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Significant Scots
George Sinclair


SINCLAIR, GEORGE, a well-known mathematical writer, was professor of philosophy in the university of Glasgow in the latter part of the seventeenth century. No particulars of his early life have been ascertained. He was admitted a professor of Glasgow university, April 18, 1654, [Records of the University.] and was ejected in 1662, for declining to comply with the episcopal form of church government, then thrust upon the people of Scotland. He had, in the previous year, published at Glasgow, his first known work, "Tyrocinia mathematica, in novem tractatus, viz., mathematicum, sphericum, geographicum, et echometricum, divisa," l2mo. After his ejection, he betook himself to the business of a mineral surveyor and practical engineer, and was employed in that profession by several proprietors of mines in the southern parts of Scotland, and particularly by Sir James Hope, who, having sat in Barebones’ parliament, was probably nowise averse to his presbyterian principles. In 1669, he published at Rotterdam, "Ars Nova et Magna Gravitatis et Levitatis," 4to. He was employed by the magistrates of Edinburgh, about 1670, to superintend the introduction of water from Cormiston into the city; a convenience with which the capital of Scotland had not previously been furnished. Considerable attention seems to have been paid by him to such branches of hydrostatics as were of a practical nature; and it has been said that he was the first person who suggested the proper method of draining the water from the numerous coal mines in the southwest of Scotland. In 1672, he published at Edinburgh a quarto entitled, "Hydrostaticks; or, the Force, Weight, and Pressure of Fluid Bodies, made evident by physical and sensible Experiments, together with some Miscellany Observations, the last whereof is a short history of Coal." And, in 1680, he published at the same place, in 8vo, what appears to have been a modification of the same work, "Hydrostatical Experiments, with Miscellany Observations, and a relation of an Evil Spirit; also a Discourse concerning Coal." Sinclair’s writings, in the opinion of a very able judge, are not destitute of ingenuity and research, though they may contain some erroneous and eccentric views. The work last named contained a rather strange accompaniment to a scientific treatise,—an account of the witches of Glenluce,—which, if there had been no other evidence of the fact, shows the author to have not been elevated by his acquaintance with the exact sciences above the vulgar delusions of his age. It must be recollected, however, that other learned men of that age were guilty of like follies. The self-complacency of Sinclair, and his presbyterian principles provoked the celebrated James Gregory, then a professor at St Andrews, to attack his Hydrostatics in a pamphlet published with the quaint title of the "Art of Weighing Vanity," and under the thin disguise of Patrick Mather, archbeadle of the university of St Andrews. It is curious to observe that with all his eagerness to heap ridicule on his antagonist, Gregory never once touches on what would now appear the most vulnerable point, the episode about the witches. After a long interval, Sinclair wrote an answer to Gregory, entitled, "Cacus pulled out of his den by the heels, or the pamphlet entitled, the New and Great Art of Weighing Vanity examined, and found to be a New and Great Act of Vanity." But this production was never published: it remains in manuscript in the university library at Glasgow, to which the author appears, from an inscription, to have presented it in 1692. Sinclair was among the first in Britain who attempted to measure the heights of mountains by the barometer. It is said that Hartfell, near Moffat, was the first hill in Scotland of which the height was thus ascertained. In the years 1668 and 1670, he observed the altitudes of Arthur’s Seat, Leadhills, and Tinto, above the adjacent plains. He followed the original mode of carrying a sealed tube to the top of the mountain, where, filling it with quicksilver, and inverting it in a basin, he marked the elevation of the suspended column, and repeated the same experiment below; a very rude method, certainly,—but no better was practised in England for more than thirty years afterwards. To the instrument fitted up in a frame, Sinclair first gave the name baroscope, or indicator of weight; a term afterwards changed for barometer, or measurer of weight. In these rude attempts at measuring weights by the mercurial column, the atmosphere was regarded simply as an homogeneous fluid, and possessing the same density throughout its whole mass; a supposition, which, it is needless to point out, must have led the observer wide of the truth, where the elevation was considerable.

The work by which Sinclair is now best remembered is his "Satan’s Invisible Works Discovered," which was published about the year 1685, and has since been frequently reprinted. This is a treatise on witches, ghosts, and diablerie, full of instances ancient and modern, and altogether forming a curious record of the popular notions on those subjects at the period when it appeared: it was for a long time a constituent part of every cottage library in Scotland. In Lee’s Memorials for Bible Societies in Scotland, is given the following decree of the Privy Council, in favour of Mr Sinclair’s copyright in this precious production: "Apud Edinburgh, 26 Feb., 1685. The lords of his majesties privy councill considered ane address made to them by Mr George Sinclair, late professor of philosophie at the colledge of Glasgow, and author of the book entitled ‘Satan’s Invisible Works Discovered,’ &c., doe hereby prohibite and discharge all persons whatsomever from printing, reprinting, or importing into the kingdome any copy or copies of the said book during the space of eleven zearis after the date hereof without licence of the author or his order, under the pain of confiscation thereof to the said author, besydes what further punishment we shall think fitt to inflict upon the contraveeners." The first edition contains a very curious dedication to the earl of Winton, not to be found in the rest, but which has been lately republished in the "Historie of the Hous and Name of Setoun," printed by the Maitland Club.

It is curious to find science and superstition so intimately mingled in the life of this extraordinary person. In 1688, he published at Edinburgh, in 12mo, the "Principles of Astronomy and Navigation." The only other publication attributed to him is a translation of David Dickson’s "Truth’s Victory over Error." It is hardly possible to censure delusions which seem to have been entertained with so much sincerity, and in company with such a zeal for the propagation of real knowledge.

Mr Sinclair was recalled at the Revolution to the charge from which he was expelled twenty-six years before. On the 3rd of March, 1691, the faculty of the college revived the professorship of mathematics, which had been suppressed for want of funds; and at the same time appointed Mr Sinclair to that chair. He died in 1696.


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