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Edinburgh University Library Department of Special Collections

Papers of John Robison

Collection Summary

Reference Code

GB 0237 John Robison



Extent and medium of the unit of description

2.5 metres

(46 volumes )

Existence and Location of Originals

This material is original.

Name of creator

Robison | John | 1739-1805 | professor of natural philosophy, University of Edinburgh

Biographical History

Biographical History

John Robison (1739-1805) was Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh from 1774-1805. He lectured on a broad range of scientific subjects including mechanics, hydrodynamics, astronomy, optics, electricity and magnetism, introducing a good deal of mathematical demonstration. As well as lecturing on natural philosophy he was involved in several other activities. His writings were varied and influential. From 1793 -1801 Robison contributed well over forty articles to the third edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, (1797) and its supplement, including: Resistance of Fluids, Roof, Running of Rivers, Seamanship, Telescope and Water-works, which are all full of practical information. In 1803 he produced Joseph Black's (1728-1799) carefully edited Lectures on Chemistry, (1803), and the following year he brought out his own Elements of Mechanical Philosophy, (1804), of which, however, only the first volume, on Dynamics and Astronomy, was completed. Robison's most widely read work was a strongly anti-Jacobean tract which set out to prove that the fraternity of 'Freemasons and Illuminati' was concerned in a plot to overthrow religion and government throughout the world.

John Robison was born in 1739 in Boghall, Stirlingshire. He graduated with an MA from the University of Glasgow in 1756. Over the next few years he travelled extensively and took charge of John Harrison's (1693-1776) chronometer on its trial voyage to Jamaica in 1760-1761. The following year he returned to Glasgow and made the acquaintance of Joseph Black and James Watt (1736-1819), and in 1766 he succeeded Black as Lecturer in Chemistry at Glasgow. In 1770 he went out to Russia as private secretary to Admiral Knowles, who had been employed by the Empress of Russia to reorganise her fleet. Following on from this Robison was appointed Professor of Mathematics at Cronstadt in 1772. After two years he abandoned the position in order to take up the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh. During the time he held the post he also acted as a technical consultant to government departments and private industry.

In 1783 Robison became the First General Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was a founder member of the Royal Society, and acted as its first General Secretary from 1783-1798. In 1798 Robison was made an Honorary LLD, College of New Jersey (now Princetown University).

Scope and Content

Scope and Content

The papers of John Robison consist of:

  • 40 volumes of lecture notes from the time when Robison was Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. The notes embrace the sciences of mechanics, hydrodynamics, astronomy and optics, together with electricity and magnetism
  • 5 volumes of lecture notes on Natural Philosophy taken down by TC Hope in 1785
  • 1 volume: 'Outlines of Mechanical Philosophy' (1780)
  • correspondence mainly to Joseph and George Black




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