Page:A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen, vol 6.djvu/337

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.


strikingly vouched by two remarkable circumstances in the early history of Playfair. While a student at St Andrews, professor Wilkie, the author of the " Epigoniad," when in bad health, selected him to deliver lectures on natural philosophy to the class ; and in the year 1766, when only eighteen years of age, he felt himself qualified to compete as a candidate for the chair of mathe- matics in the Marischal college of Aberdeen. In this, his confidence in his powers was justified by the event. Of six candidates, two only excelled him, Dr Trail, who was appointed to the chair, and Dr Hamilton, who afterwards succeeded to it. 1

In 1769, having finished his courses at the university, Mr Playfair lived for some time in Edinburgh, in the enjoyment of the very select literary society of the period. " It would appear," says his biographer, 2 " from letters published in the 'Life of the late Principal Hill,' that, during this time, Mr Playfair had twice hopes of obtaining a permanent situation. The nature of the first, which offered itself in 1769, is not there specified, and is not known to any of his own family; the second, was the professorship of natural philosophy in the university of St Andrews, vacant by the death of his friend Dr Wilkie, which took place in 17.7^^- In this, which he earnestly desired, and for which he was eminently qualified, he was disappointed." During the same year, his father died, and the care of his mother, and of the education of his father's young family, rendered the acquisition of some permanent means of livelihood more anxiously desirable. He was immediately nominated by lord Gray to his father's livings of Lift' and Benvie ; but the right of presentation being disputed, he was unable to enter on possession, until August, 1773. From that period, his time was occupied in attending to the duties of his charge, superintending the education of his brothers, and prosecuting his philosophical studies. In 1774, he made an ex- cursion to Perthshire, to witness the experiments of Dr Maskelyne, the astrono- mer royal, to illustrate the principles of gravitation, from the effect of moun- tains in disturbing the plumb line. A permanent friendship was at that time formed between the two philosophers. " I met," says Playfair, in his Journal of a visit to London in 1782, " with a very cordial reception from him (Dr Maskelyne), and found that an acquaintance contracted among wilds and mountains is much more likely to be durable than one made up in the bustle of a great city : nor would I, by living in London for many years, have become so well acquainted with this astronomer, as I did by partaking of his hardships and labours on Schehallien for a few days."

In 1779, Playfair's first scientific effort was given to the public, in " An Essay on the Arithmetic of Impossible Quantities," published in the sixty-eighth volume of the Philosophical Transactions. In 1782, an advantageous offer prompted him to give up his living, and become tutor to Mr Ferguson of Uaith and his brother Sir Ronald Ferguson. It was at this period that he paid the visit to London in which he met Dr Maskelyne. By that gentleman he was introduced to some literary men, and to institutions of literary or philosophical interest Some of these roused the calm enthusiasm for philosophical greatness which was one of the principal features of his character. " This," he says, " was the first time that I had seen the Observatory of Greenwich, and I entered with profound reverence into that temple of science, where Flamstead, and Halley, and Bradley, devoted their days and their nights to the contem- plation of the Heavens. The shades of these ancient sages seemed still to

1 Vide Life of Robert Hamilton in this collection.

2 His nephew, by whom a Life of Mr Pla\fair was prefixed to an edition of his works, published in 1822.