Robison, John

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(b. Boghall, Stirlingshire, Scotland, 1739; d. Edinburgh, Scotland, 30 January 1805)

physics, applied mechanics.

Robison was professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh at a time when it had become a flourishing center of science and learning, and he was an influential and prolific author of scientific works in which he often blended practical and theoretical knowledge.

The son of a prosperous merchant, Robison attended a Glasgow elementary school and, at the age of eleven, entered the University of Glasgow, where he received the M.A. in 1756. Although lie was encouraged by his father to pursue a clerical career, his strongest interests were in mathematics and mechanics. Accordingly, in 1759 he accepted an offer to tutor a son of Admiral Charles Knowles in mathematics and navigation, thus becoming involved in the naval affairs that occupied him intermittently over the next fourteen years. Robison went with the younger Knowles to Canada, where he served as midshipman, performed surveys, and took part in James Wolfe’s assault on Quebec. Later lie sailed to Portugal. During these periods of service at sea he gained considerable knowledge of seamanship and naval technology. In 1761 Robison was appointed by the Board of Longitude to represent it in the testing of the timekeeper John Harrison had constructed for determining longitude at sea; he observed the device on a trip to Jamaica. By 1762, however, the prospects of a naval career had dimmed and, after briefly reconsidering the Church, he returned 10 Glasgow to resume his studies.

Before leaving Glasgow in 1758. Robison had become acquainted with Joseph Black and James Watt. Indeed, it was Robison, who had already published a note on an improvement of the Newcomen engine. who first turned Watt’s attention to the steam engine. He revived these friendships and became Black’s student. During the next four years Robison was closely associated with both men; and in 1766, when Black transferred to the University of Edinburgh, his recommendation led to Robison’s appointment as lecturer in chemistry at the University of Glasgow. The appointment was renewed annually, and Robison seemed to be established in an academic career. In 1770, however, he left Glasgow again, this time to accompany Admiral Knowles to St. Petersburg, where Knowles served as president of the Russian Board of Admiralty and Robison acted as his secretary. He worked on plans to improve the construction and navigation of Russian warships until 1772, when he accepted the post of inspector general of the corps of marine cadets at Kronstadt, an appointment that carried the rank of lieutenant colonel. When Robison was offered—again on Black’s recommendation— the position of professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in 1773, he abandoned a naval career for the second time and returned to Scotland. The following year he took up his duties at the university, where he remained until his death. One of the founders of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, he was elected its first general secretary in 1783.

Although he published three articles in the early volumes of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Robison’s scientific career remained undistinguished until he became the principal contributor to the third edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. From 1793 to 1801 he composed a remarkably wide-ranging series of articles that, according to Thomas Young (who revised several of them for the fourth edition), “taken together, undeniably exhibit a more complete view of the modern improvements of physical science than had ever before been in the possession of the British public ….” Their strongest influence was in applied structural mechanics, where the articles “Strength of Materials,” “Roof,” “Arch,” “Carpentry.” and “Centre” (for bridges) essentially constituted a unique course of instruction deliberately presented in a didactic manner for the benefit of the artisans and craftsmen who filled the ranks of British engineering.

In preparing these articles Robison consulted the engineer John Rennie (the elder), who had attended his courses at the University of Edinburgh and whose practical knowledge of building he valued greatly. His approach to these technical topics was, however, essentially theoretical. In his discussion of the theory of flexure. Robison emphasized the soundness of the neglected analyses that Parent and Coulomb had formulated and that now appeared for the first time in English. And in his presentation of column theory he called attention to Euler’s error in assuming that when a column bends, the cross sections sustain only tension. An indication of the influence of these articles is that through them the terms “strength of materials” and “neutral point” (to designate the position on the cross section of a beam where the stresses are zero) became established. After his death many of Robison’s Britannica articles were edited by David Brewster, who had been one of his pupils, and were published as A System of Mechanical Philosophy (1822).

Public recognition of the need for applied mechanics came only late in Robison’s life. In 1800, when Thomas Telford proposed a cast-iron bridge over the Thames in the form of a single arch, there were no theoretically informed enginëers who could analyze and evaluate the design; instead Parliament sought advice from a committee divided into “theoreticians” and “practitioners,” Robison being included among the former. Despite a few helpful suggestions by Robison and several of the “practitioners,” the general inability of the committee to analyze Telford’s design directed attention to the importance of furthering the application of mathematics and mechanics to the problems of structural engineering, Half a century later, applied mechanics had become a distinct field of study and professorships of engineering had been established. In 1855 W. J. Rankine, in his inaugural address at the University of Glasgow, paid tribute to Robison for his role in uniting theoretical science and the practical arts.

Robison made only the slightest original contributions to scientific research, the most notable being his determination, on strictly experimental grounds, that electrical attraction and repulsion follow an inversesquare law. Using an electrometer of his own design, he found the repulsion to be inversely proportional to the 2.06th power of the distance and the attraction slightly less than the second power. Although he read a paper on his results in 1769 (two years after Priestley had arrived at the inverse-square law through an elegant analogy between electricity and gravitation), he failed to publish them until 1801.

Robison was deeply religious and politically conservative. He became favorably impressed with Bošković’s theory of point atoms both because he considered it to be an elaboration of Newtonian principles (the action between the points is accounted for by attractive and repulsive forces) and because he saw it as a rejoinder to the materialism that he believed was corrupting natural philosophy. He contributed a long article on Bošković’s system to the Britannica and lectured on point atomism to his students at Edinburgh.

