Papers of John Robison (1739-1805)

Archive Collection

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 T.C.Hope in 1785; and, correspondence mainly to Joseph and George Black.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Robison was born at Boghall, Baldernock, in Stirlingshire, in 1739. He was educated in Glasgow and then studied at Glasgow University, graduating with an M.A. 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. Robison held the Professorship at 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 to 1801 Robison contributed well over forty articles to the third edition of the  Encyclopaedia Britannica and its supplement, including  Resistance of Fluids, Roof, Running of Rivers, Seamanship, Telescope, Water-works, which are all full of practical information. In 1803 he produced Joseph Black's (1728-1799) carefully edited  Lectures on Chemistry, and the following year he brought out his own  Elements of Mechanical Philosophy, 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. 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 to 1798. In 1798 was made an Honorary LL.D., College of New Jersey (now Princetown University). Professor John Robison died on 30 January 1805.

Conditions Governing Access

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.


The biographical history was compiled using the following material: (1)  Dictionary of National Biography. Vol.17. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1909. (2)  Science at the University of Edinburgh 1583-1993. University of Edinburgh, 1994. (3) Devlin-Thorp, Sheila (ed.).  Scotland's cultural heritage. Vol.1. University of Edinburgh, 1981. (4) Grant, Sir Alexander.  The story of the University of Edinburgh. Vol.2. Longmans, Green and Co., 1884.

Compiled by Andrew Thomson, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division. Revised by Graeme D Eddie.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.

Related Material

Related material held in Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division: Gen. 873-875: Correspondence to Joseph and George Black; La.II.75, La.II.223, La.II.500, La.II.583/11, La.III.352; and other correspondence can be found in the Laing collection too. The UK National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, notes: letters to and correspondence with James Watt at Birmingham City Archives; letters to Sir Walter Scott at the National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division; and, lectures and commonplace books at St. Andrews University Library.