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Alexander Wilson (astronomer)

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Alexander Wilson
Born1714 (1714)
St Andrews, Scotland
Died16 October 1786(1786-10-16) (aged 71–72)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Alma materUniversity of St Andrews
Known forWilson effect
Wilson Greek
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Glasgow
Member of the Glasgow Literary Society
Member of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society
Founder Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1783)

Alexander Wilson FRSE (1714 – 16 October 1786) was a Scottish surgeon, type-founder, astronomer, mathematician and meteorologist. He was the first scientist to use kites in meteorological investigations.[1]

He was the first Regius Professor of Practical Astronomy at the University of Glasgow.

Early life


Wilson was born in St Andrews, Fife, the son of Clara Fairfoul and Patrick Wilson, the town clerk of St Andrews. He was educated at the University of St Andrews, graduating in 1733 with an MA.[2]

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, He 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 foundry business in 1742. For example, in 1756 Wilson Greek typefaces were used to print classics of Greek literature.

University of Glasgow


In 1744, his type foundry moved to Camlachie, near Glasgow and in 1748 he was appointed type-founder to the University of Glasgow. In the following year the partnership with Baine was dissolved. Later his sons became partners. He supplied types to the Foulis press making possible beautiful and artistic publications. Among modern typefaces, Fontana, Scotch Roman, and Wilson Greek are based on types cut by Wilson.

In 1749, Wilson made the first recorded use of kites in meteorology with his lodger, a 23-year-old University of Glasgow student Thomas Melvill. They simultaneously measured air temperature at various levels above the ground with a train of kites. Melvill went on to discover sodium light.

In 1757, Wilson invented hydrostatic bubbles, a form of hydrometer.[3]

In 1760, wiith the support of his friend Lord Isla, the 3rd Duke of Argyle, Wilson was appointed to the new chair of practical astronomy at the University of Glasgow, as the University has recently completed 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.

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[4] for his work on sunspots.[5]

The crater Wilson on the Moon is named for him, Ralph Elmer Wilson and C. T. R. Wilson.

He, and his second son Patrick Wilson, were two of the founding members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE). Patrick wrote a biographical article of his father which was published both in the Transactions of the RSE and Edinburgh Journal of Science.[6]

In 1783 he was a joint founder of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He died in Edinburgh on 16 October 1786.[7]

Personal life


In 1740 Wilson married Jean, the daughter of William Sharp, a merchant in St Andrews. Together they had at least three sons. He married for a second time in 1752.[2]


  1. ^ Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002: Biographical Index (PDF). Vol. II. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 October 2006. Retrieved 22 March 2011.
  2. ^ a b Matthew, H. C. G.; Harrison, B., eds. (23 September 2004), "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography", The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29633, retrieved 11 November 2023
  3. ^ "Philosophical bubbles, alcohol content and the awesome significance of glass". Inside the Collection.
  4. ^ Lomholt, Asger (1942) Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab 1742–1942. Samlinger til Selskabets Historie, volume I (in Danish). Copenhagen, Ejnar Munksgaard, page 67.
  5. ^ 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.")
  6. ^ Wilson, Patrick (1824). "Biographical account of Alexander Wilson, MD, late professor of practical astronomy in Glasgow". Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 10 (2): 279–97. doi:10.1017/S0080456800024339. S2CID 162651162.Also published in Edinburgh Journal of Science 10:1–17 from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
  7. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
Academic offices
Preceded by
None: new position
Regius Professor of Practical Astronomy
at Glasgow University

Succeeded by