Robison’s most widely read work, however, was a fiercely anti-Jacobin tract in which he attributed the French Revolution largely to Continental Freemasonry (into which he had been initiated during his journey to Russia), materialism, and the influence of the “German Union” and the short-lived “Order of Illuminati.” The book, an intemperate expression of the Tory politics that dominated Edinburgh during the 1790’s, was later soundly criticized as credulous and tendentious by John Playfair, a steadfast and outspoken Whig, who succeeded Robison in the chair of natural philosophy at Edinburgh. Published in 1797, it went through several editions in two years and, despite the implausibility of the argument, was well received in anti-Jacobin and some sectarian circles.

In 1798 Robison was awarded an honorary LL.D. by the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), more for his political and religious views than for his contributions to science.


I. Original Works. Robison contributed the following articles to the 3rd ed. of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 18 vols. (Edinburgh, 1797): “Optics,” “Philosophy” (jointly with the editor, George Gleig), “Physics,” “Pneumatics,” “Precession,” “Projectiles,” “Pumps,” “Resistance,” “Rivers,” “Roof,” “Rope-making,” “Rotation,” “Seamanship,” “Signal,” “Sound,” “Specific Gravity,” “Statics,” “Steam,” “Steam Engine,” “Steelyard,” “Strength” (of materials), “Telescope,” “Tide,” “Trumpet,” “Variation,” and “Waterworks”; and to the Supplement, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1801): “Arch,” “Astronomy,” “Boscovich,” “Carpentry,” “Centre” (for bridges), “Dynamics,” “Electricity,” “Impulsion,” “Involution,” “Machinery,” “Magnetism,” “Mechanics,” “Percussion,” “Piano-forte,” “Position,” “Temperament” (in music), “Thunder,” “Trumpet,” “Tschirnhaus,” and “Watchwork.” Many of these (slightly edited), along with several of Robison’s other works, are most readily accessible in the vols. published posthumously under his name as A System of Mechanical Philosophy, David Brewster, ed., 4 vols. (Edinburgh, 1822). “Steam” and “Steam Engine” were published separately as The Articles Steam and Steam Engines, with notes by James Watt (Edinburgh, 1818).

Robison edited the notes for Joseph Black’s chemistry lectures as Lectures on the Elements of Chemistry, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1803); the comments he supplied reflect his reserved attitude toward Lavoisier and the French school of chemistry. He intended to produce a complete treatise on what he generally termed “mechanical philosophy” (approximately equivalent to what was then known as “natural philosophy” and what is now designated as physics), but at his death he had completed only Outlines of a Course of Lectures on Mechanical Philosophy (Edinburgh, 1797) and the first vol. of Elements of Mechanical Philosophy (Edinburgh, 1804).

The Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh contain three papers by Robison: “The Orbit and Motion of the Georgium Sidus, Determined Directly From Observations,” 1 , pt. 2 (1788), 305–332; “Observations on the Places of the Georgian Planet, Made at Edinburgh With an Equatoreal Instrument,” 2 , pt. 2 (1790), 37–38; and “On the Motion of Light, as Affected by Refracting and Reflecting Substances, Which Are Also in Motion,” Ibid., 83–111. (Robison has sometimes been confused with his son, Sir John Robison, who also was general secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Even the Society’s index to its Transactions attributes one of the son’s articles to the father.)

Robison’s early note on the Newcomen engine appeared in Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure,21 (1757), 229–231 (signed J—n R—n). Thomas Young credited Robison as the anonymous author of a critical review of one of George Atwood’s books on arch theory: “Atwood on the Construction of Arches,” in British Critic 23 (1804), 6–14. The report Robison prepared for Parliament on Telfordrsquo;s bridge design is in Report From the Select Committee Upon the Improvement of the Port of London, British Sessional Papers (House of Commons, 1801), 111. One of his MSS, “Professor Robison’s Narrative of Mr. Watt’s Invention of the Improved Engine Versus Hornblower and Maberley 1796,” is reproduced in Eric Robinson and A. E. Musson, James Watt and the Steam Revolution (New York, 1969), 23–38. Many of Robison’s letters, mainly to Watt and Black, are in Eric Robinson and Douglas McKie, Partners in Science (Cambridge, Mass., 1970).

His book on the French Revolution is Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe (Edinburgh, 1797).

II. Secondary Literature. The fullest biographical work on Robison is John Playfair, “Biographical Account of the Late John Robison,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 7 (1815), 495–539. Three years before Robison’s death George Gleig, the editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, who knew him well and shared his political views, published a biographical article: “Dr. Robison,” in Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, 11 (1802), 91–97, repr. in Philosophical Magazine, 13 (1802), 386–394. Thomas Young, “Life of Robison,” in Miscellaneous Works of the Late Thomas Young, George Peacock, ed., 3 vols. (London, 1855), 11, 505–517, contains additional information.

Two recent articles throw new light on Robison’s place in the intellectual and political life of late eighteenth-century Scotland: Richard Olson, “The Reception of Boscovich’s Ideas in Scotland,” in Isis, 60 (1969), 91–103; and J. B. Morrell, “Professors Robison and Playfair, and the Theophobia Gallica: Natural Philosophy, Religion and Politics in Edinburgh, 1789–1815,” in Notes and Records. Royal Society of London, 26 (1971), 43–63.

Harold Dorn

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Robison, John

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