Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brewster, David
BREWSTER, Sir DAVID (1781–1868), natural philosopher, was born at Jedburgh on 11 Dec. 1781. He was the third child and second son of James Brewster, rector of the grammar school of Jedburgh, his mother being Margaret Key, who is said to have been a very accomplished woman. She died at the age of thirty-seven, when David was only nine years old, but through his long life he retained a most affectionate memory of his mother. The motherless family fell to the charge of Grisel, the only sister, who appears to have discovered the genius of her second brother, and, the paternal rule being marked by much severity, the sister, who was but three years older than David, did her utmost by fond indulgence to spoil the boy. It is recorded that David was never seen to pore over his books, but he always knew his lessons and often assisted his schoolfellows, keeping always a prominent place in his classes. There were four brothers, James, George, David, and Patrick [q. v.], who were all remarkable for their intelligence. Among the citizens of Jedburgh when David Brewster was a boy were various men of original character, scientific tendencies, and inventive genius. Chief among these was James Veitch, a self-taught man astronomer and mathematician. From this man David Brewster received his first lessons in science. Veitch gave the boy many suggestive hints while he was engaged, when but ten years of age, in the manufacture of a telescope, which, in writing to a friend in 1800, he says had 'a greater resemblance to coffins or waterspouts than anything else.' In 1793, at the early age of twelve, David went to the university of Edinburgh, where he heard the lectures of Playfair, Robinson, Dugald Stewart, and others. The young scholar prepared for a position in the established church of Scotland, of which his father was a strenuous supporter. In 1802 Brewster, who had been for some time a regular contributor to the 'Edinburgh Magazine,' became its editor. In 1799 he engaged in tuition, becoming a tutor in the family of Captain Horsbrugh of Pirn in Peeblesshire, which situation he held until 1804. He wrote some love poetry to ' Anna,' a daughter of Captain Horsbrugh, who died at an early age, which was published in the 'Edinburgh Magazine,' and also printed in a separate form.
Having been licensed by the presbytery of Edinburgh, Brewster preached his first sermon in March 1804 in the West Kirk, before a large congregation, amongst whom were numbers of his fellow-students and many literary and scientific men. The Rev. Dr. Paul says of this effort : 'He ascended the pulpit, and went through the whole service, for a beginner, evidently under excitement, most admirably.' After this he preached frequently in Edinburgh, Leith, and elsewhere, and his ministrations were very successful, but they became a source of pain and discomfort to himself. He never preached without severe nervousness, which sometimes produced faintness. This weakness and the constant fear of failure led Brewster eventually to decline a good presentation and to abandon the clerical profession. In 1800 he was made an honorary M. A. of Edinburgh.
In 1804 he entered the family of General Diroon of Mount Annan in Dumfriesshire as tutor. There he remained till 1807, continuing his scientific studies and literary pursuits with but little interruption, as we find from his regular correspondence with Mr. Veitch. In 1805, on the resignation of Professor Playfair, Brewster was spoken of as a candidate for the chair of mathematics in the university of Edinburgh, and he received promises of support from Herschel and other well-known men of science. Mr. (afterwards Sir John) Leslie had the better claim to the chair, and was elected ; but, owing to some unguarded expression in his work on the 'Nature and Propagation of Heat,' a cry of 'heresy' was raised. 'A Calm Observer' published a pamphlet professing to adopt 'a mode of discussion remote from personal invective.' This pamphlet, which created an intense excitement, was by David Brewster. In 1807 he became a candidate for the chair of mathematics in St. Andrews, but without success. He was, however, made LL.D. of that university, and shortly after an M.A. of Cambridge ; he was also elected a non-resident member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. At this time he was induced to undertake the editorship of the 'Edinburgh Encyclopaedia,' which occupied him for twenty-two years. In 1809 he visited London, and he left a diary minutely recording his experiences. Under 31 July 1810 we find 'Married, set off to the Trosachs,' the lady being Juliet, the youngest daughter of James Macpherson, M.P., of Belleville, better known as 'Ossian Macpherson.'
In 1813 Brewster sent his first paper to the Royal Society of London on 'Some Properties of Light.' In the same year he published a 'Treatise on New Philosophical Instruments.' Failing health indicated the necessity of repose from mental labour, and a continental tour was ordered by his medical advisers. In July 1814 he started for Paris, where he made the acquaintance of Biot, La Place, Poisson, Berthollet, Arago, and many other of the French celebrities of science.
Brewster also visited Switzerland, established friendships at Geneva with Prévost and Pictet, and made many important observations on the rocks and glaciers of the Alps. In 1814 he returned to work, with unabated ardour for experimental inquiry. This showed itself in a series of papers contributed to the Royal Society, most of them on the 'Polarisation of Light,' which were continued through several years. In addition he published many other memoirs in the 'Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.'
