Blackburn, Hugh

(1823-1909), mathematician and college administrator

by A. J. Crilly

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Blackburn, Hugh (1823-1909), mathematician and college administrator, was born on 2 July 1823 at Craigflower in Fife, the seventh and youngest son of the eight children of John Blackburn (1756-1840), Glasgow sugar merchant, and his wife, Rebecca Leslie (b. 1788), daughter of Dr Colin Gillies (1748-1810), a minister in the Church of Scotland, and his wife, Isabella (d. 1833).

Hugh's father made a fortune in Jamaica and returned to Glasgow in 1810, married in the following year, and built Killearn House, an elegant mansion on the banks of the Blane. He supported his large family as well as numerous natural descendants of mixed race either left in Jamaica or resettled in Nova Scotia (to his friends he was known as Bluebeard). Hugh's mother was a grandniece of the mathematician Colin MacLaurin (1698-1746). His eldest brother, Peter Blackburn (1811-1870), became Conservative MP for Stirlingshire (1859-65), while the second eldest, Colin Blackburn (1813-1896), became a queen's bench judge and was elevated to the peerage.

Killearn House was a centre of gaiety and family activity while Hugh was growing up. The Wedderburns (one of Scotland's most distinguished families, and distantly related) were visitors, including the young Jemima Wedderburn and her first cousin James Clerk-Maxwell. Hugh was a quiet, studious youth with an interest in conducting experiments. He possessed a four-volume set of Charles Hutton's Mathematical Recreations, chock-full of games and practical devices. Optics fascinated him and he experimented with photography, though his progress was hampered by a lack of interest in chemistry.

Hugh attended Edinburgh Academy (1831-6), where he was taught by the classics scholar George Ferguson, and then Eton College for his upper school education (1836-41), being admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a pensioner on 3 December 1840. In his first term in October 1841 he became a close friend of William Thomson (1824-1907). In the middle of winter they went outdoor swimming together and spent evenings reading Faust. In Blackburn's rooms they swung on 'Blackburn's pendulum', an ingenious device with a double suspension, which could oscillate in planes at right angles to each other. Blackburn gained a Trinity scholarship in 1843 and for ten months (1844-5) was a member of the Cambridge Apostles.

In the mathematical tripos of 1845 Blackburn graduated fifth wrangler. He was elected a fellow of Trinity in the tight competition of 1846; he was a clear choice for a fellowship, while the seniority of Trinity vacillated between the senior wrangler and the senior classic of that year. Blackburn intended a career in the law and on 2 November 1847 was admitted at the Inner Temple, but afterwards an academic career loomed, and he formally withdrew on 8 May 1849 without being called to the bar. Following the tripos, William Thomson had written to his father, James, professor of mathematics at Glasgow: 'I wish you could hear of a professorship for him at a Scotch University. I think if there were any more professorships in Natural Philosophy he would answer exceedingly well' (S. P. Thompson, The Life of Lord Kelvin, 2 vols., 1910, 1.93). Four years later, James Thomson died, and Blackburn was appointed to his chair and took up duties on 23 April 1849.

On 12 June 1849, at St John's Episcopal Chapel, Edinburgh, Hugh Blackburn married Jemima Wedderburn (1823-1909) [see Blackburn, Jemima] his childhood visitor, youngest daughter of James Wedderburn (1782-1822), solicitor-general for Scotland in 1816, and his wife, Isabella Clerk (1789-1865) of Penicuik (another daughter, Jean, married Hugh's brother Peter). In 1855 they built Roshven House on Loch Ailort in Moidart and invariably spent their summers at this remote property. It became a meeting place for many notables in the sciences and the arts (Jemima Blackburn was a noted book illustrator). Sailing from Skye on one occasion, Thomson took his yacht Lalla Rookh to Loch Ailort in the company of Hermann von Helmholtz, who was impressed by the friendly and relaxed atmosphere of the Blackburns' home. Around their dinner table could be found all shades of political and religious affiliation. Hugh was a devout Christian and apolitical, while Jemima's atheism was coupled with a stout defence of Disraeli's brand of toryism. Outwardly an upright Victorian paterfamilias, Blackburn loved to spend time with his children: William (named after godfather William Thomson), Margaret, Hugh, and Alan. The Blackburns were prodigious travellers: Algeria, Spain, Italy, Corfu, Greece, and Iceland (in the company of Anthony Trollope) were all visited, where their largely unplanned expeditions progressed at a leisurely pace.

