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Significant Scots
Anderson, John F.R.S.


John Anderson, FRSANDERSON, JOHN, F.R.S. professor of natural philosophy in the university of Glasgow, and founder of the eminently useful institution, bearing his name, in that city, was born in the parish of Roseneath in Dumbartonshire, in the year 1726. He was the eldest son of the reverend James Anderson, minister of Roseneath, who was, in his turn, the eldest son of the reverend John Anderson, preceptor to John Duke of Argyle, afterwards minister of the gospel at Dumbarton, and whose memoir is given in the preceding article. The subject of this memoir, having the misfortune to lose his father in early life, was educated by his aunt Mrs Turner, widow of one of the ministers of the High church of Stirling. While residing in this town, where he received the rudiments of learning, he appeared as an officer in the burgher corps raised in February, 1746, to defend it against the forces of the young Chevalier. His conduct on this occasion was worthy of his distinguished ancestor, from whose example he appears to have derived that attachment to the principles of civil and religious liberty, which marked his character through life. The carabine and other arms which he carried on the walls of Stirling are preserved in the museum connected with his institution at Glasgow. He received the more advanced part of his education at the college of Glasgow, where, in 1756, he was appointed to be professor of oriental languages, being then in the thirtieth year of his age.

It was not in this sphere that Mr Anderson was destined to shine with greatest luster. His mind had a decided bent towards the exact sciences, and to the illustration of the arts with which they are connected. His translation, therefore, to the chair of natural philosophy, which took place in 1769, was an event highly agreeable to him, and also most fortunate for the world. While he took an early opportunity after this event, to fulfil an important private duty, by re-paying his aunt for the expenses of his education, he entered upon the business of his class with an enthusiastic ardour of application, which we may safely pronouce to have been without example in any Scottish university. Not contented with the ordinary duty of delivering a course of lectures - though he performed that duty in a manner alone sufficient to obtain distinction - he was indefatigable in studying and exemplifying the application of science to mechanical practice; visiting, for this purpose, the workshops of artisans in the town, and receiving, in return for the scientific doctrine which he had to communicate, a full equivalent of experimental knowledge. The most estimable characteristic of professor Anderson, was a liberal and diffusive benevolence in regard to the instruction of his race. Under the inspiration of this feeling, which was in that age more rare, and therefore more meritorious than it is at present, he instituted, in addition to his usual class, which was strictly mathematical, one for the working classes, and others whose pursuits did not enable them to conform to the prescribed routine of academical study, illustrating his precepts by experiments, so as to render it in the highest degree attractive. He continued to teach this anti-toga class, as he called it, twice every week, during the session, to the end of his life; and it would not be easy to estimate the aggregate of good which he thus rendered to his fellow-creatures. As an instance of the liberal good sense by which he was governed in his eminently useful scheme, it is related that, a mechanic having complained to his assistant, that he had scarcely time, after leaving his work, to change his dress before coming to the class, and having suggested the propriety of the operatives being allowed to attend without such change, Mr Anderson, being apprized of the wish so expressed, at once acceded to it. His was a mind too strongly bent on mere usefulness, to regard empty form. Yet, as a lecturer, he is allowed to have himself exhibited a surpassing elegance of manner. His style was easy and graceful, his command of language unlimited, and the skill and success with which his manifold experiments were performed, could not be surpassed. He excited the interest, and attracted the attention of his pupils, by the numerous and appropriate anecdotes with which he illustrated and enlivened his lectures. Enthusiastic in his profession, his whole ambition and happiness consisted in making himself useful to mankind, by the dissemination of useful knowledge; and nothing afforded him purer pleasure than hearing that any of his pupils had distinguished themselves in the world. The only distinct work which he published in connection with his favourite science, was a valuable one, entitled, "Institutes of Physics," which appeared in 1786, and went through five editions during the next ten years.

