grammar
school and university of Glasgow, and completed his academical studies
before he was nineteen. He was originally intended for the church, but
early manifested a peculiar predilection for the mathematical sciences.
IN 1758 he went to London, with the view of applying for the situation
of mathematic instructor to the young duke of York, at that time
intended for the navy; but being disappointed, as his royal highness was
not going to sea, he accepted the office of tutor to the son of Admiral
Knowles, who, as midshipman, was then about to accompany the expedition
under General Wolfe, for the reduction of Quebec. Besides instructing
his pupil in mathematics and navigation, he was employed in making
surveys of the coasts and harbours on the river St. Lawrence, having
been rated as a midshipman on board the Royal William, in which his
pupil was soon made a lieutenant. After quitting that situation, he was,
by Admiral Knowles, recommended to Lord Anson, then first lord of the
admiralty, and in 1762 was appointed by the Board of Longitude to
proceed to Jamaica on a trial voyage, to take charge of the chronometer
recently completed by Mr. Harrison, the celebrated horologist. On his
return, finding no prospect of promotion in the navy, in 1763 he went
back to Glasgow, and resumed his studies, devoting himself more
particularly to mechanical philosophy. At this period he formed an
intimacy with the celebrated James Watt, then employed in perfecting the
steam-engine. In 1766, when Dr. Black was called to Edinburgh, Mr.
Robison was, on his recommendation, appointed by the university of
Glasgow to succeed him as lecturer on chemistry, without the appointment
of a professor, and for about four years he accordingly read lectures on
that science. In 1770 his friend Admiral Knowles having been recommended
by the British government to the empress of Russia as a fit person to
superintend the improvement of her navy, was appointed president of the
Russian board of admiralty, and invited Mr. Robison to accompany him to
St. Petersburg as his private secretary, with a salary of £250 a-year.
This situation he accepted, and in 1772 he was appointed by the empress
inspector-general of the marine cadet corps of nobles at Cronstadt, with
the rank of colonel. He relinquished that office in 1773, on being
offered by the magistrates and town council of Edinburgh the vacant
chair of natural philosophy in that city. The empress parted with him
reluctantly, and requested that he would undertake the charge of two or
three of the cadets, promising him for his care of them a pension of 400
rubles, or £80 a-year. During three years that the young men resided in
Edinburgh, the pension was regularly paid, but after their departure it
In the winter of 1774 he
commenced the duties of his professorship at Edinburgh. His lectures
were universally allowed to be distinguished for the extent and value of
the information communicated, rather than for perspicuity of style or
liveliness of illustration. In 1783, when the Royal Society of Edinburgh
was incorporated by royal charter, Dr. Robison was elected the general
secretary, and discharged the functions to their entire satisfaction. A
few years before his death, bad health obliged him to resign the
situation. To the Transactions of that learned body he contributed
several very interesting papers. In 1798 he received the degree of LL.D.
from the university of New Jersey, America; and in 1799 the university
of Glasgow conferred on him a similar honour. After the death of Dr.
Black, he published in 1799 the lectures of that great chemical
discoverer, with notes, a copy of which he sent to the emperor of
Russia, and received in return a box set with diamonds, with a letter of
thanks. He died January 30, 1805. His works are:
Proofs of a Conspiracy
against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the
Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies;
collected from good authorities. 2d edition, corrected, to which is
added, a Postscript. Edin. 1797, 8vo.
Elements of Mechanical Philosophy, being the Substance of a Course of
Lectures on that Science; vol. i. including Dynamics and Astronomy. Edin.
1804, 8vo. With Plates.
The Orbit and Motion of the Georgium Sidus. Trans. Soc. Edin. 1788, vol.
i. Ib. 1790, vol. ii. 37.
On the Motion of Light, as affected by refracting and reflecting
Substances which are in motion. Ib. 83.
Dr. Robison furnished some most valuable contributions to the 3d edition
of the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica.’ And to the Supplement to the same
work, which was superintended by his friend Dr. Gleig.
A collected edition of his works, with additions and annotations, was
published in 1822, in 4 vols. 8vo, edited by Dr. Brewster.