Whitehurst, John

, an ingenious English philosopher, was born at Congleton in the county of Cheshire, the 10t.h of April 1713, being the son of a clock and watchmaker 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 inquire into the various causes of them. His father, who was a man of an inquisitive turn, encouraged him in every thing that tended to enlarge the sphere of his knowledge, and occasionally accompanied him in his subterraneous researches.

At about the age of 2 1 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 inquirer happening to overhear, softly slipped into the room, inspected the machine, and, presently satisfying himself as to the secret, escaped undiscovered to his own apartment. His end thus compassed, he shortly after hid 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 business 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 be 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 savour 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. LVII. an Account of a Machine for raising Water at Oulton in Cheshire, in vol. LXV.; and Experiments on ignited Substances, in vol. LXVI.; 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 representations 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 TuJlidoi 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-i 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^ inches being greater than the truth, which ought to be 3) very nearly. By this expement Mr. Whitehurst obtained a fact, as accurately as may he 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. The work concludes with several directions, shewing how the measure of length may be applied to determine the measures of capacity and weight; and with some tables of the comparative weights and measures of different nations; the uses of which, in philosophical and mercantile affairs, are self-evident.

Though Mr. Whitehurst for several years felt himself gradually declining, yet his ever-active mind remitted not of its accustomed exertions. Even in his last illness, before being confined entirely to his chamber, he was proceeding at intervals to complete a treatise on chimneys, ventilation, and the construction of garden-stoves, announced to the public in 1782; and containing, 1. some account of the properties of the air, and the laws of fluids; 2. their application and use in a variety of cases relative to the construction of chimneys, and the removal of such defects as occasion old chimneys to smoke; 3. modes of ventilating elegant rooms, without any visible appearance or deformity, calculated for the preservation of pictures, prints, furniture, and fine cieliugs, from the pernicious effects of stagnant air, smoke of candles, &c. 4. methods of ventilating counting-houses and workshops, wherein many people, candles, or lamps, are employed likewise hospitals, jails, stables, &.c. 5. a philosophical inquiry into | the construction of garden-stoves, employed in the culture of exotic plants; 6. a description of some other devices, tending to promote the health and comfort of human life. The manuscripts and drawings, since his death, have been in the hands of several of his friends, and were published by Dr. Willan in 1794.

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 seventy-fifth 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. He was interred in St. Andrew’s burying- ground in Gray’s-inn-lahe, where Mrs. Whitehurst had been interredin Nov. 1784. In Jan. 1745 he married this lady, Elizabeth, daughter of the rev. George Gretton, rector of Trusley and Daubery, in Derbyshire; a woman ever mentioned with pleasure by those who knew her best, as among the first of female characters. Her talents and education were very respectable; which enabled her to be useful in correcting some parts of his writings. He had only one child by her, and that died dn the birth.

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. He was a philanthropist in the truest sense of that word. Every thing tending to the good of his kind, he was on all occasions, and particularly in cases of distress, zealous to forward, considering nothing foreign to him as a man that relates to man. Though well known to many of the great, he never once stooped to flattery, being a great enemy to every deviation from truth.

In person fee was somewhat above the middle stature, rather thin than otherwise, and of a countenance expressive at once of penetration aod mildness. His fine grey | 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 dictates 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 und-erstand him as serious when he was merely playful. Where any desire of information on subjects in which he was conversant, was expressed, he omitted no opportunity of imparting it. But he never affected, after the manner of some, to know what he did not know; nor, such was his modesty, made he any the least display of what he did know. Considering all useful learning to lie in a narrow compass, and having little relish for the ornamental, he was not greatly given to reading; but from his youth up be observed much, and reflected much; his apprehension was quick, and his judgment clear and discriminating. Unbiassed from education by any earlyadopted systems, he had immediate recourse to nature herself; he attentively studied her, and, by a patience and assiduity indefatigable, attained to a consequence in science not rashly to be hoped for, without regular initiation, by minds of less native energy than his own. He had many friends, and from the great purity and simplicity of his’" manners, few or no enemies; unless it were allowable to call those enemies, who, without detracting from his merit openly, might yet, from a jealousy of his superior knowledge, be disposed to lessen it in private. In short, while the virtues of this excellent man are worthy of 1 being held up as a pattern of imitation to mankind in general; those in particular, who pride themselves in their learning and science, may see confirmed in him, what among other observations they may have overlooked in an old author, that lowly meekness, joined to great endowments, shall compass many fair respects, and, instead of aversion or scorn, be ever waited on with love and veneration. 1


Life, by Dr. Button, prefixed to Mr. Wbitehurst’s Works.