William Thomson never wavered in his admiration of Blackburn's mathematical ability and frequently consulted him. In reading James Clerk-Maxwell's work Blackburn was able to offer useful critical advice. Blackburn himself published remarkably little. He wrote a single paper (on astronomy) while at Cambridge (published in the Cambridge and Dublin Mathematical Journal, 1, 1846) and in 1854 revised a popular edition of George Biddell Airy's Treatise on Trigonometry. In collaboration with Thomson he edited an edition (1871) of Newton's Principia. Blackburn's mathematical interest lay in its applications to the natural world, in which his broad span covered botany, geology, marine biology, and ornithology. He was in the tradition of the natural philosopher, but one with a gift for analysing detail and a ready eye for flaws in a scientific argument. He was not a pure mathematician but Arthur Cayley, who had recommended him for the Glasgow chair, knew him as a maker of geometrical models.

Blackburn's mathematical classes grew large, rising from ninety when he began at Glasgow to three or four hundred when he stepped down. In 1871-4 he was joined by Thomas Muir (1844-1934), who acted as his assistant. Generations of Glasgow students could thank him for the firm grounding in mathematics which he imparted. Yet Blackburn had all the necessary qualities for teaching save one: he was unable to instil student discipline. His explanations were models of logical exposition and he presented them with the lucidity of a cultured man, but in his boisterous lecture room this mastery often counted for little. As the air grew thick with flying paper darts, Blackburn retreated to his chair hoping for calm but powerless to effect it.

Blackburn contributed to the administration of the university. His love of order, bordering on pedantry at times, found another outlet. He was clerk of faculty or, as he styled himself, Clericus Collegii Glasuensis. In this role he allowed no wastage and kept the college servants firmly in line (and the mathematical staff too, it was whispered). He took an unusually keen interest in university regalia and academic dress, and brought out a short constitutional history of Glasgow University with remarks on the 1858 Universities (Scotland) Bill.

Blackburn retired from Glasgow in 1879 on account of growing deafness. It was a cruel blow as he was passionately fond of music. Before the affliction he used to collect highland stories and songs about Moidart, particularly those connected with the Jacobite rebellion of the '45. In 1885 he was awarded the LLD for his services to the university. In retirement he lived at Roshven, where he spent his days with his books and involved in photography, cultivating his property, and researching the Blackburn genealogy. His passion for excruciating detail never left him. If a book had no index, he made one. Roshven was made more isolated by all of his clocks being set to 'Blackburn time'. He remained astute, and his argument to the House of Lords explaining reasons why the railway line should avoid his property, based on the sensible grounds that Loch Ailort was unsuitable as a harbour, was masterful.

Hugh Blackburn died on 9 October 1909 at his estate, two months after Jemima. He is buried in Roshven graveyard on the family estate. He was a man of ingenuity and wide-ranging capabilities who made a valuable contribution to the well-being of the University of Glasgow and was an intimate of an illustrious group of British scientists.


R. Fairley, Jemima (1988)
The Times (12 Oct 1909)
Nature, 81 (1909), 522-3
D. Murray, Memories of the old college of Glasgow: some chapters in the history of the university (1927)
L. Campbell and W. Garnett, The life of James Clerk Maxwell (1882)
C. Smith and M. N. Wise, Energy and empire: a biographical study of Lord Kelvin (1989)
L. Koenigsberger, Hermann von Helmholtz (1906)
The parish of Killearn, Killearn Trust (1988)
M. Stuart, Scottish family history (1930)
W. Nimmo, The history of Stirlingshire, 3rd edn, 2 (1880)
Fasti Scot.
Venn, Alum. Cant.
private information (2004)
d. cert.

priv. coll. |  CUL, Kelvin MSS
U. Glas., Kelvin MSS

J. Blackburn, portrait, 1889, repro. in Fairley, Jemima, 87
J. Blackburn, bust, U. Glas., Hunterian Museum

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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