Alexander Wilson

Quick Info

St Andrews, Scotland
18 October 1786
Edinburgh, Scotland

Alexander Wilson was a Scottish astronomer who published observations on sunspots.


Alexander Wilson's parents were Clara Fairfoul (1675-?) and Patrick Wilson (1669-1724) who were married in Monimail, Fife, Scotland, on 10 April 1706. Let us note that the maiden name of Alexander's mother sometimes appears in the records as Fairfull, and his father's name sometimes is given as Wilsone. Clara, the daughter of Robert Fairfull and Elspeth Adamson, had been baptised on 18 July 1675 at Newburn, Fife, Scotland. Patrick Wilson was born in St Andrews, the son of John Wilson and Margaret Carstairs. Alexander had older siblings Patrick, Catherine (1707-1771) and Clara.

When Alexander was born, his father Patrick was town clerk of St Andrews but, sadly, Patrick Wilson died on 22 January 1724 when his son was nine years of age and he was brought up by his mother. Daniel Defoe, the famous author of Robinson Crusoe, visited St Andrews in 1727, when Wilson must have been about twelve years old, and gave this description:-
... a most august monument of the splendour of the Scots Episcopal Church in former times; remarkable for a fine situation, surrounded by extensive corn-fields, and the pleasant downs, the Links, lying on the sea-side towards the north. The famous physician Cardan esteemed it the healthiest town he ever lived in, having occasion to experience it some months, when he came over from Italy at the request of the Pope to prescribe to Archbishop John Hamilton.
Although Archbishop John Hamilton (1512-1571) was Archbishop of St Andrews, we believe that he was residing in Edinburgh when Cardan visited him. Defoe may, of course, be correct but we have never seen any evidence that Cardan spent 'some months' in St Andrews. Others around this time paint a less pleasant picture of the town. A visitor to the town in 1728 wrote that out of 945 houses, 159 were uninhabitable while others, being in need of repair, were let at very low rents. Many of the inhabitants were "idle and half-staved, there being neither trade or manufacturers in the town." The University was also at a low point at this time. John Macky, a Scottish spy, wrote in A journey through Scotland (1723) that St Salvator's chapel and cloisters were 'entirely neglected' and he saw:-
... very good apartments for the masters and scholars, all built of free-stone, but unaccountably out of repair, they being hardly at the pains of keeping out the rain or mending the windows.
Patrick Wilson, Alexander Wilson's son, writes about Alexander's childhood in [12]:-
From his earliest years he discovered a strong propensity to several ingenious arts, among which may be mentioned drawing, modelling of figures, and engraving upon copperplate. Even when a boy, he often devoted his leisure to such employments, and though in all of them he was almost entirely self-directed and self-taught, yet, from time to time, he produced specimens of ingenuity which drew upon him a general attention, and which, by real judges, were considered as indications of uncommon natural talents.
For a version of the whole of Patrick Wilson's article, see THIS LINK.

Alexander attended several local St Andrews schools before being educated at the University of St Andrews. The university records show that he graduated with an MA on 8 May 1733. His favourite subject had been natural philosophy, known today as physics, and he was particularly interested in optics and astronomy. After graduating, however, he was an apprentice to a surgeon in St Andrews and at this stage he thought of this as the career that he would follow. Clearly he showed considerable skills and two prominent men of the town took an interest in his progress. One was Thomas Simson (1696-1764) who was the professor of medicine at the university. The first Duke of Chandos had given the University of St Andrews funds to set up a Chair of Medicine and Anatomy in 1721, and Thomas Simson was the first Chandos Professor of Medicine. An interesting connection is that Thomas Simson was a brother of the mathematician Robert Simson. Wilson became friendly with Thomas Simson, who treated him with great kindness.

The second of the prominent men of St Andrews who became important in developing Wilson's career was Dr George Martine (1700-1741). Martine had been a student at St Andrews, Edinburgh and Leyden, before setting up a medical practice in St Andrews. He was interested in natural philosophy and was involved in a controversy with Colin Maclaurin over Isaac Newton's assertion concerning the existence of the vacuum. Martine had undertaken theoretical work on heat and on thermometers but wanted to have more accurate thermometers constructed and available for general use. Wilson had never worked with glass but, encouraged by Martine, he began to experiment and teach himself the necessary skills. This led to him constructing optical instruments, in particular using the rays of the sun to magnify objects with projection in a dark room. He discovered how to use mirrors to focus sunlight and set fire to objects.

