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Significant Scots
Dr John Robison


ROBISON, (DR) JOHN, an eminent mechanical philosopher, and professor of natural philosophy in the university of Edinburgh, was the son of John Robison, a merchant in Glasgow, and was born there in the year 1739. [Memoir of Professor Playfair: Trans. Royal Society, Edinburgh, vii. 495.] The first part of his education he received at the grammar school of Glasgow, whence he entered as a student of the university of Glasgow so early as the year 1750, and took the degree of master of arts in 1756. What progress he made in his early studies is not known, and in after life he used to speak lightly of his early proficiency, and accuse himself of want of application. In the year following his graduation, he made a proposal to be appointed assistant to Mr Dick, professor of natural philosophy, in place of the son of that gentleman, who had just died; but was considered too young for the important duty. At that time his friends had wished him to study for the church; but, preferring some duty in which his mechanical pursuits might be indulged, he turned his eyes towards London. Professor Dick and Dr Simson sent along with him recommendations to Dr Blair, Prebendary of Westminster, who might have had influence to procure for him the situation of tutor in mathematics and navigation to the duke of York, younger son of Frederick, prince of Wales, whom there was then some intention of educating for the navy. The plan was given up, and Robison received a severe disappointment, but the event served as his introduction to an excellent friend, admiral Knowles, a gentleman whose son was to have attended the duke on his voyage. Young Mr Knowles’ nautical education was not to be given up with that of the duke, and his father perceiving Robison’s knowledge of mechanical philosophy, employed him to take charge of the instruction of his son while at sea. Mr Robison sailed from Spithead in 1759, with the fleet, which assisted the land forces in the taking of Quebec. His pupil was a midshipman in the admiral’s ship, in which he was himself rated of the same rank. Two years of such active service as followed this expedition enabled Robison to make many observations, and collect a fund of practical knowledge, while he was sometimes usefully employed in making surveys. On his return on the third of August, he was a sufferer from the sea scurvy, which had disabled the greater part of the crew. At this time Mr Robison seems to have had a surfeit of a sailor’s life, one which, however pleasing for a limited time, as serving to exemplify his favourite studies, possessed perhaps few charms as a profession, to a man of studious habits. He intended to resume the discarded study of theology; but an invitation from admiral Knowles to live with him in the country, and assist in his experiments, prevailed. "What these experiments were," says Mr Robison’s biographer, "is not mentioned; but they probably related to ship-building, a subject which the admiral had studied with great attention." He had not been thus situated many months, when his young friend and pupil lieutenant Knowles, was appointed to the command of the Peregrine sloop of war of 20 guns, and probably from a passion for the sea recurring after recovery from his disorder, and a residence in the country, Robison accompanied him. At this period his ambition seems to have been limited to the situation of purser to his friend’s vessel. On his return from a voyage, during which he visited Lisbon before the traces of the great earthquake had been effaced, he again took up his residence with admiral Knowles. By his patron he was soon afterwards recommended to lord Anson, then first lord of the admiralty, who conceived him a fit person to take charge of the chronometer constructed, after many years of patient labour, by Mr Harrison, on a trial voyage to the West Indies, in which its accuracy was to be tried, at the suggestion of the Board of Longitude. On the return, which was hastened by the dread of a Spanish invasion of St Domingo, Mr Robison suffered all the hardships of the most adventurous voyage, from the rudder being broken in a gale of wind to the ship’s catching fire, and being with difficulty extinguished. The result of the observation was satisfactory, the whole error from first setting sail, on a comparison with observations at Portsmouth, being only 1’ 53 ½", a difference which would produce very little effect in calculations of longitude for ordinary practical purposes. For the reward of his services Mr Robison had made no stipulation, trusting to the consideration of government; but he was disappointed. Lord Anson was in his last illness, admiral Knowles was disgusted with the admiralty and the ministry, and the personal applications unaided by interest which he was obliged to make, were met with a cold silence which irritated his mind. It appears that at this period the reward he sought was the comparatively humble appointment of purser to a ship. In 1763, such a situation was offered to him by lord Sandwich, then first lord of the admiralty, in a vessel of 40 guns, which it is probable that a dawning of brighter prospects prompted him, certainly not to the regret of his admirers, to decline. Notwithstanding his having been connected with a branch of society not generally esteemed propitious to clerical pursuits, he is said to have still felt a lingering regard for the church, and to have adhered to his friends in the navy, solely from the better chance of advancement, because, as his biographer with unquestionable truth observes, "it lay more in the way of the Board of Longitude to help one to promotion in the navy than in the church." He returned to Glasgow, and renewing an acquaintance long since commenced with Dr Black, entered with ardour on the new views in chemistry connected with the existence of latent heat, which his eminent friend was beginning to divulge to the world. He at the same time commenced an intimacy with Mr Watt, and was so far acquainted with his proceedings, as to be able to certify the justice of his claim to those vast improvements in the steam engine, which a singular accident had been the means of suggesting to his genius. At the recommendation of Dr Black, Robison was appointed his successor in the chemical chair of Glasgow, which, in 1766, he had relinquished for that of Edinburgh. After continuing four years in this situation, one of a novel and uncommon character presented itself for his acceptance. The empress of Russia had made a request to the government of Britain, for the service of some able and experienced naval officers to superintend the reformation of her marine. With more liberality than generally characterizes the intercourse of nations, the request was agreed to, and Mr Robison’s tried friend, admiral Knowles, was appointed president of the Russian Board of Admiralty. It had been his intention to recommend Robison for the situation of official secretary to the Board, but finding such an office incompatible with the constitution of the Russian Board, he contrived to engage his services to the public, in the capacity of his private secretary, and in the end of December, 1770, both proceeded over land to St Petersburgh. For a year after his arrival, he assisted the admiral in forcing on the attention of the Russians such improvements in ship-building, rigging, and navigation, as their prejudices would allow them to be taught by foreigners, backed by the influence of government. Meanwhile he had sedulously studied the Russian language, and in the summer of 1772, the reputation of his accomplishments induced the offer of the vacant mathematical chair attached to the Sea cadet corps of nobles at Cronstadt. On his acceptance of the appointment, his predecessor’s salary was doubled, and he was raised to the rank of colonel, an elevation to which he could not step with proper Russian grace, without producing such documents as bore the appearance of evidence to the nobility of his birth. Besides his duties as mathematical professor, he acted in the room of general Politika, who had retired, as inspector-general of the corps; a duty in which he had to inspect the conduct and labours of about forty teachers. He did not long remain in this situation.