In 1815 Brewster became a fellow of the Royal Society, and the Copley medal was bestowed upon him. This was followed three years later by the Rumford medal, and subsequently by one of the Royal medals, in each case for discoveries in relation to the polarisation of light. In 1810 the French Institute awarded him half of the prize of three thousand francs given for the two most important discoveries in physical science made in Europe.
In this year Brewster invented the kaleidoscope, which he patented; but, from some defect in the registration of the patent, it was quickly pirated, and he never realised anything by it. His 'Treatise on the Kaleidoscope ' was published in 1819.
The 'Edinburgh Magazine' was published from 1817 under the name of the 'Edinburgh Philosophical Journal,' and Brewster edited it in conjunction with Professor Jameson, the mineralogist, and afterwards alone, the name being again changed (1819) to the 'Edinburgh Journal of Science.' Not only was the number of papers published by Brewster at this period of his life remarkable, but the investigations which were required, and the discoveries especially in the delicate subject of optics which they recorded were in every way extraordinary. In 1813 he commenced to publish in the 'Philosophical Transactions' a communication 'On some Properties of Light,' and in the two succeeding years he furnished no less than nine papers on analogous subjects. After this the phenomena of double refraction engaged his attention, and his discoveries occupied several additional papers.
In 1820 Brewster became a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers in London. In 1821 he was active in founding the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, of which he was named director ; and in 1822 he became a member of the Royal Irish Academy of Arts and Sciences. In this year he edited a translation of Legendre's 'Geometry,' and also four volumes of Professor Robinson's 'Essays on Mechanical Philosophy.' In 1823 he edited Euler's 'Letters to a German Princess,' writing copious notes and a life of the author. Between 1819 and 1829 he appears to have relaxed a little, but he wrote 'On the Periodical Colours produced by Grooved Surfaces ;' he investigated 'Elliptic Polarisation by Metals,' 'The Optical Nature of the Crystalline Lens,' 'The Optical Conditions of the Diamond,' and 'The Colours of Film Plates.' Beyond these the only paper communicated to the Royal Society was one 'On the Dark Lines of the Solar Spectrum,' in which he was associated with Dr. John Hall Gladstone. In 1825 Brewster was made a corresponding member of the French Institute, and honours from all parts of the world were crowded upon him. There was never any long intermission in his researches. In 1827 he published his account of a new system of illumination for lighthouses, which led to a successful series of experiments under his direction in 1833.
In 1831 the British Association for the Advancement of Science was organised, chiefly by a few scientific men who assembled at the archiepiscopal palace near York, Brewster being among them. The first meeting was held in York, when 325 members enrolled their names. Brewster was especially active, and he strove most zealously to advance the long-neglected interests of science. In this year William IV sent to Brewster the Hanoverian order of the Guelph, and shortly afterwards an offer of ordinary knighthood followed, the fees, amounting to 109l., being remitted.
Sir David Brewster's busy pen now produced his 'Treatise on Optics' (1831) in Lardner's 'Cabinet Encyclopaedia,' a volume of 526 pages, in which every phenomenon connected with catoptrics or dioptrics known up to the time of its publication was described with remarkable clearness and precision. About the same time he wrote for Murray's 'Family Library' his 'Life of Sir Isaac Newton,' and his 'Letters on Natural Magic.' In 1855 he proved the correspondence between Newton and Pascal produced by M. Chasles to be a forgery. An accident arising through an explosion nearly robbed Brewster of his eyesight ; but his sight was eventually restored.
In 1836 Brewster went to Bristol to attend the sixth meeting of the British Association, being the guest of Mr. Henry Fox Talbot at Laycock Abbey. Mr. Talbot was engaged on his earliest experiments on photography, and his explanations of his immature processes, and the inspection of even the imperfect pictures which he produced, were sufficient to create in Brewster's mind a strong desire to work on the chemistry of light. He never found the time required for the practice of the art, but he wrote on the subject, and in 1865 received a medal from the Photographic Society of Paris.
Brewster was in receipt of an annual grant from the government of 100l. In 1836 this was increased by an additional grant of 200l. a year. In 1838 he received from the crown the gift of the principalship of the united college of St. Salvator and St. Leonard in the university of St. Andrews. This appointment relieved him from embarrassments, and he was glad to take possession of his house at St. Andrews. Brewster had published his 'Treatise on Magnetism' in the seventh edition of the 'Encyclopædia Britannica.' His labours were, however, interrupted by the illness of his wife. Her failing health caused him to remove her to Leamington, and leaving her in charge of a medical friend, he, with his daughter, attended the twelfth meeting of the British Association at Manchester, where he made the acquaintance of Dr. Dalton, which led to his investigating the conditions of the eye on which colour-blindness or Daltonism depended. He published an article on the subject in the 'North British Review.'
