Dick, Thomas (DNB00)
|←Dick, Robert Henry||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 15
DICK, THOMAS (1774–1857), scientific writer, was born in the Hilltown, Dundee, on 24 Nov. 1774. He was brought up in the strict tenets of the Secession church of Scotland, and his father, Mungo Dick, a small linen manufacturer, designed him for his own trade. But the appearance of a brilliant meteor impressed him, when in his ninth year, with a passion for astronomy; he read, sometimes even when seated at the loom, every book on the subject within his reach; begged or bought some pairs of old spectacles, contrived a machine for grinding them to the proper shape, and, having mounted them in pasteboard tubes, began celestial observations. His parents, at first afflicted by his eccentricities, left him at sixteen to choose his own way of life. He became assistant in a school at Dundee, and in 1794 entered the university of Edinburgh, supporting himself by private tuition. His philosophical and theological studies terminated, he set up a school, took out a license to preach in 1801, and officiated as probationer during some years at Stirling and elsewhere. An invitation from the patrons to act as teacher in the Secession school at Methven led to a ten years' residence there, distinguished by efforts on his part towards popular improvement, including a zealous promotion of the study of science, the foundation of a ‘people's library,’ and of what was substantially a mechanics' institute. Under the name of ‘Literary and Philosophical Societies, adapted to the middling and lower ranks of the community,’ the extension of such establishments was recommended by him in five papers published in the ‘Monthly Magazine’ in 1814; and, a year or two later, a society was organised near London on the principles there laid down, of which he was elected an honorary member.
On leaving Methven, Dick spent another decade as a teacher at Perth. During this interval he made his first independent appearance as an author. ‘The Christian Philosopher, or the Connexion of Science and Philosophy with Religion,’ was published in 1823. It ran quickly through several editions, the eighth appearing at Glasgow in 1842. Its success determined Dick's vocation to literature. He finally gave up school-teaching in 1827, and built himself a small cottage, fitted up with an observatory and library, on a hill overlooking the Tay at Broughty Ferry, near Dundee. Here he wrote a number of works, scientific, philosophical, and religious, which, from their lucidity and unpretending style, acquired prompt and wide popularity both in this country and in the United States. Their author, however, made such loose bargains with his publishers, that he derived little profit from them, and his poverty was relieved in 1847 by a pension from the crown of 50l. a year, and by a local subscription, bringing in a further annual sum of 20l. or 30l. He died, at the age of eighty-three, on 29 July 1857. An honorary degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him early in his literary career by Union College, New York, and he was admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society 14 Jan. 1853. A paper on ‘Celestial Day Observations,’ giving the results of a series of observations on stars and planets made during the daytime with a small equatoreal at Methven in 1812–13, was communicated by him in 1855 to the ‘Monthly Notices’ (xv. 222). He had written on the same subject forty-two years previously in Nicholson's ‘Journal of Natural Philosophy’ (xxxvi. 109).
Among his works may be mentioned: 1. ‘The Mental Illumination and Moral Improvement of Mankind,’ New York, 1836, developing a train of thought familiar to the writer during upwards of twenty-six years, and partially indicated in several contributions to periodical literature. 2. ‘Celestial Scenery, or the Wonders of the Heavens displayed,’ London, 1837, New York, 1845. 3. ‘The Sidereal Heavens, and other subjects connected with Astronomy,’ London, 1840 and 1850, New York, 1844 (with portrait of author), presenting arguments for the plurality of worlds. 4. ‘The Practical Astronomer,’ London, 1845, giving plain descriptions and instructions for the use of astronomical instruments; besides several small volumes published by the Religious Tract Society on ‘The Telescope and Microscope,’ ‘The Atmosphere and Atmospherical Phenomena,’ and ‘The Solar System.’ Several of the above works were translated into Welsh. Dick edited the first three volumes of the ‘Educational Magazine and Journal of Christian Philanthropy,’ published in London in 1835–6.[R. Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen (Thomson's ed. 1868); Monthly Notices, xviii. 98; Athenæum, 1857, p. 1008; Roy. Soc. Cat. of Scientific Papers.]