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Watson, Richard


(b. Heversham, Westmorland, England, August 1737; d Windermere, West-morland, England, 9 July 1816), chemistry.

A son of Thomas Watson, headmaster of the grammar school at Heversham, Watson in 1754 entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he distinguished himself in mathematics. In 1760 he became a fellow of the college, a moderator in 1762, and in November 1764 professor of chemistry, although he was completely ignorant of the subject,. After fourteen months of intensive study he began to lecture in 1766. The chair was unendowed, but with the help of influential friends Watson obtained an annual royal grant of £100. In 1769 he was admitted to the Royal Society. Watson’s main ambition, however, was to become regius professor of divinity; and when the chair became vacant in October 1771, although unqualified, Watson was able “by hard travelling and some adroitness” to obtain the king’s mandate for a doctorate of divinity and was thus elected. In 1782 he became bishop of Llandaff,. His theological and political writings were extensive; he defended Christianity against the attacks of Edward Gibbon and Thomas Paine. His unorthodox views made him enemies, however; he was attacked as self-seeking—a charge to which his apparent willingness to accept patronage laid him open.

Watson’s most original work in chemistry was an investigation of the phenomena of solution. In 1770 he disproved J. T. Eller’s assertion, made about 1750, that the volume of water is not increased when a salt is dissolved in it; and in the severe winter of 1771 he found that the times taken by solutions of a given salt to freeze, starting from the instant that pure water began to freeze when exposed to the air, were proportional to the concentrations. Thus he anticipated Blagden’s “law.”

Watson is best known for his Chemical Essays, some of which are still valued for their lucidity—in particular his account of the phlogiston theory. “Of Fire, Sulphur and Phlogiston” (Essays, I, 149–180), which has frequently been cited. He also described the now-classic experiment in which hot water in a tightly stoppered flask can be made to boil by pouring cold water over the air space (“Of Degrees of Heat in Which Water Begins to Part With Its Air and in Which It boils,” Essays, III, 143–169) His “Of the Saltness and Temperature of the Sea” (Essays, II, 93–139) is a perceptive contribution to early marine science.


I. Original Works. Watson’s chemical works are Institutionum chemicarum in praelectionibus academicis explicatarum, pars metallurgica (Cambridge, 1768); An Essay on the Subjects of Chemistry, and Their General Division (Cambridge, 1771); and A Plan of a Course of Chemical Lectures (Cambridge, 1771). These, together with the papers listed below, are reprinted in Chemical Essays, 5 vols. (Cambridge, 1781-1787). There were a number of subsequent eds., published mainly at London, with the same pagination, but the numbering of the eds, is confusing; the last English ed. (London, 1800) is styled “7th edn” Two eds,. were published in Dublin—a 1–vol. (“3rd”) ed. (1783), containing the essays in vols. I–III, and the complete work in 2 vols. (1791).

Watson’s papers are “Experiments and Observations on Various Phoenomena Attending the Solution of Salts,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society60 (1770), 325–354; “Some Remarks on the Late Cold in February Last,” ibid., 61 (1771), 213–220; “Account of an Experiment Made With a Thermometer, Whose Bulb Was Painted Black, and Exposed to the Direct Rays of the Sun,” ibid., 63 (1773), 40–41; “Chemical Experiments and Observations on Lead Ore,” ibid., 68 (1778), 863–883; “Observations on the Sulphur Wells at Harrogate, Made in July and August 1785,” ibid., 76 (1786), 171–188; and “On Orichalcum” in Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 2 (1785), 47–67.

II. Secondary Literature. The main biographical source is Anecdotes of the Life of Richard Watson, Bishop of Landaff; Written by Himself at Different Intervals & Revised in 1814. published by his son Richard Watson (London, 1817; 2nd ed., 2 vols., 1818), which contains a number of letters. Watson’s character and views were scathingly though anonymously attacked in A Critical Examination of the Bishop of Landaff’s Post–humous Volume…(London, 1818). Accounts of Watson are V. Bartow, “Richard Watson, Eighteenth Century Chemist and Cleargyman,” in journal of Chemical Education, 15 (1938), 103–111; L. J. M. Coleby, “Richard Watson, Professor of Chemistry in the University of Cambridge, 1764–71,” in Annals of Science, 9 (1953), 101–123; and J. R. Partington “Richard Wat son 1737–1816),” in Chemistry and Industry, 56(1937), 819-821-see also Partington’s’s History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), 765–767, and his Text-Book of Inorganic Chemistry (London, 1921), 103, where he first drew attention to Watson’s anticipation of Blagden. A letter from Watson to Lord Rockingham and the reply are reproduced and commented on by W. H. G. Armytage in “Richard Watson and the Marquess of Rockingham; an Unpubished Exchange in 1771,” in Annals of Science,14 (1961), 155–156. Some account of Watson’s theological writings is given by A. Gordon in Dictionary of National Biography, XL (1899), 24–27.

E. L. Scott

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