Robison, John

, an eminent natural philosopher and mathematician, was born at Boghall, in the county of Stirling, in Scotland, in 1739. His father, a merchant in Glasgow, having, by a course of successful industry, acquired considerable property, employed it in the purchase of an estate to which he retired during the latter part of his life. His son was educated at Glasgow, and before entering on his nineteenth year had completed his course of study at that university, but had manifested a peculiar predilection for the mathematics. Though he went deep into algebra and fluxions, yet he derived frm the celebrated Simson, and always retained, a disposition to prefer the more accurate though less comprehensive system of ancient geometry. The first thing which is said to have obtained him the notice of that eminent professor, was his having produced a geometrical solution of a problem which had been given out to the class in an algebraic form.

He was designed by his parents for the clerical profession, but though he was deeply impressed with the truths of religion, he had some scruples which induced him to decline entering into orders. His friends, therefore, began to consider of some other situation in which his | mathematical talents might be turned to advantage. Dr* Dick, professor of natural philosophy, being in want of an assistant, Mr Robison, then not quite nineteen years of age, was recommended by Dr. Adam Smith as a proper person for discharging that office. Dr. Dick thought him too young, but joined with Dr. Sirnson in recommending him to Dr. Blair, prebendary of Westminster, whom they understood to be in quest of a young man to go to sea with Edward duke of York, and read mathematics with his royal highness. On reaching London, however, this flattering prospect was found to have no solid foundation, the duke of York having no intention of going to sea. Mr. Robison, however, to whom a return to Glasgow would have been very disagreeable, embraced an opportunity which now offered itself, of going to sea as mathematical tutor to Mr. Knowles, eldest son of admiral Knowles, and the duke of York’s intended companion. His pupil being appointed lieutenant on board the Royal William, Mr. Robison, at his own request, was rated midshipman. Here he spent the three following years, which he often spoke of as the happiest of his life. He devoted himself particularly to the study of the art of seamanship, and was sometimes employed in making surveys of coasts and rivers.

In this capacity his merit attracted the notice of lord Anson, then at the head of the Admiralty-board, by whom he was sent, in 1762, to Jamaica, in order to make trial of Harrison’s time-keeper. But on returning from this mission he found his prospects of advancement completely clouded: lord Anson was dead; the vessel, on board of which was his pupil Mr. Knowles, had foundered at sea, and all on board perished; and admiral Knowles had retired to the country inconsolable for the loss of his son. He determined, therefore, to return to Glasgow, and admiral Knowles soon after placed under his care his remaining son, who was afterwards rear-admiral sir Charles Knowles. At Glasgow Mr. Robison renewed his studies with great assiduity, but his instructors were changed. Dr. Simson was dead and Dr. Adam Smith had left Glasgow to travel with the late duke of Buccleugh; but the place of the latter was well supplied by Dr. Reid, and Mr. Robison had also an opportunity of attending the lectures of Mr. Millar on civil law, and Dr. Black on chemistry. When, Dr, Black, in 1769, was called to Edinburgh, Mr. | Hobison was appointed to succeed him as lecturer on chemistry, and read lectures on that science with great applause for three years.

In 1770, sir Charles Knowles having gone to Russia, on the invitation of the empress Catherine, then intent on the improvement of her. marine, he invited Mr. Robison to accompany him as his official secretary, with a salary of 250l. a-year. As he was still attached to the navy and to his former patron, and as, though lecturing on chemistry, he did not enjoy the rank of professor, Mr. Robison made no hesitation in accepting the proposal. His conduct at St. Petersburgh, and the knowledge which he had there occasion to display, -seems to have powerfully recommended him to the board of admiralty; for in 1772 he was appointed inspector-general of the corps of marine cadets, an academy consisting of upwards of four hundred young gentlemen and scholars under the tuition of about forty teachers. As the person who fills this office has the rank of lieutenant-colonel, it became necessary, by the customs of Russia, that Mr. Robison should prove himself a gentleman, or what is there called a dvoranin, and the proof required was entered on record. In this office his employment consisted in visiting daily every class of the academy; in receiving weekly reports from each master, stating the diligence and progress of every person in his class; and twice a year, in advancing the young gentlemen into the higher classes, according to their respective merits. Of these he was considered as the sole judge, and from his sentence there lay no appeal. He lived in terms of the utmost harmony with general Kutusoff, who was military head of the academy, and held the third place in the admiralty college. By him all Mr. Robison‘ s measures were supported, and he was even introduced to the notice of the grand duke, as an admirer of the Russian language, which his imperial highness patronized.