At the commencement of those political changes in France, which ended in such unhappy results, Mr Anderson, as might have been predicated from his ardently liberal and enlightened character, was among those who sympathized most warmly with the proceedings of the emancipated people. Previous to that period, he had prosecuted a taste for the military art, and invented a species of gun, the recoil of which was stopped by the condensation of common air, within the body of the carriage. Having in vain endeavoured to attract the attention of the British government to this invention, he went to Paris, in 1791, carrying with him a model, which he presented to the national Convention. The government party in France at once perceived the benefit which would be derived from this invention, and order Mr Anderson’s model to be hung up in their hall, with the following inscription over it – "THE GIFT OF SCIENCE TO LIBERTY." Whilst he was in France, he got a six-pounder made from his model, with which he made numerous experiments in the neighbourhood of Paris, at which the famous Paul Jones, amongst others, was present; and who gave his decided approbation of the gun, as likely to prove highly useful in landing troops from boats, or firing from the round tops or poops of ships of war. Mr Anderson, at this period, took a keen interest in the transactions which passed before his eyes. He was present when Louis XVI. was brought back from Varennes; and on the 14th of July, on the top of the altar of liberty, and in the presence of half a million of Frenchmen, he sang Te Deum with the bishop of Paris, when the king took the oath to the Constitution, amen being said to the ceremony for the discharge of five hundred pieces of artillery. As the Emperor of Germany had drawn a military cordon around the frontiers of France, to prevent the introduction of French newspapers into Germany, he suggested the expedient of making small balloons of paper, varnished with boiled oil, and filled with inflammable air, to which newspapers and manifestoes might be tied. This was accordingly practiced, and when the wind was favourable for Germany, they were sent off, and descending in that country, where, with their appendages, picked up by the people. They carried a small flag or streamer, of which the following is a translation:-

"O’er hills and dales, and limes of hostile troops, I float majestic,
Bearing the laws of God and Nature to oppressed men,
And bidding them with arms their rights maintain."

Mr Anderson died, January 13th, 1796, in the 70th year of his age, and the 41st year of his professorship, directing, by his will, dated May 7th, 1795, that the whole of his effects of every kind, should be devoted to the establishment of an educational institution in Glasgow, to be denominated Anderson’s University, for the use of the unacademical classes; so that, even while he was consigned to the silent dust, he might still, by means of his honourably acquired wealth, prove of service to those whom he had benefited so much, during his own life, by personal exertion. His will was carried into effect on the 9th of June following, by the magistrates granting a charter of incorporation to the proposed institution. According to the design of the founder, there were to be four colleges – for arts, medicine, law, and theology – besides an initiatory school. Each college was to consist of nine professors, the senior professor being the president or dean. As the funds, however, were inadequate to the plan, it was at first commenced with only a single course of lectures on natural philosophy and chemistry, by Dr Thomas Garnett, well known for his numerous scientific and medical works, and also for his "Tour through the Highlands and part of the Western Isles of Scotland." This course was attended for the first year by nearly a thousand persons of both sexes. In 1798, a professor of mathematics and geography was appointed. The splendid apparatus and library of the founder, which were valued at 3000 pounds, added greatly to the advantages of the infant institution. In 1799, Dr Garnett, being appointed professor in the Royal Institution at London, was succeeded by the eminent Dr Birbeck, who, in addition to the branches taught by his predecessor, introduced a familiar system of philosophical and mechanical information to five hundred operative mechanics, free of all expense, thus giving rise to Mechanics’ Institution. The Andersonian institution was placed, by the will of the founder, under the inspection and control of the Lord Provost, and many other honourable persons, as ordinary visitors, and under the more immediate superintendence of eighty-one trustees, who are elected by ballot, and remain in office for life. Since the first establishment of the University, as it may very properly be called, it has gradually been extended, nearer and nearer to the original design of the founder. There are now (1852) fifteen professors, who deliver lectures on surgery, institutes of medicine, chemistry, practical chemistry, midwifery, practice of medicine, anatomy, materia medica, pharmacy, and dietetics, medical jurisprudence and police, mathematics, natural philosophy, botany, logic, geography, modern languages, English literature, drawing, and painting, &c. The institution now possesses handsome and commodious buildings, which belong to the corporation, and, among other additions to its means of cultivating and illustrating science, is an extensive museum of natural history and antiquities. Anderson’s University must be considered a wonderful example of the amount of good which one man, of no very great material resources, may do for his kind. The private fortune of one professor in the original college of Glasgow has here been found sufficient to produce a new fount of learning, not unworthy to rank with the old, and of very great practical utility to the public.

A posthumous work of professor Anderson, entitled, "Observations on Roman Antiquities between the Forth and Clyde," appeared in 1804.

Note: The University of Strathclyde was chartered in 1964, but its history goes back to 1796 when it was founded as Anderson's Institution, a school of science and technology. The Andersonian Library was named for John Anderson, scholar and founder of the university. The library holds some 850,000 volumes. Special collections include works by Mr. Anderson, as well as science and technology and business studies. The University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, Scotland, entered the 32 millionth bibliographic record into the OCLC Online Union Catalog, becoming the first institution outside the United States to enter a gold record.


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