David Brewster

Posted in Scottish Scientists

Born 11 December 1781 in Jedburgh. Brewster went to Edinburgh University at the age of 12, to read for the Church, but saw another kind of light, as it were, and for the remainder of his life studied optics. He discovered a mathematical law describing the relationship between the refractive index of a substance and the angle at which light became polarised on striking that substance.

More playfully, he invented the kaleidoscope in 1816, and improved the stereoscope. On a safety issue, he promoted the use of flat, lightweight Fresnel lenses for lighthouses, and through his interest in the early days of photography introduced the two pioneers Hill and Adamson to each other.

He was an energetic producer of scientific papers, edited three journals, and wrote a biography of Sir Isaac Newton, Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (1855). As if that were not enough, he became principal of both St Andrews and Edinburgh Universities, in succession, and had a major role in the setting up of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

He died, probably with a sparkle still in his eyes, at Allerby near Melrose, on 10 February 1868.