Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Whitehurst, John
WHITEHURST, JOHN (1713–1788), horologer, born at Congleton in Cheshire on 10 April 1713, was the son of John Whitehurst, a clock and watch maker of that place. His early education was slight, and on leaving school he was bred by his father in his own trade. His father, who was a man of inquisitive turn, encouraged him in his passion for knowledge, which led him at the age of twenty-one to visit Dublin in order to inspect a clock of curious construction of which he had heard.
About 1736 he entered into business for himself at Derby, where he soon obtained great employment, distinguishing himself by constructing several ingenious pieces of mechanism. Besides other works he made the clock for the town-hall, and in reward was enrolled as a burgess on 5 Sept. 1737. He also made thermometers, barometers, and other philosophical instruments, and interested himself in contriving waterworks. He was consulted in almost every undertaking in Derbyshire and in the neighbouring counties in which skill in mechanics, pneumatics, and hydraulics was required.
In 1775, on the passage of the act for the better regulation of the gold coinage, without any solicitation on his part he was appointed stamper of the money-weights, on the recommendation of the Duke of Newcastle. He removed to London, where the rest of his life was passed in philosophic pursuits, and where his house in Bolt Court, Fleet Street, formerly the abode of James Ferguson (1710–1776) [q. v.], became the constant resort of men of science of every nation and rank. In 1778 he published his ‘Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth’ (London, 4to), of which a second edition appeared in 1786, considerably enlarged and improved; and a third, after his death, in 1792. The original design of this work, which he began to prepare while living at Derby, was to facilitate the discovery of valuable minerals beneath the earth's surface. He pursued his researches with so much ardour that the exposure he incurred tended to impair his health.
On 13 May 1779 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1783 he was sent to examine the Giant's Causeway and the volcanic remains in the north of Ireland, embodying his observations in the second edition of his ‘Inquiry.’ About 1784 he contrived a system of ventilation for St. Thomas's Hospital (Bernan, History and Art of Warming and Ventilation, 1845, ii. 70). In 1787 he published ‘An Attempt towards obtaining invariable Measures of Length, Capacity, and Weight, from the Mensuration of Time’ (London, 4to). Starting on the assumption that the length of a second pendulum in the latitude of London was 39.2 inches, he deduced that the length of one oscillating forty-two times a minute is eighty inches, while that of one oscillating twice as many times is twenty inches. The difference between these two lengths would therefore be exactly five feet. He found, however, upon experiment that the actual difference was only 59.892 inches owing to the real length of the pendulum, oscillating once a second, being 39.125 inches. He obtained roughly, however, data from which the true lengths of pendulums, the spaces through which heavy bodies fall in a given time, and many other particulars relating to the force of gravitation and the true figure of the earth, could be deduced.
Whitehurst died at his house in Bolt Court, Fleet Street, on 18 Feb. 1788, and was interred beside his wife in St. Andrew's burying-ground in Gray's Inn Road. On 9 Jan. 1745 he married Elizabeth, daughter of George Gretton, rector of Trusley and Dalbury in Derbyshire. He had no surviving issue.
Whitehurst's portrait, engraved by A. Smith from a painting by Joseph Wright, was published by W. Bent on 10 Oct. 1788 (cf. Cat. Second Loan Exhib. No. 714). Another, painted by Joseph Wright and engraved by Hall, is prefixed to his ‘Works’ (Bromley, p. 396). His ‘Works’ were edited by Charles Hutton [q. v.], with a memoir (London, 1792, 4to). In 1794 Robert Willan [q. v.] edited from his papers ‘Observations on the Ventilation of Rooms, on Chimneys, and Garden Stoves’ (London, 4to). A collection of his ‘Tracts, Philosophical and Mechanical,’ was published in 1812 (London, 4to). Three of his papers first appeared in the ‘Transactions’ of the Royal Society.
[Memoir by Hutton, prefixed to Whitehurst's Works; European Mag. 1788, ii. 316–20; Gent. Mag. 1788, i. 182, 363; Universal Mag. 1788, ii. 225–9.]