John Robison (1739-1805)

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Professor of Natural Philosophy, 1773-1805

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

John Robison studied at the University of Glasgow where he graduated Master of Arts in 1756. Robison travelled to London in 1758, and a year later he became tutor to the son of Admiral Knowles whom he accompanied to Quebec. In Canada Robison was employed to make surveys of the St Lawrence and neighbouring country. Upon his return to England in 1762 Robison was appointed by the Board of Longitude to travel to Jamaica on a trial voyage to take charge of the chronometer completed by the horologist John Harrison (1693-1776).

Once back in Britain, Robison proceeded to Glasgow where he met up with the engineer James Watt, who at that stage was mathematical instrument maker to the university. In 1766 Robison was appointed lecturer of chemistry at the University of Glasgow, upon the recommendation of Joseph Black (1728-1799). In 1770 upon the appointment of Admiral Knowles as president of the Russian board of admiralty Robison accompanied him to St Petersburg as private secretary. Two years later he was offered the chair of mathematics attached to the imperial sea cadet corps of nobles at St Petersburg, with the rank of colonel.

Bolstered in no small amount by the support of William Cullen (1710-1790) and Joseph Black, Robison became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in 1773. He lectured on the following subjects: hydrodynamics, astronomy and optics as well as electricity and magnetism. In 1783 Robison was elected the general secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a position that he occupied until within a few years of his death. In 1799 he published the lectures of Joseph Black.

Notable publications

  • Outlines of a Course of Lectures on Mechanical Philosophy, (1797)
  • Elements of Mechanical Philosophy, (1804)
  • A System of Mechanical Philosophy with Notes by David Brewster, (1822)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1783: Appointed First General Secretary, Royal Society of Edinburgh

1898: Awarded Honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD)


  • Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. XVIII, (University of Edinburgh, London, 1909)
  • Gillispie, Charles C (ed), Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (United States of America, 1972)
  • Birse, Ronald M, Science at the University of Edinburgh 1583-1993, (Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh, 1994)
  • Grant, Alexander, The Story of the University of Edinburgh During its First 300 Years, vol.2, (London, Longmans, Green & Co, 1884)
  • Talbot Rice, D, University Portraits, (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1957)