In 1773, from the death of Dr Russel, a vacancy occurred in the natural philosophy chair of Edinburgh, which the patrons, at the instigation of principal Robertson, invited Mr Robison to fill. On hearing of this invitation, prospects of a still more brilliant nature were held out to him by the empress: he hesitated for some time, but, being apart from such society as even the more enlightened parts of Russia afforded, he finally preferred the less brilliant, but more pleasing offer from his native country, and in June, 1777, he set sail from Cronstadt to Leith. The empress, on his departure, requested that he would undertake the care of two or three of the cadets, who were to be elected in succession, and promised him a pension of 400 rubles or £80 a-year. The pension was paid for three years, and is supposed to have been discontinued because Robison had not communicated to the Russian government the progressive improvements in British marine education. In the winter of 1774, he commenced his lectures in Edinburgh. "The sciences of mechanics," says his biographer, "hydrodynamics, astronomy, and optics, together with electricity and magnetism, were the subjects which his lectures embraced. These were given with great fluency and precision of language, and with the introduction of a good deal of mathematical demonstration. His manner was grave and dignified. His views, always ingenious and comprehensive, were full of information, and never more interesting and instructive than when they touched upon the history of science. His lectures, however, were often complained of as difficult and hard to be followed; and this did not, in my opinion, arise from the depth of the mathematical demonstrations, as was sometimes said, but rather from the rapidity of his discourse, which was generally beyond the rate at which accurate reasoning can be easily followed. The singular facility of his own apprehension, made him judge too favourably of the same power in others. To understand his lectures completely, was, on account of the rapidity and the uniform flow of his discourse, not a very easy task, even for men tolerably familiar with the subject. On this account, his lectures were less popular than might have been expected from such a combination of rare talents as the author of them possessed." Mr Robison had exerted himself with zeal in the revival of that association of philosophers, which merged itself into the Royal Society of Edinburgh; and on its being incorporated by royal charter in 1783, he was appointed secretary; an office in which he signalized himself, by attention to the interests of the society. In March, 1786, he read to the society a paper, entitled "Determination of the Orbit and Motion of the Georgium Sidus, directly from Observations." In this paper, he is generally understood by scientific men to have with some haste drawn conclusions for which the limited time during which Herschel’s newly discovered planet had been observed by philosophers, did not afford data. His next paper to the society, "On the Motion of Light, as affected by Refracting and Reflecting Substances, which are themselves in Motion," was of more utility to science. In December, 1785, he began to be attacked by a chronic disease, which gradually undermined his health, but did not for some time interrupt his ordinary labours. Twelve volumes of the third and much enlarged edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica had been published, when the editor turned his eyes on Mr Robison, as a person likely to give it lustre from his scientific knowledge. He commenced his contributions with the article "Optics," in 1793, and contributed a variety of useful treatises, till the completion of the work in 1801. His biographer remarks, that "he was the first contributor who was professedly a man of science; and from that time the Encyclopedia Britannica ceased to be a mere compilation." The observation must be received with limitations in both its branches. To the Supplement, he contributed the articles "Electricity" and "Magnetism." At the period while he was acquiring fame by his physical researches, he chose to stretch his studies into a branch of knowledge, which he handled with scarcely so much effect. Along with many people, among whom a philosopher is always to be found with regret, a panic that the whole "system," as it was termed, of society, was in progress of demolition by the French revolution, seized on his mind. He strayed from more accordant subjects, to look for the causes of all the confusion, and had the merit of attracting some of the maddened attention of the period, by finding an untrodden path, which led him farther from the highway than any other speculator had ventured. In 1797, he published "Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe." This work is now forgotten; and it will serve for little more than amusement to know, that the crimes, so evidently prompted by forcibly carrying the usages and exclusions of a dark age, when the people respected them, into an age when they were not respected, were traced to the machinations of the illuminati and free masons. Professor Robison had the merit of quoting authorities not much read, and in the inflamed feelings of the period, the secrecy of the sources, instead of proving a prima facie objection to the probability that a tissue of open national outrages, prompted by passion, and unguided by pre-arranged motive, could be the consequence of what was so carefully concealed, or rather overlooked, served to inflame the spirit of mystery, which other branches of literature were then fostering; and the book was rapidly sold to the extent of four editions, and was greedily read. In an age which has acquired the power of influencing masses of men by public opinions, secret tenets or intentions do not acquire numerous followers. That there were some grounds in opinion, and even in intention for many of the statements of Mr Robison, may be granted; but a few German enthusiasts, pleased with mysticism, were the only conspirators, and the appalling statements in the works which he used as authorities, were from men still more given to credulity, than the persons of whom they spoke were to mystery.