In 1737 he moved to London to continue his apprenticeship in the medical profession [12]:-
Soon after his arrival there, he engaged himself, with a French refugee, a surgeon and apothecary of good character, who received him into his family, giving him the charge of his shop, and of some of his patients, with a small annual salary.
He had been in London about a year when David Gregory, then the Regius Professor of Mathematics at St Andrews, visited London and met with Wilson. David Gregory (1712-1765) was the son of Charles Gregory (1681-1754) the nephew of James Gregory and Regius Professor of Mathematics at St Andrews from 1707 to 1734. Charles Gregory, who had taught Wilson, had resigned the chair in 1734 and his son David Gregory had been appointed. Through David Gregory, Wilson was introduced to Archibald Campbell, the brother of John, the Duke of Argyll. Archibald Campbell, known as Lord Isla, was a patron of brilliant men and a promotor of discoveries. He owned high quality astronomical and physical apparatus which he kept in his London home (on the site now occupied by the London Palladium). This was a time when Wilson had the opportunity to construct thermometers for Lord Isla, be allowed to use his scientific instruments, and meet with others with interests in science.

Wilson's life changed completely after, accompanying a friend, he visited the William Caslon's type-foundry in Chiswell Street, London, where metal type was being made for printing. The workers there showed him how they made the metal type and, thinking about what he had seen over the following few days, he decided that he could devise a better way to make the type. This was a lucrative business in these times and Wilson discussed with John Baine (a St Andrews man then in London) the possibility of setting up a business to put his ideas into practice. In 1739 he returned to St Andrews and, in the following year, on 20 August 1740, he married Jean Sharp, the daughter of the St Andrews merchant William Sharp and his wife Jean Walker. Jean (baptised on 13 January 1718 at St Andrews) and Alexander Wilson had two sons, Andrew Wilson (born 5 August 1741), Patrick Wilson (16 January 1743-1811), and a daughter Jean Wilson (baptised 13 January 1745). The sons eventually joined their father in the type-foundry business. Wilson's wife Jean, however, died young and Wilson remarried in 1752.

In 1742, Wilson, in partnership with his friend John Baine, set up a type foundry in St Andrews. Two years later Wilson and Baine moved their type foundry to larger premises in Camlachie close to Glasgow but in 1747 Baine moved to Dublin. Soon after this Baine quit the partnership leaving Wilson the sole owner of the type foundry.

You can see more about the St Andrews type foundry at THIS LINK.

The quality of the type produced by the foundry was outstanding and the finest of all was a Greek type. The Foulis Press in Glasgow, run by the two brothers Robert and Andrew Foulis, used Wilson's type and produced some of the finest and most beautiful books which no other press could match. Despite his other scholarly activities which we will examine below, the firm run by Wilson in partnership with his sons continued to operate throughout his life. He published A Specimen of some of the Printing Types Cast in the Foundry of Alexander Wilson and Sons in 1772 which provides a fine example of the capabilities of the firm. In fact Alexander Wilson and Sons continued to be a thriving business after the death of its founder, a branch was set up in Edinburgh in 1832 and the headquarters moved from Glasgow to London in 1834. It went bankrupt in 1845 and was sold by auction in 1850.

What were Wilson's 'other scholarly activities' we referred to above? He was an excellent physicist with special interests in astronomy and, while running his type foundry in Camlachie, he constructed reflecting telescopes. His skill as an instrument maker meant than these were of exceptionally high quality. Around 1748 he met a Glasgow divinity student Thomas Melvill (1726-1753) who was passionate about natural philosophy [13]:-
During the summers of 1749 and 1750 Wilson and Melvill took measurements of the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere by attaching thermometers to kites, which the pair flew in a field adjacent to Wilson's home.
Melvill died in Geneva in 1753 at twenty-seven years of age and Wilson did not continue with the experiments on which they had collaborated. In fact Wilson had moved his family from Camlachie to Glasgow in 1752. He became involved with the Glasgow Literary Society which had been founded in 1753 which met every Thursday between November of May for discussions and debates. He addressed the Society in 1757 on hydrostatical glass-bubbles which he had invented for determining the strength of liquids, particularly spirits. In the following year he addressed the Society on pendulums, having invented a spring clock which experiments showed was accurate to one second in a trial of 40 hours.

For more details about these and other inventions/experiments that he conducted around this time, see THIS LINK.

In 1760, Wilson was appointed to the chair of astronomy in Glasgow University, holding the post until he resigned in 1784. This did not mean that he took charge of a university department with teaching duties. Rather he was in charge of the University Observatory at Dowanhill which had been newly built by Glasgow University and operated as a research establishment. The Observatory had been built to house the collection of astronomical instruments bequeathed to the University by Alexander Macfarlane, a merchant in Jamaica [9]:-
These instruments were said to be of a similar quality as those in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and initiated the construction of the Macfarlane Observatory in 1757.
[We note that the University of Glasgow, in a recent survey of benefits to the University from slavery, listed the Alexander Macfarlane bequest.] Wilson made many observations of sunspots discovering the Wilson effect in 1769. Using a geometric argument, he showed that sunspots were depressions in the Sun, publishing his results in papers of 1774 [10] and 1783 [11] in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. A similar theory had been proposed by Philippe de la Hire and by Giovanni Cassini but Jérôme Lalande argued that sunspots were the tops of mountains showing above a liquid surface. The model of the Sun proposed by Wilson was of a dark body surrounded by a shell of highly luminous material. This model was accepted as true for 100 years and Wilson's theory that sunspots were depressions was 'proved' in 1861 when the first stereoscopic photographs of the sun were taken. Only after 1900 was Wilson's claim shown to be inaccurate, and one is certainly not looking at a dark body through a luminous shell with holes. The reason for the appearance of depressions was that strong magnetic fields, discovered by Hale in 1908, inhibit convection of hot gas which is increasing the temperature of the surrounding areas.

