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Significant Scots
James Short

SHORT, JAMES, an eminent optician and constructor of reflecting telescopes, was the son of William Short, a joiner in Edinburgh, where he was born on the 10th of June, 1710. The Christian name, James, was conferred upon him, in consequence of his having thus been ushered into the world on the birth-day of the Pretender. Having lost his parents in early life, he was entered, at the age of ten, on the foundation of George Heriot, where he rendered himself a favourite among his companions, by his talent for fabricating little articles in joinery. At twelve years old, he began to attend the High School for classical literature, in which he distinguished himself so greatly, that a pious grandmother determined to devote him to the church. He actually commenced a course of attendance at the university for this purpose, in 1726, took his degree of master of arts, attended the divinity ball, and in 1731 passed the usual trials preparatory to his being licensed as a preacher of the gospel; when his natural taste for mechanics, receiving excitement from an attendance at Mr Maclaurin’s mathematical class, induced him to turn back from the very threshold of the church, and apply himself to a different profession. He very quickly attracted the favourable attention of the illustrious expositor of Newton, who invited him frequently to his house, in order to observe his capacity more narrowly, and encouraged him to proceed in the new line of life which he had embraced. In 1732, Maclaurin permitted Short to use his rooms in the college for his apparatus, and kindly superintended all his proceedings. Two years after, in a letter to Dr Turin, he takes notice of the proficiency of Mr Short, in the casting and polishing of the metallic specula of reflecting telescopes. The young mathematician had already improved greatly upon the construction of the Gregorian telescope. The figure which he gave to his great specula was parabolic; not, however, by any rule or canon, but by practice and mechanical devices, joined to an exact knowledge of the principles of optics. The improvement had been pointed out by Newton, as the most necessary attainment for the perfection of those instruments. In 1736, he had obtained so much distinction by his acquirements, as to be called by queen Caroline to give instructions in mathematics to her second son, the duke of Cumberland. On leaving Edinburgh for this purpose, he deposited 500, which he had already saved from his gains, in the bank of Scotland. In London, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and was much patronized by the earls of Morton and Macclesfield. Towards the end of the year, he returned to Edinburgh, and resumed the usual course of his profession. Three years afterwards, he accompanied the earl of Morton on a progress to his lordship’s possessions in Orkney, for the purpose of adjusting the geography of that remote archipelago; while the laird of Macfarlane accompanied the party, as a surveyor of antiquities. After that business had been concluded, Mr Short accompanied the earl to London, where he finally settled, and for some years carried on an extensive practice in the construction of telescopes and other optical instruments. One of the former, containing a reflector of twelve feet focus, was made for lord Thomas Spencer, at six hundred guineas; another of still greater extent, and the largest which had till then been constructed, was made for the king of Spain, at 1200. Mr Short died, June 15, 1768, of mortification in the bowels, leaving a fortune of 20,000.

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