David Brewster


David Brewster : biography

11 December 1781 – 10 February 1868

An instrument of more significance, the stereoscope, which – though of much later date (1849) – along with the kaleidoscope did more than anything else to popularise his name, was not as has often been asserted the invention of Brewster. Sir Charles Wheatstone discovered its principle and applied it as early as 1838 to the construction of a cumbersome but effective instrument, in which the binocular pictures were made to combine by means of mirrors. Brewster’s contribution was the suggestion to use prisms for uniting the dissimilar pictures; and accordingly the lenticular stereoscope may fairly be said to be his invention.

A much more valuable and practical result of Brewster’s optical researches was the improvement of the British lighthouse system. Although Fresnel, who had also the satisfaction of being the first to put it into operation, perfected the dioptric apparatus independently, Brewster was active earlier in the field than Fresnel, describing the dioptric apparatus in 1812. Brewster pressed its adoption on those in authority at least as early as 1820, two years before Fresnel suggested it, and it was finally introduced into lighthouses mainly through Brewster’s persistent efforts.

Other work

Although Brewster’s own discoveries were important, they were not his only service to science. He began writing in 1799 as a regular contributor to the Edinburgh Magazine, of which he acted as editor at the age of twenty. In 1807, he undertook the editorship of the newly projected Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, of which the first part appeared in 1808, and the last not until 1830. The work was strongest in the scientific department, and many of its most valuable articles were from the pen of the editor. At a later period he was one of the leading contributors to the Encyclopædia Britannica (seventh and eighth editions) writing, among others, the articles on electricity, hydrodynamics, magnetism, microscope, optics, stereoscope, and voltaic electricity.

In 1819 Brewster undertook further editorial work by establishing, in conjunction with Robert Jameson (1774–1854), the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, which took the place of the Edinburgh magazine. The first ten volumes (1819–1824) were published under the joint editorship of Brewster and Jameson, the remaining four volumes (1825–1826) being edited by Jameson alone. After parting company with Jameson, Brewster started the Edinburgh Journal of Science in 1824, 16 volumes of which appeared under his editorship during the years 1824–1832, with very many articles from his own pen.

He contributed around three hundred papers to the transactions of various learned societies, and few of his contemporaries wrote as much for the various reviews. In the North British Review alone seventy-five articles of his appeared. A list of his larger separate works will be found below. Special mention, however, must be made of the most important of them all: his biography of Sir Isaac Newton. In 1831 he published a short popular account of the philosopher’s life in Murray’s Family Library; but it was not until 1855 that he was able to issue the much fuller Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, a work which embodied the results of more than 20 years’ investigation of original manuscripts and other available sources.

Brewster’s position as editor brought him into frequent contact with the most eminent scientific men, and he was naturally among the first to recognise the benefit that would accrue from regular communication among those in the field of science. In a review of Charles Babbage’s book Decline of Science in England in John Murray’s Quarterly Review, he suggested the creation of "an association of our nobility, clergy, gentry and philosophers"., Quarterly Review, Vol. 43, Nr. 86 (October 1830) This was taken up by various Declinarians and found speedy realisation in the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Its first meeting was held at York in 1831; and Brewster, along with Babbage and Sir John F. W. Herschel, had the chief part in shaping its constitution.