You can see more about the Wilson Depression at THIS LINK.

You can read two short extracts about Wilson's observation of sun spots, the first from a late 19th century book, the second from a 21st century book, at THIS LINK.

Wilson also published Thoughts on General Gravitation, and views thence arising as to the state of the universe (1777), in which he attempted to answer Newton's question:-
What hinders the fixed stars from falling upon one another?
The Preface to the book begins:-
The following thoughts took their rise in the course of a philosophical conversation, about the beginning of the present year. Early in the month of February, the authors read the paper to several friends well known in the literary world, and transmitted copies of it to others, as opportunities offered of so doing. They now submit it to the impartial public in its original very imperfect state (nothing but the Notes being now added), in order to avoid all interference with views which may hereafter appear upon the same subject.
Wilson's answer, that the entire universe rotates about a centre, is of course incorrect. It was, however, a quite logical attempt to answer this most perplexing question. Einstein attempted to answer the same question by introducing the 'cosmological constant' into the theory of general relativity. This he later believed was his greatest mistake when Hubble discovered the expansion of the universe. The question, of course, is still of major importance since recent results show that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. If, however, we are to be fair to Wilson, it is true that in his day the universe was of nothing other than the Milky Way galaxy and here his answer is absolutely correct. His conclusion that the solar system itself must therefore be in motion is also correct.

We noted above that Wilson resigned his chair of astronomy at Glasgow in 1784. Not only did the type business pass to his sons, but so also did the chair of astronomy which was filled by Patrick Wilson, Alexander Wilson's second son.

Wilson was awarded an honorary degree by the University of St Andrews on 6 August 1763 and was a founding member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783. He was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Danish Academy of Copenhagen in 1771 for his discovery of the Wilson effect.

Patrick Wilson writes [12]:-
In March and April 1786, when he had nearly completed his seventy-second year, it became apparent to his family and friends, that his constitution and strength were fast declining. After a gradual and easy decay, which lasted throughout the whole of that summer and autumn, and which he bore with the utmost composure and resignation, amidst the tender solicitudes of his surrounding family, he at last expired in their arms, on the 16th day of October.

The private character of Dr Wilson was amiable to an uncommon degree. From his early youth to venerable age, he was actuated by a rational and steadfast piety, enlivened by those gracious assurances which carry our hopes and prospects beyond the grave, and sweeten the lot of human life. The cast of his temper, though uniformly cheerful and serene, was yet meek and humble, and his affections flowed in the warmest current immediately from the heart. His looks, as well as his conversation and demeanour, constantly indicated a soul full of innocence and benignity, in harmony with itself, and aspiring to be so with all around it.

References (show)

  1. H Plotkin, Biography in Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York 1970-1990).
  2. Biography by George Stronachl, rev. Roger Hutchins , in Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).
  3. A M Clerke, A popular history of astronomy during the nineteenth century 2nd edn (1887).
  4. A L Cortie, The Wilsonian theory and Mr Howlett's drawings of sun-spots, Monthly Notices Royal Astronomical Society 58 (1898), 91-95.
  5. P Maltby, Sunspots: Wilson effect, in P Murdin (ed.), Encyclopedia of Astronomy and Astrophysics (Nature Publishing Group, 2000).
  6. A J Meadows, Early solar physics (Pergamon, 1970).
  7. G Stronach, Alexander Wilson, Dictionary of National Biography XXI, 545-546.
  8. Alexander Wilson, The University of Glasgow Story, University of Glasgow.
  9. Alexander Macfarlane, The University of Glasgow Story, University of Glasgow.
  10. A Wilson, Observations on the solar spots, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 64 (1774), 1-30.
  11. A Wilson, An Answer to the Objections Stated by M De la Lande, in the Memoirs of the French Academy for the Year 1776, against the Solar Spots Being Excavations in the Luminous Matter of the Sun, Together with a Short Examination of the Views Entertained by Him upon That Subject, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 73 (1783), 144-168.
  12. P Wilson, Biographical account of Alexander Wilson, MD, late professor of practical astronomy in Glasgow, Trans. Roy. Soc. Edinburgh 10 (1824), 279-297.
  13. P Wood, Introduction Thomas Reid on Mathematics and Natural Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update July 2007