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John Walker


John Robison

John Robison was the most direct link between the 17th-century physics of Isaac Newton and those Victorian revolutionaries, the Scottish physicists Lord Kelvin and James Clerk Maxwell. Robison's forty volumes of manuscript lecture notes in Edinburgh University Library are thus a major resource for the study of Enlightenment science. They can also be a major challenge for the modern scholar.

Having received his M.A. from Glasgow University in 1756, Robison (1739-1805) was professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University from 1774 to 1805. He has been credited with establishing a particularly Scottish approach to natural philosophy that influenced Kelvin and Maxwell. Moreover, given the reputation of Edinburgh University and the successes of Newtonian physics by the late 18th century, Robison was teaching the most advanced science of the day in the most advanced university of the day.

His lecture notes provide the key to understanding both what he was teaching and how his own ideas were developing. The notes are in his own hand on numerous pamphlets, several of which are bound together in each of the forty volumes. The spine of each volume carries a title ("Optics", for example) that generally corresponds to the volume's contents. The matter is not straightforward, however. At times, for example, one must trace successive versions of a lecture as Robison changed his mind or responded to current debates. At other times, one discovers that a lecture in one volume was continued by one in a different volume.

David B. Wilson, Iowa State University