WHITEHURST (John)

, an ingenious English philosopher, was born at Congleton in the county of Cheshire, the 10th of April 1713, being the son of a clock and watch-maker there. Of the early part of his life but little is known; he who dies at an advanced age, leaving few behind him to communicate anecdotes of his youth. On his quitting school, where it seems the education he received was very defective, he was bred by his father to his own profession, in which he soon gave hopes of his future eminence.

It was very early in life that, from his vicinity to the many stupendous phenomena in Derbyshire, which were constantly presented to his observation, his attention was excited to enquire into the various causes of them.

At about the age of 21, his eagerness after new ideas carried him to Dublin, having heard of an ingenious piece of mechanism in that city, being a clock with certain curious appendages, which he was very desirous of seeing, and no less so of conversing with the maker. On his arrival however, he could neither procure a sight of the former, nor draw the least hint from the latter concerning it. Thus disappointed, he fell upon an expedient for accomplishing his design; and accordingly took up his residence in the house of the mechanic, paying the more liberally for his board, as he had hopes from thence of more readily obtaining the indulgence wished for. He was accommodated with a room directly over that in which the favourite piece was kept carefully locked up: and he had not long to wait for his gratification: for the artist, while one day employed in examining his machine, was suddenly called down stairs; which the young enquirer happening to overhear, softly slipped into the room, inspected the machine, and, presently satisfying himself as to the secret, escaped undis- | covered to his own apartment. His end thus compassed, he shortly after bid the artist farewell, and returned to his father in England.

About two or three years after his return from Ireland, he left Congleton, and entered into business for himself at Derby, where he soon got into great employment, and distinguished himself very much by several ingenious pieces of mechanism, both in his own regular line of bufiness, and in various other respects, as in the construction of curious thermometers, barometers, and other philosophical instruments, as well as in ingenious contrivances for water-works, and the erection of various larger machines: being consulted in almost all the undertakings in Derbyshire, and in the neighbouring counties, where the aid of superior skill, in mechanics, pneumatics, and hydraulics, was requisite.

In this manner his time was fully and usefully employed in the country, till, in 1775, when the act passed for the better regulation of the gold coin, he was appointed stamper of the money-weights; an office conferred upon him, altogether unexpectedly, and without solicitation. Upon this occasion he removed to London, where he spent the remainder of his days, in the constant habits of cultivating some useful parts of philosophy and mechanism. And here too his house became the constant resort of the ingenious and scientific at large, of whatever nation or rank, and this to such a degree, as very often to impede him in the regular prosecution of his own speculations.

In 1778, Mr. Whitehurst published his Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth; of which a second edition appeared in 1786, considerably enlarged and improved; and a third in 1792. This was the labour of many years; and the numerous investigations necessary to its completion, were in themselves also of so untoward a nature, as at times, though he was naturally of a strong constitution, not a little to prejudice his health. When he first entered upon this species of research, it was not altogether with a view to investigate the formation of the earth, but in part to obtain such a competent knowledge of subterraneous geography as might become subservient to the purposes of human life, by leading mankind to the discovery of many valuable substances which lie concealed in the lower regions of the earth.

May the 13th, 1779, he was elected and admitted a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was also a member of some other philosophical societies, which admitted him of their respective bodies, without his previous knowledge; but so remote was he from any thing that might favour of ostentation, that this circumstance was known only to a very few of his most confidential friends. Before he was admitted a member of the Royal Society, three several papers of his had been inserted in the Philosophical Transactions, viz, Thermometrical Observations at Derby, in vol. 57; An Account of a Machine for raising Water, at Oulton, in Cheshire, in vol. 65; and Experiments on Ignited Substances, vol. 66: which three papers were printed afterwards in the collection of his works in 1792.

In 1783 he made a second visit to Ireland, with a view to examine the Giant's Causeway, and other northern parts of that island, which he found to be chiefly composed of volcanic matter: an account and representa- tions of which are inserted in the latter editions of his Inquiry. During this excursion, he erected an engine, for raising water from a well, to the summit of a hill, in a bleaching ground, at Tullidoi, in the county of Tyrone: it is worked by a current of water, and for its utility is perhaps unequalled in any country.

In 1787 he published, An Attempt toward obtaining Invariable Measures of Length, Capacity, and Weight, from the Mensuration of Time. His plan is, to obtain a measure of the greatest length that conveniency will permit, from two pendulums whose vibrations are in the ratio of 2 to 1, and whose lengths coincide nearly with the English standard in whole numbers. The numbers which he has chosen shew much ingenuity. On a supposition that the length of a seconds pendulum, in the latitude of London, is 39 1/5 inches, the length of one vibrating 42 times in a minute, must be 80 inches; and of another vibrating 84 times in a minute must be 20 inches; and their difference, 60 inches, or 5 feet, is his standard measure. By the experiments however, the difference between the lengths of the two pendulum rods, was found to be only 59.892 inches, instead of 60, owing to the error in the assumed length of the seconds pendulum, 39 1/5 inches being greater than the truth, which ought to be 39 1/8 very nearly. By this experiment, Mr. Whitehurst obtained a fact, as accurately as may be in a thing of this nature, viz, the difference between the lengths of two pendulum rods whose vibrations are known: a datum from whence may be obtained, by calculation, the true lengths of pendulums, the spaces through which heavy bodies fall in a given time, and many other particulars relating to the doctrine of gravitation, the figure of the earth, &c, &c.

Mr. Whitehurst had been at times subject to slight attacks of the gout, and he had for several years felt himself gradually declining. By an attack of that disease in his stomach, after a struggle of two or three months, it put an end to his laborious and useful life, on the 18th of February 1788, in the 75th year of his age, at his house in Bolt-court, Fleet-street, being the same house where another eminent self-taught philosopher, Mr. James Ferguson, had immediately before him lived and died.

For several years before his death, Mr. Whitehurst had been at times occupied in arranging and completing some papers, for a treatise on Chimneys, Ventilation, and Garden-stoves; which have since been collected and given to the public, by Dr. Willan, in 1794.

However respectable Mr. Whitehurst may have been in mechanics, and those parts of natural science which he more immediately cultivated, he was of still higher account with his acquaintance and friends on the score of his moral qualities. To say nothing of the uprightness and punctuality of his dealings in all transactions relative to business; few men have been known to possess more benevolent affections than he, or, being possessed of such, to direct them more judiciously to their proper ends. As to his person, he was above the middle stature, rather thin than otherwise, and of a countenance expressive at once of penetration and mildness. His fine gray locks, unpolluted by art, gave a venerable air to his whole appearance. In dress he was plain, in diet temperate, in his general intercourse with | mankind easy and obliging. In company he was cheerful or grave alike, according to the dictate of the occasion; with now and then a peculiar species of humour about him, delivered with such gravity of manner and utterance, that those who knew him but slightly were apt to understand him as serious, when he was merely playful. But where any desire of information on subjects in which he was conversant was expressed, he omitted no opportunity of imparting it.

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Entry taken from A Mathematical and Philosophical Dictionary, by Charles Hutton, 1796.

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WHALE
WHEEL
WHIRLWIND
WHISTON (William)
WHITE
* WHITEHURST (John)
WHITSUNDAY
WILKINS (Dr. John)
WINCH
WIND
WINDWARD