Wilson, Alexander (1714-1786) (DNB00)

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WILSON, ALEXANDER (1714–1786), first professor of astronomy at Glasgow University, and the father of Scottish letter-founders, son of Patrick Wilson, town clerk of St. Andrews, was born at St. Andrews in 1714. He studied at the university there, and graduated M.A. on 8 May 1733. In 1737 he became assistant to a London surgeon and apothecary. One day he paid a visit to a type-foundry, and, after examining the processes, the idea of an improved method of manufacture of types struck him. He relinquished his profession and returned to St. Andrews in 1739. In 1742, with a friend named Bain, he started a letter-foundry at St. Andrews, which was removed in 1744 to Camlachie, near Glasgow. In 1747 Bain settled at Dublin, but in 1749 the partnership was dissolved. The result of Wilson's efforts was an extensive and improved production of types. He furnished his friends, the brothers Foulis, with their types, especially the Greek (which were held to be unrivalled), and it is to Wilson that we owe the beauty and artistic finish of the Foulis press [see Foulis, Robert]. He is specially referred to in the preface to the ‘Homer.’ In 1760 Wilson was appointed first professor of practical astronomy in the university of Glasgow, through the influence of the Duke of Argyll. In 1769 he made his celebrated discovery regarding the solar spots, an account of which appeared in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of the Royal Society of London, 1774. His view was that the spots are cavities or depressions in the luminous matter which surrounds the sun; and he was the first to establish this by a rigid induction. Wilson was also the author of a speculation in answer to the question, ‘What hinders the fixed stars from falling upon one another?’ His view was that this might depend upon periodical motion round some grand centre of gravitation. It was given to the world in an anonymous tract, ‘Thoughts on General Gravitation, and Views thence arising as to the State of the Universe.’ Assisted by his sons, whom he took into partnership, Wilson still continued and extended the business of type-founding, and in 1772 he published ‘A Specimen of some of the Printing Types cast in the Foundry of Alexander Wilson & Sons.’ Wilson resigned the professorship in 1784, and died at Edinburgh on 18 Oct. 1786. He received the honorary degree of M.D. from St. Andrews on 6 Aug. 1763, and was one of the original members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

He was succeeded in his chair at the university by his son Patrick Wilson (1743–1811), who had much of the original thought and inventive genius of his father. He left 1,000l. to Glasgow University, the interest on which is used to purchase instruments for the professor of astronomy. His portrait, a medallion by James Tassie, is in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. The type-founding business was continued by the Wilson family for many years, a branch being opened in 1832 in Edinburgh, while in 1834 the business was removed from Glasgow to London.

[Anderson's Scottish Nation; Irving's Eminent Scotsmen; University of Glasgow, Old and New, 1891, pp. 65–6; London Literary Gazette, 1834, p. 40; Rogers's Hist. of St. Andrews; Addison's Roll of Glasgow Graduates, 1898.]

G. S-h.