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Significant Scots
James Glennie


GLENNIE, JAMES, a distinguished geometrician, a native of Fife, was born in 1750. His father was an officer in the army, and saw much severe service. Glennie received the rudiments of his education at a parochial school, and was afterwards removed to the university of St Andrews, where he made considerable proficiency in the Greek and Latin languages, but early discovered a strong and peculiar propensity to the sciences in general, but more particularly to geometry, a branch which he pursued with such zeal and success as to carry off two successive prizes in the mathematical class, when he was only 19 years of age. Glennie was originally intended for the church, and with this view; attended the divinity class, where he also distinguished himself, becoming a keen polemic and theologian, and an acute and able disputant. Whether, however, from his finding a difficulty in obtaining a church, or from the impulse of his own disposition, he abandoned the idea of entering into holy orders, and chose rather to seek his fortune in the army. Through the interest of the earl of Kinnoul, then chancellor of the university of St Andrews and of the professors of that university, to whom Glennie’s talents had strongly recommended him, he obtained a commission in the artillery, a branch of the service for which his geometrical knowledge eminently fitted him. On the breaking out of the American war, in 1775, Glennie embarked for that country with the troops sent out by the mother country to co-operate with those already there, in the suppression of the insurgents. On his arrival, now a lieutenant of artillery, he was placed under the command of general St Leger; his reputation however, as a promising officer and skilful engineer, was already so great, that he was left in full command of his own particular department. Throughout the whole campaign which followed, he conducted all his operations with such judgment and intrepidity, as to attract the notice of the marquis of Townshend, who, without solicitation or any interest whatever being made, transferred Glennie to the engineers; and this flattering circumstance, together with the reasons annexed, were certified in the London Gazette. In 1779, he was further gratified by being nominated one of the thirty practitioner engineers, and appointed second, and soon after first lieutenant. So active and industrious were Glennie’s habits, that even while engaged in the arduous and dangerous duties of his profession in America, he wrote a number of important papers on abstruse subjects. These he transmitted to the Royal Society, where they were read and deemed so valuable, as to procure him the honour of being elected a member, and that, as in the care of the celebrated Dr Franklin, without fees, and even without his knowledge.

On his return to England, Mr Glennie married Miss Mary Anne Locke, daughter of the store-keeper at Plymouth.

The good fortune, however, which had hitherto attended Glennie, and the prosperous career which apparently lay still before him, were now about to close in darkness and disappointment. The first blow to Glennie’s hopes of future promotion, proceeded from a circumstance sufficiently remarkable in itself: The duke of Richmond, who, was at the time of Glennie’s return from America, master general of the Board of Ordnance, in which he had displaced Glennie’s early patron the marquis of Townshend, had conceived the absurd idea of fortifying all our naval arsenals, and of forming lines of defence on the coast, instead of increasing the navy, and trusting to that arm for protection against a foreign enemy. The Duke was much opposed on this point in parliament; but as it was a favourite idea, he persevered, and supported as he was by the influence and eloquence of Pitt, would have carried the measure, but for the skill and talent of a subaltern of artillery; and that subaltern, who coped successfully with a minister of state on a great national question, was Glennie.

The duke of Richmond, aware of Glennie’s talents in the sciences of gunnery and fortification, frequently and anxiously endeavoured to obtain his approbation of his plans; with more candour than wisdom, however, he not only steadfastly withheld this approbation, but unhesitatingly declared them to be absurd and impracticable. Glennie’s early patron, the marquis of Townshend, knowing the former’s opinion of the duke of Richmond’s plans, invited him to his residence, where he detained him until he had composed, which he did at the marquis’s request, a pamphlet on the subject. The pamphlet, which was written with great ability and discovered a profound knowledge of the matter of which it treated, was immediately published, and produced a prodigious effect. It instantly opened the eyes of the public to the absurdity of the minister’s ideas: his projects were overturned, and the country was saved; but Glennie was ruined.

In this celebrated pamphlet, which is simply entitled "A Short Essay," it was demonstrated that extensive lines produce prolonged weakness, not strength, and showed that troops are much more formidable as an active and movable force, than as an inert body, cooped up in fortifications. It showed further, that the sum (calculated at 40 or 50 millions) which should be required to carry the duke’s plans into effect, was more than would be necessary to build a new and complete fleet, superior to that of any power on earth. Besides all this, it was shown, that it would require 22,000 soldiers for the intended fortifications of Portsmouth and Plymouth alone.

Glennie, perceiving that all hopes of further promotion were now at an end, resigned his commission and emigrated to British America with his wife and children. Here he purchased a tract of land, and soon afterwards became a contractor for ship timber and masts for government. The speculation failed, and both Glennie himself, and a partner, a wealthy man who had joined him in it, were ruined. Driven back to England, but now, as many years had elapsed, forgotten and without friends, Glennie applied to the earl, of Chatham, who recognizing his merits, but unable to do more for him, retained rather than employed him as "engineer extraordinary." Soon after, however, he procured Glennie the appointment, of instructor to the East India Company’s young artillery officers, with salary and emoluments amounting to 400 per annum. Glennie’s good fortune was, however, again but of short duration. He was summoned as an evidence on some points in the celebrated trial of the duke of York and Mrs Clarke; his evidence was unfavourable to the duke; the consequence was, that he soon afterwards received an official letter from the board of directors, dispensing with his services.

In 1812, Glennie, now in the 62d year of his age, went out to Copenhagen at the request of a gentleman who then held a seat in parliament, to negotiate the purchase of a certain plantation. Glennie, having set out on his mission without coming to any explicit terms with his employer, his claim for compensation on his return was disputed, and referred to arbitration; but the referees could not agree, and the matter therefore was never adjusted. Glennie, now in an exceedingly destitute condition, without friends who could assist him, his health destroyed, and himself far advanced in life, made an unsuccessful attempt to procure a few mathematical pupils, and finally died of apoplexy on the 23d November, 1817, in the 67th year of his age. His remains were interred in the church-yard of St Martin’s in the Fields.

Amongst other proofs of Glennie’s geometrical knowledge is to be found a solution of Dr Matthew Stewart’s "42d proposition on 39th theorem," which had remained unsolved and had puzzled the learned for 65 years; and also a demonstration of the impossibility of "Squaring the circle," a question which has long excited public curiosity, and which it is said engaged the attention and eluded the research of the great Newton.


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