In 1843 the conflict which had prevailed for ten years in the church of Scotland was brought to a close by 474 ministers retiring from the old church of Scotland, protesting against the grievances of church patronage. Brewster had taken part in every step of the 'long conflict,' as it was called ; he signed the Act of Protest ; with his elder brother he walked in the solemn procession which left St. Andrews Church on 18 May, and he attended every sitting of that first assembly of the Free church of Scotland. The prominent position taken by Brewster in this movement caused in 1844 proceedings to be commenced against him by the established presbytery of St. Andrews, aided by the university, to eject him from his chair. The case, however, was quashed in the residuary assembly because he had not signed the formal deed of demission.
For Professor Napier's 'Edinburgh Review' Brewster wrote twenty-eight articles. In 1844 the 'North British Review' was started under the editorship of the Rev. Dr. Welsh. Brewster became a regular and constant contributor. Professor Fraser, who was editor of the 'North British Review' in 1850 and the seven following years, says : 'He contributed an article to each number during the time I was editor, and in each instance, after we had agreed together about the subject, the manuscript made its appearance on the appointed day with punctual regularity ;' and Professor Blackie, who edited the 'Review' from 1860 to 1863, writes : 'Sir David Brewster was ever remarkable for the carefulness of his work, the punctuality with which it was delivered, never behind time, never needing to write to the editor for more time or more space - a model contributor in every way.'
On 27 Jan. 1850 Lady Brewster died and was laid to rest beneath the shade of the abbey ruins of Melrose. In April Brewster, with his daughter, went abroad for change of air and scene. He renewed his acquaintance with Arago, which had begun in 1814 ; he visited M. Gay-Lussac just before his death, and met the Swiss philosopher, M. de la Rive.
In 1851 he was president of the meeting of the British Association at Edinburgh. In his address he pleaded with much earnestness 'for summoning to the service of the state all the theoretical and practical wisdom of the country,' and for the extension of the advantages of education. 'Knowledge is at once the manna and the medicine of our moral being.' The pen of Brewster was singularly prolific. Between 1806 and 1868 he communicated no less than 315 papers on scientific subjects most of them bearing upon optical investigations to the transactions of societies, and to purely scientific journals. Beyond these he wrote seventy-five articles for the 'North British Review,' twenty-eight articles for the 'Edinburgh Review,' and five for the 'Quarterly Review.' The most lasting monument to his fame, however, will certainly be his beautiful investigations into the phenomena of polarised light. He shared also with Fresnel the merit of elaborating the dioptric system for the improvement of our lighthouses; and he divided with Wheatstone the merit of introducing the stereoscope, the lenticular instrument belonging especially to Brewster.
Besides the above he wrote in 1841 and 1846 'Martyrs to Science,' or lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler ; and in 1854 an answer to Whewell's 'Plurality of Worlds' entitled 'More Worlds than One, the Creed of the Philosopher and the Hope of the Christian.'
In 1860 he was appointed vice-chancellor of the university of Edinburgh, and in that capacity presided at the installation of Lord Brougham as chancellor. Brewster in this year became an active member of the National Association of Social Science, and was afterwards chosen as vice-president. In this year he was made M.D. of the university of Berlin. He was at this time a frequent visitor to London, taking the greatest interest in the scientific societies of that city. In 1864 he was appointed president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In the spring of that year he was attacked, while residing in Edinburgh, with one of his seizures of prostrating illness, from which, although he appeared to rally, he never entirely recovered.
The 'lighthouse controversy' was to Brewster, in his latter days, a source of annoyance. It was a great comfort to him when the council of the Inventors' Institute in 1864, after examining the merits of the investigations made by Fresnel and others, reported that the introduction of the holophotal system into British lighthouses was due to the persevering efforts of Brewster. In June of this year a neglected cold fell heavily on Brewster's aged frame, and rendered him so feeble that he could not walk far, or labour in his library, without great fatigue. This state continued until 1867, when 'he was unable to play his quiet game at croquet.' Believing himself to be a dying man, he gave instruction to a young scientific friend, Mr. Francis Deas, as to the arrangement of his scientific instruments, and two years later he confided to this gentleman the completion of a paper 'On the Motion, Equilibrium, and Forms of Liquid Films.'
On 10 Feb. 1868 an attack of pneumonia and bronchitis exhibited symptoms which convinced Sir James Simpson that he could not live over the day. After a few hours of extreme languor, knowing all his loving watchers, with ' an ineffably happy, cheerful look, which seemed to come from a very fulness of content,' this bright intelligence passed quietly away at Allerby, Montrose. In 1857 Brewster married for the second time Miss Jane Kirk Purnell of Scarborough, by whom he had a daughter, born 27 Jan. 1861.
[Proceedings of the Royal Society, xvii. lxix; Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers; The Home Life of Sir David Brewster, by Mrs. Gordon; Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, iv. 1821-31; Edinburgh Royal Society's Transactions, vii. 1815-49; Gent. Mag. 1868, i. 539.]