1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Leslie, Sir John

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LESLIE, SIR JOHN (1766–1832), Scottish mathematician and physicist, was born of humble parentage at Largo, Fifeshire, on the 16th of April 1766, and received his early education there and at Leven. In his thirteenth year, encouraged by friends who had even then remarked his aptitude for mathematical and physical science, he entered the university of St Andrews. On the completion of his arts course, he nominally studied divinity at Edinburgh until 1787; in 1788-1789 he spent rather more than a year as private tutor in a Virginian family, and from 1790 till the close of 1792 he held a similar appointment at Etruria in Staffordshire, with the family of Josiah Wedgwood, employing his spare time in experimental research and in preparing a translation of Buffon’s Natural History of Birds, which was published in nine 8vo vols. in 1793, and brought him some money. For the next twelve years (passed chiefly in London or at Largo, with an occasional visit to the continent of Europe) he continued his physical studies, which resulted in numerous papers contributed by him to Nicholson’s Philosophical Journal, and in the publication (1804) of the Experimental Inquiry into the Nature and Properties of Heat, a work which gained him the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society of London. In 1805 he was elected to succeed John Playfair in the chair of mathematics at Edinburgh, not, however, without violent though unsuccessful opposition on the part of a narrow-minded clerical party who accused him of heresy in something he had said as to the “unsophisticated notions of mankind” about the relation of cause and effect. During his tenure of this chair he published two volumes of a Course of Mathematics—the first, entitled Elements of Geometry, Geometrical Analysis and Plane Trigonometry, in 1809, and the second, Geometry of Curve Lines, in 1813; the third volume, on Descriptive Geometry and the Theory of Solids was never completed. With reference to his invention (in 1810) of a process of artificial congelation, he published in 1813 A Short Account of Experiments and Instruments depending on the relations of Air to Heat and Moisture; and in 1818 a paper by him “On certain impressions of cold transmitted from the higher atmosphere, with an instrument (the aethrioscope) adapted to measure them,” appeared in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1819, on the death of Playfair, he was promoted to the more congenial chair of natural philosophy, which he continued to hold until his death, and in 1823 he published, chiefly for the use of his class, the first volume of his never-completed Elements of Natural Philosophy. Leslie’s main contributions to physics were made by the help of the “differential thermometer,” an instrument whose invention was contested with him by Count Rumford. By adapting to this instrument various ingenious devices he was enabled to employ it in a great variety of investigations, connected especially with photometry, hygroscopy and the temperature of space. In 1820 he was elected a corresponding member of the Institute of France, the only distinction of the kind which he valued, and early in 1832 he was created a knight. He died at Coates, a small property which he had acquired near Largo, on the 3rd of November 1832.