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The Scottish Nation

ROBISON, JOHN, 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 was discontinued.

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.

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