Alexander Wilson (astronomer)
St Andrews, Fife, Scotland
|Died||16 October 1786
|Alma mater||St Andrews University|
|Known for||Wilson effect
Alexander Wilson FRSE (1714 – 16 October 1786) was a Scottish surgeon, type-founder, astronomer, mathematician and meteorologist. He was the first scientist to record the use of kites in meteorological investigations.
He was first apprenticed to a physician in St Andrews where he became skilled in constructing mercury thermometers in glass. In 1737 he left for London, to make his fortune and found work as assistant to a French surgeon-apothecary, which included caring for his patients. During this time he was introduced to Lord Isla who like Wilson was interested in astronomy, and Wilson constructed instruments for Isla during 1738.
After visiting a type foundry with a friend in London, he had an idea for making better typefaces. He and his friend John Baine returned to St Andrews in 1739, where they started a type-founding business in 1742.
The company moved to Camlachie, near Glasgow in 1744. In 1748 he was appointed type-founder to Glasgow University. In the following year the partnership with Baine was dissolved. Later his sons became partners. He supplied types to the Foulis press making possible their beautiful and artistic publications. Among modern typefaces, Fontana, Scotch Roman, and Wilson Greek are based on types cut by Alexander Wilson.
In 1749 Wilson made the first recorded use of kites in meteorology with his lodger, a 23-year-old Glasgow University student Thomas Melvill, who went on to discover sodium light. They measured air temperature at various levels above the ground simultaneously with a train of kites.
With the help of his friend Lord Isla, now the 3rd Duke of Argyle, he was appointed in 1760 to the new chair of practical astronomy at the University of Glasgow, which had recently built the Macfarlane Observatory. Wilson primarily made contributions to astronomy and meteorology, and posited that "what hinders the fixed stars from falling upon one another", the question that Newton had posed in his Opticks (1704), was that the entire universe rotated around its centre. This has been found to be true of the stars of the Galaxy, the then known universe, which rotates around a central black hole. It is not true for the galaxies of the Universe which is expanding.
Wilson noted that sunspots viewed near the edge of the Sun's visible disk appear depressed below the solar surface, a phenomenon referred to as the Wilson effect. When the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters announced a prize to be awarded for the best essay on the nature of solar spots, Wilson submitted an entry. On 18 February 1772 the Academy presented Wilson with a gold medal for his work on sunspots.
He, and his second son Patrick (Peter) Wilson, were two of the founding members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE). Peter wrote a biographical article of his father which was published both in the Transactions of the RSE and Edinburgh Journal of Science, now available on-line.
- Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002: Biographical Index II. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Retrieved 22 March 2011.
- Lomholt, Asger (1942) Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab 1742–1942. Samlinger til Selskabets Historie, volume I (Danish). Copenhagen, Ejnar Munksgaard, page 67.
- Kiøbenhavnske Efterretninger om lærde Sager from Thursday 7 May 1772 (No. 19, p. 289). It reads: "In the Mathematics category it was found that Alexander Wilson, M.D., professor of Astronomy at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, deserved the prize; although his hypothesis about the solar spots is not deemed to have been sufficiently proven." ("I den Mathematiske Classe, hvor det Problem om Soel-Pletterne etc. var udsat, fandt man, at Alexander Wilson, M.D., Professor i Astronomien ved Universitetet i Glasgow i Scotland, havde fortient Præmium; Skiønt man ey anseer hans Hypothese over Soel-Pletterne at være tilstrækkelig beviist.")
- Royal Society of Edinburgh accessed 10 Mar 2009
- Williamson, Peter & Woodby, John, 'Scottish Book Trade Index (SBTI)', National Library of Scotland' accessed 19 Dec 2008
- Smith, George Fairfull, "Robert & Andrew Foulis, the Foulis Press, and Their Legacy", accessed 19 Dec 2008.
- Stronach, George, rev. Hutchins, Roger, "Wilson, Alexander (1714–1786)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 19 Dec 2008
- Wilson, Alexander (1774) "Observations on Solar Spots", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 64, part I.
- Wilson, Patrick (1824). "Biographical account of Alexander Wilson, MD, late professor of practical astronomy in Glasgow". Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 10: 279–97.Also published in Edinburgh Journal of Science 10:1–17 from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
- "Alexander Wilson". MacTutor archive. Retrieved 4 December 2005.