But although his situation was thus honourable and advantageous, he felt that something more was necessary to render it comfortable. He could not but regret his distance from his native country, and residence among a people who, though rapidly improving, were still tinctured with barbarism. His appointment also attached him, not to the capital, but to Cronstadt, where he was nearly cut off from all enlightened society. Receiving an invitation, therefore, from the magistrates and town-council tg fi | place of professor of natural philosophy in the university of Edinburgh, he gladly removed to that city. The grand duke parted with him reluctantly, and requested, when he left the academy, that he would take with him some young men of talents from the corps of cadets; and he promised him a pension of 400 rubles (80l.) a-year. That pension was regularly paid only during the three years that the gentlemen whom he selected resided in Edinburgh; it was then discontinued, it is believed, because he did not continue a correspondence with the academy, and communicate all the British improvements in marine education.

Of his lectures, in his new professorship, high expectations were formed and were not disappointed. If there was any defect, it was that he was sometimes abstruse, and did not lower himself sufficiently to the comprehension of his youthful auditors. This, however, appears to have been owing, not to any want of order or perspicuity, but to his expecting to find in them a more complete acquaintance with pure mathematics than many of them had attained. Unfortunately, he was prevented for many years from teaching, by a languishing state of health, accompanied with peculiar depression of spirits, a not unfrequent attendant on too entire a devotion to mathematical studies, and of the recluse and pensive habits which they tend to generate. By the judicious choice, however, which he made of substitutes, the want of his personal instructions was less severely felt. For a year or two before his death he Ibegan again to lecture, having only engaged the rev. Thomas Macknight to afford him occasional assistance; an office which was performed by that gentleman with acknowledged ability. When the Royal Society of Edinburgh was incorporated by charter in 1783, he was chosen by that learned body to be their general secretary, and discharged that office to their entire satisfaction, as long as his health permitted, on the decline of which he resigned it. To their Transactions he contributed several interesting papers.

In 1798, Mr. Robison published a work which attracted, in an uncommon degree, the attention of the public, under the title of “Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the religions and governments of Europe, carried on in the secret meetings of Free masons, Illuminati, and reading societies, &c.” 8vo. It is neeJless to say how different have been thq judgments pronounced an this publication, according ta | the different parties to which its readers happened to be attached. That there is considerable ground for the statements contained in it, appears evidently from the best informed German authors; at the same time several circumstances led the author to form an idea of the magnitude and consequences of the conspiracy, which perhaps was somewhat exaggerated. But whatever opinion was formed on this subject, it was generally acknowledged that his mistakes were unintentional, and that the work was written from the best of motives, and with the sole view of defending the most important interests of religion and civil society.

A few years after, on the death of Dr. Black, Mr. Robison published the lectures of that great chemical discoverer, with notes, which are universally allowed to add greatly to their value. In consequence of Mr. Robison’s connexion with the court of Russia, a copy of this publication was sent to the reigning emperor, and the editor received, in return, the present of a box set in diamonds, accompanied by a letter strongly impressive of the regard in which his character and talents were held by that virtuous and enlightened monarch. The last work on which Mr. Robison’s attention and care was bestowed, was his “Elements of Mechanical Philosophy,” intended to comprize the substance of his lectures on that subject, and to consist of four or five volumes. The first appeared accordingly in 1804, and fully answered the expectations which the scientific world had entertained; and although his death prevented the completion of the plan, he is said to have left materials for a continuation, which are intended for the press. On Monday, Jan. 28, 1805. he delivered a lecture, as usual to his class, and went afterwards to take his accustomed walk. Being, however, exposed to a greater degree of cold than usual, he was seized soon after his return with un extreme degree of debility, which terminated in his death, Wednesday morning the 30th. This seems to have been less the consequence of any particular illness, than of a frame worn out by long-continued illness and suffering.

In 1798 he was complimented with the diploma of LL.D. by the American college in New Jersey, and in the following year received the same honour ’from the university of Glasgow. In 1800, he was unanimously elected foreign member of the imperial academy of sciences at St. Petersburgh, in the room of Dr. Black. Besides the works already | mentioned, it must not be forgot that Mr. Robison furnished some most valuable contributions to the edition of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica,” superintended by his friend Dr. Gleig, to whom the public is indebted for the preceding particulars of his life; and it is said to be the intention of Mr. Robison’s friends to collect the articles he furnished for this work, and publish them in a separate form, along with what he inserted in the " Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 1


Philf sophical Magazine, vols. X. and XIIL