Nairne, Edward

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(b. Sandwich [?], England, 1726; d. London, England, 1 September 1806)

mathematics, optics, physics.

Nairne achieved an international reputation as one of the foremost makers of mathematical, optical, and philosophical instruments of the eighteenth century. He became free of the Spectaclemakers Company in 1748 and established his business in London at 20 Cornhill, not far from the shop of Matthew Loft, to whom he had been apprenticed in 1741. Nairne took Thomas Blunt, his own former apprentice, into partnership in 1774, and the firm, which in 1791 was moved to 22 Cornhill, continued as Nairne and Blunt until the latter’s death in 1822.

In 1771 Nairne contributed to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society the first of many papers on experiments in optics, pneumatics, and, most notably, electricity. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1776.

In 1772 Nairne invented an improved form of electrostatic machine using a cylindrical glass vessel as the generator. Its quick acceptance in England and on the Continent did much to enhance his reputation. The regular production from Nairne’s shop included microscopes, telescopes, navigating and surveying instruments, electrical machines, vacuum pumps, and measuring equipment required by the new philosophical laboratories.

Franklin seems to have had a long acquaintance with Nairne and his work. In 1758 Nairne made a set of artificial magnets for him, and the swelling and shrinking of the mahogany case led to a later cor- respondence between them on a possible design for a hygrometer. After the Harvard College fire of 1764, Nairne was one of the makers commissioned, on Franklin’s recommendation, to replace the lost instruments.

Nairne also reported on his experiments on the specific gravity and freezing point of seawater, desiccation by means of a vacuum, and the adaptation of the mercurv barometer for use at sea.


I. Original Works, Nairne’s papers published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society include “Description of a New Constructed Equatorial Telescope,”61 (1771), 223–225; “Water From Sea Ice,”66 (1776), 249–256; “Experiments With the Air-pump,”67 (1777), 614–648; and “Experiments on Electricity,”68 (1778), 823–860. Other works are Description of a Pocket Mi- croscope (n.p., 1771); Directions for Using the Electrical Machine as Made and Sold by E. Nairne (London, 1773); Directions for the Use of the Octant (n.d.).

Many of Nairne’s instruments survive and some may be seen in the collections of the Adler Planetarium, Chicago; Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, Paris; Harvard University; the museums of the history of science at Oxford and Florence; National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; Naval Museum, Madrid; Science

Museum, London; and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington.

II. Secondary Literature. See Maria Luisa Bonelli, Catalogo degli strumenti dei Museo di storia della scienza (Florence, 1954), 92, 131, 194, 200, 208, 210, 251–252, 254, 256; I. Bernard Cohen, Some Early Tools of American Science (Cambridge, Mass., 1950), 166, 169; Maurice Daumas, Les instruments scientifiques au XVII et XVIII siècles (Paris, 1953), 316–317; Nicholas Goodison, English Barometers, 1680–1860 (New York, 1968), 52–53, 123, 168–170, 257; W. E. Knowles Middleton, The History of the Barometer (Baltimore, 1964), 163; Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, eds., Dictionary of National Biography, XIV, 25–26; E. G. R. Taylor, The Mathematical Practitioners of Hanoverian England (London, 1966), 50, 53, 62–63, 66, 214; Carl Van Doren, ed., Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiographical Writings (New York, 1945), 490–494; and David P. Wheatland, The Apparatus of Science at Harvard, 1765–1800 (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), 22–23, 79, 155–161.

Roderick S. Webster