In 1799, professor Robison was employed in the difficult task of preparing for the press the manuscript lectures and notes of Dr Black, who had just died. "Dr Black," says Robison’s biographer, "had used to read his lectures from notes, and these often but very imperfect, and ranged in order by marks and signs only known to himself. The task of editing them was, therefore, difficult, and required a great deal both of time and labour; but was at last accomplished in a manner to give great satisfaction." Meanwhile, however, the discoveries of Dr Black had produced many alterations in chemistry, and the science had assumed a new aspect. Among other things, the new nomenclature of Lavoisier, had been almost universally received, and rendered any work which did not adopt it, antiquated, and comparatively useless. It was supposed that Robison, with some labour, but without any injustice to the labours of his friend, might have adopted it; but he preferred the system in the original: a choice attributed by some to respect for the memory of his friend, and by others to prejudice. He sent a copy of his publication to the emperor of Russia, and received in return a box set in diamonds, and a letter of thanks.

Professor Robison had long intended to digest his researches into a work, to be entitled "Elements of Mechanical Philosophy, being the Substance of a Course of Lectures on that science." The first volume of this work, containing Dynamics and Astronomy, he published in 1804; but he did not live to complete it. In the end of January, 1805, he yielded to the lingering disorder, which had long oppressed his body, before it enervated his mind. His biographer gives the following account of his character. "He possessed many accomplishments rarely to be met with in a scholar, or a man of science. He had great skill and taste in music, and was a performer on several instruments. He was an excellent draughtsman, and could make his pencil a valuable instrument, either of record or invention. When a young man, he was gay, convivial, and facetious, and his vers de societé flowed, I have been told, easily and with great effect. His appearance and manner were in a high degree favourable and imposing: his figure handsome, and his face expressive of talent, thought, gentleness, and good temper. When I had first the pleasure to become acquainted with him, the youthful turn of his countenance and manners was beginning to give place to the grave and serious cast, which he early assumed; and certainly I have never met with any one whose appearance and conversation were more impressive than his were at that period. Indeed, his powers of conversation were very extraordinary, and, when exerted, never failed of producing a great effect. An extensive and accurate information of particular facts, and a facility of combining them into general and original views, were united in a degree, of which I am persuaded there have been few examples. Accordingly, he would go over the most difficult subjects, and bring out the most profound remarks, with an ease and readiness which was quite singular. The depth of his observations seemed to cost him nothing: and when he said any thing particularly striking, you never could discover any appearance of the self-satisfaction so common on such occasions. He was disposed to pass quite readily from one subject to another; the transition was a matter of course, and he had perfectly, and apparently without seeking after it, that light and easy turn of conversation, even on scientific and profound subjects, in which we of this island are charged by our neighbours with being so extremely deficient. The same facility, and the same general tone, were to be seen in his lectures and his writings. He composed with singular facility and correctness, but was sometimes, when he had leisure to be so, very fastidious about his own compositions. In the intercourse of his life, he was benevolent, disinterested, and friendly, and of sincere and unaffected piety. In his interpretation of the conduct of others, he was fair and liberal, while his mind retained its natural tone, and had not yielded to the alarms of the French Revolution, and to the bias which it produced."

Mr Robison’s various works, printed and unprinted, were, after his death, put into the hands of professor Playfair; but that gentleman finding that he could not devote his time sufficiently to them, they were afterwards published, with notes, by Dr Brewster, in four volumes octavo, 1822. This work consists of some manuscript papers on Projectiles and Corpuscular Action, and the papers which the author prepared for the Encyclopedia Britannica, abridged of some of their digressions.


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