Person: Wilson, Alexander
Alexander Wilson was a Scottish astronomer who published observations on sunspots.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- Alexander had older siblings Patrick, Catherine (1707-1771) and Clara.
- Alexander attended several local St Andrews schools before being educated at the University of St Andrews.
- 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).
- Wilson had never worked with glass but, encouraged by Martine, he began to experiment and teach himself the necessary skills.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- What were Wilson's 'other scholarly activities' we referred to above?
- 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 1760, Wilson was appointed to the chair of astronomy in Glasgow University, holding the post until he resigned in 1784.
- 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.
- Wilson's answer, that the entire universe rotates about a centre, is of course incorrect.
- 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.
- 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.
- The private character of Dr Wilson was amiable to an uncommon degree.
Born 1714, St Andrews, Scotland. Died 18 October 1786, Edinburgh, Scotland.
View full biography at MacTutor
Tags relevant for this person:
Astronomy, Origin Scotland
Thank you to the contributors under CC BY-SA 4.0!
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive