Robison, John (DNB00)

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ROBISON, JOHN (1739–1805), scientific writer (described by Sir James Mackintosh as ‘one of the greatest mathematical philosophers of his age’), son of John Robison, merchant in Glasgow, was born at Boghall, Baldernock, Stirlingshire, in 1739. He was educated at the Glasgow grammar school and at the university, where he graduated in arts in 1756. In 1758 he went to London, with a recommendation to Dr. Blair, prebendary of Westminster, and in 1759 became tutor to the son of Admiral Knowles, who, as midshipman, was about to accompany General Wolfe to Quebec. In Canada Robison saw much active service, and was employed in making surveys of the St. Lawrence and adjacent country. He was with Wolfe the night before his death, when he visited the posts on the river. Returning to England in 1762, Robison was appointed by the board of longitude to proceed to Jamaica on a trial voyage, to take charge of the chronometer completed by John Harrison the horologist (1693–1776) [q. v.] On his return he proceeded to Glasgow, where he confirmed an early acquaintance as a student with James Watt, the engineer, then mathematical-instrument maker to the university. Watt afterwards wrote that his attention was first directed by Robison to the subject of steam-engines while both were students at Glasgow. Robison threw out an idea of applying the power of the steam-engine to the moving of wheel carriages and to other purposes, but the scheme was not matured, and was soon abandoned on his going abroad (Robison, Mechanical Philosophy, ii.) But Watt kept Robison informed of all his later inventions, and Robison's evidence proved afterwards of great service in defending Watt's patent against infringement before a court of law in 1796. Robison described that trial as being ‘not more the cause of Watt versus Hornblower than of science against ignorance.’

Meanwhile, on the recommendation of Dr. Black, Robison was elected in 1766 to succeed him as lecturer on chemistry in Glasgow University. In 1769 Robison anticipated Mayer in the important electrical discovery that the law of force is very nearly or exactly in inverse square (Whewell, Inductive Sciences, iii. 30). In 1770, on Admiral Knowles being appointed president of the Russian board of admiralty, Robison went with him to St. Petersburg as private secretary. In 1772 he accepted the mathematical chair attached to the imperial sea-cadet corps of nobles at St. Petersburg, with the rank of colonel; he acted also for some time as inspector-general of the corps. In 1773 he became professor of natural philosophy in Edinburgh University. ‘The sciences of mechanics,’ wrote Professor Playfair, his successor, ‘hydrodynamics, astronomy, and optics, together with electricity and magnetism, were the subjects which his lectures embraced. These were given with great fluency and precision of language.’ In 1783, when the Royal Society of Edinburgh was founded and incorporated by royal charter, he was elected the general secretary, and he discharged the duties till within a few years of his death. He also contributed to its ‘Transactions.’

In 1787, when the northern lighthouse board resolved to substitute reflectors for the open coal fires then in use, the plans of the apparatus were submitted to Robison (Blackwood's Mag. xxxiv. 366). In 1798 he received the degree of LL.D. from the university of New Jersey, and in 1799 the university of Glasgow conferred on him a similar honour. In 1799 he prepared for the press and published the lectures of Dr. Black, the great chemical discoverer. Robison also contributed articles on seamanship, the telescope, optics, waterworks, resistance of fluids, electricity, magnetism, music, and other subjects to the third edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica.’ He died on 30 Jan. 1805, after two days' illness. He was survived by his wife, Rachel Wright (1759–1852?), whom he had married in 1777, and by four children: John (see below); Euphemia, who married Lord Kinnedder, Sir Walter Scott's friend, and died in September 1819; Hugh (d. 1849) captain in the nizam's service; and Charles (d. 1846). There are two portraits of Robison by Sir Henry Raeburn—one the property of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the other in the university of Edinburgh. An engraving of one of these appears in Smiles's ‘Lives of Boulton and Watt.’

On Robison's death Watt wrote of him: ‘He was a man of the clearest head and the most science of anybody I have ever known.’ In addition to great scientific abilities, Robison possessed no little skill and taste in music. He was a performer on several instruments. But his musical lucubrations in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ proved as useless to the musician as they were valuable to the natural philosopher (ib. xxvii. 472). He was also an excellent draughtsman and a facile versifier. Hallam, in his ‘Literary History of Europe,’ says that ‘Robison was one of those who led the way in turning the blind veneration of Bacon into a rational worship’ (iii. 227). Lord Cockburn gives an amusing description of Robison's personal appearance in his ‘Memorials.’ Although he was a freemason, Robison published in 1797 a curious work—‘a lasting monument of fatuous credulity’—to prove that the fraternity of ‘Illuminati’ was concerned in a plot to overthrow religion and government throughout the world. The title ran: ‘Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the secret Meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies,’ 1797, Edinburgh, 8vo (2nd edit. with postscript, Edinburgh, 1797; 3rd edit. Dublin, 1798; 4th edit. London, 1798, and New York, 1798).

