Science and Medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment

By Charles W. J. Withers; Paul Wood | Go to book overview

2
’Feasting my eyes with the view of fine
instruments’: Scientific Instruments in
Enlightenment Scotland, 1680–1820

A. D. MORRISON-LOW

My acquaintance with Mr Watt began in 1758. I was then a Student in
the University of Glasgow, and was then studying the Science [natural
philosophy] which I now profess to teach … Mr Watt came to settle in
Glasgow as a Math[ematica]l and Phil[osophica]l Instrument maker, and
was employed to repair and fit up a very noble collection of Instruments
bequeathed to the University by Mr. McFarlane of Jamaica, a Gentle-
man well known to the scientific world. Mr Watt had apartments, and a
workshop within the College … [I was taken by various eminent
professors] into Mr Watt’s shop, and when he saw me thus patronized
and introduced, his natural complaisance made him readily indulge my
curiosity. After first feasting my eyes with the view of fine instruments,
and prying into every thing, I conversed with Mr Watt. I saw a work-
man, and expected no more, but was surprized to find a Philosopher as
young as myself, and always ready to instruct me.1

Thus wrote John Robison, the Edinburgh Professor of Natural Philosophy, in 1796 of his introduction while still a student to the engineer James Watt. After the death of Joseph Black, Robison explained to Watt his reasons for undertaking an edition of Black’s lectures for publication, and mentioned how he had first encountered the famous chemist: ‘My first acquaintance with Dr Black began in your Rooms, where you was rubbing up McFarlanes Instruments. Dr Black used to come in, and, standing with his back to us, amuse himself with Birds Quadrant, whistling softly to himself.2 These ‘fine instruments’ were a part of Watt’s general merchandise, which included musical instruments as well as those used in natural philosophy, astronomy and chemistry.3 ‘Scientific instruments’ is, in fact, a singularly inappropriate term for the surviving material culture which was once used in a number of loosely connected, quasi-technical spheres. The term is, perhaps, both broader and narrower than it might suggest, but despite its inherent anachronisms, ‘scientific instrumentation’ remains an important component of Scotland’s contribution to the making of the modern world. This essay will sketch out what is meant by ‘scientific instruments’ today, what they were and what they were not during the long eighteenth century, and what instruments were to be

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