Papers of Joseph Black (1728-1799)

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The Joseph Black Manuscript collection consists of volumes of correspondence between himself and a variety of persons (including James Watt, Prince Paul Dashkov, Johann Albrecht Euler), and on a variety of subjects: linen bleaching, use of lime water, assays of ores, civic water supply, mineralogical specimens, absorption of heat etc. There are family letters too, between Black and his father and his brothers Samuel, George and Thomas, again on a variety of subjects: legal and money matters, health matters, trade with America, French flax, naval telegraphy, French prisoners in Edinburgh Castle etc. There are also manuscript copies of Black's Chemistry Lectures.

Administrative / Biographical History

Joseph Black was born in Bordeaux, France, on 16 April 1728. His father, of Scottish descent and a native of Belfast, was involved in the wine business in France. Black was educated in Belfast and then studied medicine and natural sciences at Glasgow University where his chemistry instructor was William Cullen (1710-1790). In 1751 Black transferred his medical studies to Edinburgh. In 1756 he succeeded Cullen as Lecturer in Chemistry at Glasgow University and was also appointed Professor of Anatomy, later on exchanging to the Chair of Medicine. Black also practiced as a physician. Through his investigation of the heating of magnesium carbonate, he anticipated the findings of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794), and indeed of modern chemistry, by indicating the existence of the gas carbon dioxide as distinct from common air. An account of his studies was published in  Experiments upon magnesia alba, quicklime, and some other alcaline substances (1756). Black's work at Glasgow led to the doctrine of latent heat. He verified the hypothesis in 1761, thereafter teaching the doctrine and doubtless influencing his friend James Watt (1736-1819) in the construction of the condensing steam engine. Black also founded the theory of specific heats. In 1766 until 1799, Black was Professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh University. Joseph Black died in Edinburgh on 10 November 1799. His lecture notes, supplemented by those of his pupils, were written and published posthumously by John Robison as  Lectures on the elements of chemistry, delivered in the University of Edinburgh (1803).

Conditions Governing Access

Contact the repository for details

Other Finding Aids

Handlist, H16; Another important finding aid is the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives. Additions to the typed slips in sheaf binders were made until 1987.

Related Material

The Index to Manuscripts shows at various shelfmarks references to notes of lectures taken down by others, an autobiographical note from Black's birth to his graduation, and printed tables.