Robison's scientific publications were: 1. ‘Outlines of a Course of Lectures on Mechanical Philosophy,’ 1797, Edinburgh, 8vo. 2. ‘Elements of Mechanical Philosophy … vol. i.’ (all published), 1804, Edinburgh, 8vo, 3. ‘A System of Mechanical Philosophy, with Notes by David Brewster, LL.D.,’ 4 vols. 1822, Edinburgh, 8vo. These volumes comprised reprints of his ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ and papers read before the Royal Society. Robison's article on the steam-engine in vol. ii. was revised and augmented by Watt.

Sir John Robison (1778–1843), son of Professor Robison, was born in Edinburgh on 11 June 1778. He was educated at the high school of Edinburgh and the university there. On leaving college he went to Mr. Houston of Johnston, near Paisley, who was erecting cotton-spinning mills with Arkwright's machinery. Shortly afterwards he removed to Manchester, whence he paid a visit to his father's old friend, James Watt, at Soho, near Birmingham, and made the acquaintance of young Watt, who became his lifelong friend. In 1802 he obtained a mercantile situation in Madras, and subsequently entered the service of the nizam of Hyderabad as contractor for the establishment and maintenance of the artillery service, including the furnishing of guns and ammunition. He was also appointed commanding officer of the corps. For the nizam he laid out grounds on the English model. Having acquired a considerable fortune, he left India in 1815, and settled in the west of Scotland, at the Grove, near Hamilton. After some years he removed to Edinburgh. On 22 Jan. 1816 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; in 1823 secretary of the physical class of the society; and in 1828, in succession to Sir David Brewster, general secretary to the society. The last office, which his father had previously held, he filled till 1840 with great ability. On resigning the post the society voted the sum of 300l. to Robison ‘in acknowledgment of his long services.’ In 1831 he contributed to the ‘Transactions’ of the society a ‘Notice regarding a Timekeeper in the Hall of the Royal Society of Edinburgh,’ the pendulum of which had been constructed by Robison of marble, as being less subject to variations in temperature than metal. This clock, the work of Whitelaw, still keeps accurate time in the lecture-hall of the society. Robison also contributed the article on ‘Turning’ to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ and published a description in English and French (which he wrote and spoke fluently) of a large pumping steam-engine, and an account of the failure of a suspension bridge at Paris. In 1821 he was one of the founders of the Scottish Society of Arts, of which he was secretary from 1822 to 1824, twice vice-president, and finally president, 1841–2, the first year of its incorporation. Upwards of sixty articles from his pen were communicated to this society. He received its Keith prize for his improvements in the art of cutting accurate metal screws, a silver medal for his description and drawing of a cheap and easily used camera lucida, and a medal for a notice of experiments on the Forth and Clyde Canal on the resistance to vessels moving with different velocities. Robison was for many years a member of the Highland Society, and chairman of its committee on agricultural implements and machinery. He acted as local secretary to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1834, when M. Arago was his guest. He was also a commissioner of police. In 1837 he received the Guelphic order from William IV, and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1838. His inventions were numerous and ingenious. He made a particular study of the application of hot air to warming houses, and of gas to the purposes of illumination and heating. In his own kitchen the chief combustible was gas. ‘From boring a cannon,’ wrote Professor Forbes, ‘to drilling a needle's eye, nothing was strange to him. Masonry, carpentry, and manufactures in metals were almost equally familiar to him. His house in Randolph Crescent was built entirely from his own plans, and nothing, from the cellar to the roof, in construction or in furniture, but bore testimony to his minute and elaborate invention.’ He evinced great energy in making known merit among talented artificers. His house was always open to distinguished foreigners. He died on 7 March 1843. He married first, in 1816, Jean Grahame (d. 1824) of Whitehill, near Glasgow; and, secondly, Miss Benson (d. 1837). He left two daughters by his first wife. The elder daughter, Euphemia Erskine, born in 1818, married in 1839 Archibald Gerard of Rochsoles, Airdrie, and died at Salzburg in 1870, leaving three sons and four daughters, two of whom (Emily, wife of General de Laszowska, and Dorothea, wife of Major de Longgarde) won repute as the novelists E. and D. Gerard. The former died 11 Jan. 1905.

[For the elder Robison see Ogilvie's Imp. Dict. of Biogr.; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Allibone's Dict.; Chambers's and Thomson's Eminent Scotsmen; Anderson's Scottish Nation; Brewster's Preface to Robison's System; John Playfair's obit. notice in Trans. Royal Soc. of Edinburgh, vol. vii. (reprinted in Playfair's Works, vol. iv.); Dr. Thomas Young's Works, vol. ii.; Phil. Mag. 1802; Cockburn's Memorials, chap. i.; Smiles's Lives of Boulton and Watt. For the younger Robison see Edinburgh Courant, 9 March 1843; Ann. Register, 1843; Trans. of the Royal Soc. of Edinburgh, xv. 680–1; Obit. notice by Prof. Forbes in Proc. of same society, ii. 68–78; Trans. of Royal Scottish Soc. of Arts, 1843, pp. 43–4; information supplied by Miss Guthrie Wright, Edinburgh.]

G. S-h.