Smaller Collections of Correspondence, including Letters of: Sir David Brewster (1781-1868)

Scope and Content

DAVID BREWSTER in Gen.1730 Brewster I-III

The collection of correspondence consists of circa 54 letters, 2 photograph cards, 1 engraving. The letters are on a variety of topics including: letter to mathematician William Wallace about a contribution to an article on astronomy in the Edinburgh encyclopedia, 1809; letter to Bostock about the printing of an article, and other matters, 1816; letter to William Scoresby thanking him for an eye from the Greenland shark, and referring to an instrument for observing Arctic phenomena, 1820; meeting, Melrose, 1832; letter to Wheatstone, 1832; letter recommending the Rev. William Grant to an appointment, 1840; mounted autograph letter signed to an unnamed correspondent, St. Leonards, St. Andrews, 1840, pointing the correspondent in the way of scientific knowledge; letter to Dr. Nichol encouraging him towards his work on meteorology, 1846; brief letter to Mr. Smith accepting an invitation to dinner, 1855; letter to T. P. Barkus thanking for a correction, 1855; autograph letter signed Murray, publisher, Edinburgh, 1856, sending the two first parts of work; letter to Mr. Johnston offering technical suggestions, 1863; and, many more.

Administrative / Biographical History


David Brewster was born in Jedburgh on 11 December 1781. His father was James Brewster, rector of Jedburgh Grammar School. At the age of twelve, in 1793, Brewster began following classes at Edinburgh University with the ambition of going into the Church. In 1799 he became tutor to the Horsbrugh [sic] family in Pirn, Peebleshire, and in 1802 he was the editor of the Edinburgh magazine. Licensed to preach by the presbytery of Edinburgh, Brewster gave his first sermon in March 1804 but nervousness led him to abandon this career. In 1804 he became tutor to a family in Dumfriesshire and he remained there until 1807 while he pursued scientific studies and the study of literature.

In 1807, Brewster was a candidate for the Chair of Mathematics at St. Andrews University, but without success. In 1813, he submitted a paper to the Royal Society of London on Some properties of light and the same year he published a Treatise on new philosophical instruments. In 1814, illness prompted him to visit Paris and Geneva and on his return to Britain he continued publishing. In 1815, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1816, Brewster invented the kaleidoscope and although he patented the invention, it was quickly pirated because of a fault in the registration. He published his Treatise on the kaleidoscope in 1819. Together with the mineralogist Professor Robert Jameson, he edited the Edinburgh philosophical journal, previously called the Edinburgh magazine, and in 1819 when the name changed again to the Edinburgh journal of science he was the sole editor. In 1820, Brewster became a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers in London, and in 1821 he was active in the formation of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts of which he became director. In 1822, he became a member of the Royal Irish Academy of Arts and Sciences.

It was at this time too that Brewster edited a translation of Legendre's Geometry and Euler's Letters to a German princess. Other published work to 1829 includes On the periodical colours produced by grooved surfaces, The optical nature of the crystalline lens, and The colours of film plates. In 1827, he published his account of a new system of illumination for lighthouses. In 1831, in York, he was among those who set up the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The same year, Brewster was knighted.

In December 1837, he became the Principal of the United College of St. Salvator and St. Leonard at St. Andrews University. In 1859 he became Principal of Edinburgh University.

Sir David Brewster died from an attack of pneumonia at Allerby, Melrose, on 10 February 1868.

Access Information

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

Acquisition Information


Brewster material having the following Accession nos. E99.12; E99.10; E98.66; E98.65; E95.73; E94.92; E94.27; E93.73; E91.3; E91.2; E90.101; E90.4; E88.116; E88.60; E88.59; E88.58; E88.3; E87.96; E87.34; E87.22; E87.9; E86.21; E85.46; E85.45; E84.59; E84.6; E83.42; E83.32; E82.78; E82.21; E81.108; E81.104; E81.59; purchased or otherwise acquired between 1981 and 1999. Two letters, 1840 and 1856, acquired March 2006, Accession no. E2006.07.


The Brewster biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Stephen, Leslie. and Lee, Sidney (eds.) Dictionary of national biography. Vol.2. Beal-Browell. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1908.

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

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally 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


The local Indexes show various references to Brewster related material in the Laing Collection, the Halliwell-Phillipps Collection, the papers of Peter Guthrie Tait, the Robert Jameson collection, the papers of Sir William Jardine, the papers of David Ramsay Hay, and elsewhere (check the Indexes for more details). Material in Laing includes: letter to W. Fraser, 1828, at La.II.425/10; letters to D. Laing, at Laing Correspondence. Material in Halliwell-Phillipps includes, L.O.A. 8/30 (dated 1841) and L.O.A. 31/32. Then also: in Tait, Gen. 2169/25-26; in Jameson, Gen. 1999/1/48-51; in Jardine, Dk.6.20/26; and in Hay, Dc.2.59. Also miscellaneous letters at: Gen. 1730-1732 Brewster; Gen. 1733/1-2, 4, 18, 43, 55, 67, 74, 95-96, 111, 122, 131, 138, and at Dc.4.101-103 Brewster.

In addition, the UK National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, notes many sites holding collections. Those held in Scotland are: correspondence and papers relating to university administration, 1828-1867, St Andrews University Library, and correspondence with James Forbes, 1828-1867, NRA 13132 Forbes; correspondence with Blackwoods, 1817-1863, National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division, Ref. MSS 4002-4896 passim, and letters (53) to Alexander Fraser, 1850-1865, Ref. Dep 208 NRA 27273 Fraser, and letters to John Lee, 1809-1851, Ref. MSS 3432-49 passim, and letters to Wiliam Lizars, 1832-1859, Ref. MS 1831, and miscellaneous correspondence, 1810-1865, Ref. MS 1808, and letters (7), 1837-1887, Ref. MS 9752; and, letters to Thomas Chalmers, 1840-1847, Edinburgh University's New College Library, Ref. CHA4 NRA 27818 Chalmers