Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/December 1877/Sketch of Professor Rankine
PROF. W. J. MACQUORN RAKKINE was born in Edinburgh, July 5, 1820, and on Christmas-eve, in 1872, he died, before he had completed his fifty-third year; but in that comparatively short life he had won higher distinction and done more good work than it falls to the lot of most men to compass.
He pursued his ordinary school studies in the Burgh Academy of the town of Ayr, the high-school of Glasgow. When very young he entered the University of Edinburgh, where he devoted himself to natural philosophy and natural history, including zoölogy, geology, mineralogy, and botany. He was a born mathematician, and received little aid from professional instruction in the branch of science in which he subsequently displayed such great genius. Throughout his educational course he received valuable aid from his father, who was a retired lieutenant of the British Army.
His powers were developed at an early age. Before he was twenty he had written two essays on subjects in pure physics. At eighteen he adopted the profession of civil engineering, and was the pupil of Sir John Macneil for three or four years, a great part of which was spent on engineering works in Ireland. Subsequently, he was employed for several years on railways and similar works in Scotland; and in 1850, forming a partnership with Mr. John Thomson, C. E., he settled in Glasgow.
Meanwhile he had been busy in purely scientific pursuits not connected with his calling, and the value of his work was generally recognized. He was elected to various learned societies, and in 1853 was made a fellow of the Royal Society of London. The same year he became a member of the British Association, in which he subsequently held several important positions. During the Dublin meeting of the Association in 1857, the honorary degree of LL. D. was conferred upon him by the university of that city as a mark of the eminence he had gained as a physical investigator. He was then but thirty-seven years old.
In 1855 he was made Regius Professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics in the University of Glasgow, a position which he held with distinction for seventeen years. He was an able instructor, his aim being to develop the understanding of the student by the cultivation of natural knowledge, and to beget those habits of close observation and persistent and exact verification which are so essential to the scientific worker in any field.
Prof. Rankine was the first President of the Institution of Engineers of Scotland, and in 1861 was made President of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow, contributing many papers to the Proceedings of that Society, and on a wide range of topics. The honors he won in his profession, and in thermo-dynamics, were rivaled by his achievements in naval architecture, to which his attention was for some time given.
His writings were exceedingly voluminous. His published treatises and manuals included, among others, "Manual of Applied Mechanics," "Manual of the Steam-Engine and Other Prime Movers," "Civil Engineering," "Useful Rules and Tables," "Cyclopædia of Machine and Hand Tools," "Manual of Machinery and Mill-Work," besides a very long catalogue of papers on physics, especially thermodynamics, applied mechanics, etc. His style was a model of scientific writing—elegant, exact, lucid in explanation and apt in illustration. In short, his was a mind of the first order, his original investigations were of the highest value, and his excellent influence as an instructor in moulding the minds of his students will be far-reaching.
His early death was the penalty of overwork, and was preceded by an impairment of vision and a derangement of the heart's action that were very distressing. He yielded to the demand for bodily rest when it became imperative; but it was too late. His is another name added to the long list of those who, understanding perfectly the limits of human endurance, seem to think that their case is exceptional, that their organisms can be continuously overworked with impunity, and so go on, heedless of the dumb protests of the abused body, until the ruin is utter and irrevocable.