Best remembered for his experimental work in physical optics, mostly concerned with the study of the polarization of light, the British scientist, inventor, author, and academic administrator Sir David Brewster KH PRSE FRS FSA(Scot) FSSA MICE was born 11 December 1781 in Jedburgh, Roxburghshire. At the age of 12, David was sent to the University of Edinburgh (graduating MA in 1800), being intended for the clergy. He was licensed a minister of the Church of Scotland, and preached around Edinburgh on several occasions. He was interested in natural science, and this had been fostered by his intimacy with a “self-taught philosopher, astronomer and mathematician”, as Sir Walter Scott called him, of great local fame, James Veitch of Inchbonny, a man who was particularly skilful in making telescopes. He also studied the birefringence of crystals under compression and discovered photoelasticity, thereby creating the field of optical mineralogy.
Brewster was a Presbyterian and walked arm in arm with his brother on the Disruption procession which formed the Free Church of Scotland. As a historian of science, Brewster focused on the life and work of his hero, Isaac Newton. Brewster published a detailed biography of Newton in 1831 and later became the first scientific historian to examine many of the papers in Newton’s Nachlass. Brewster also wrote numerous works of popular science,[ and was one of the founders of the British Science Association, of which he was elected President in 1849. He became the public face of higher education in Scotland, serving as Principal of the University of St Andrews (1837–59) and later of the University of Edinburgh (1859–68). Brewster also edited the 18-volume Edinburgh Encyclopædia.
After finishing his theological studies Brewster was licensed to preach, his other interests distracted him from the duties of his profession. In 1799 fellow-student Henry Brougham persuaded him to study the diffraction of light. The results of his investigations were communicated from time to time in papers to the Philosophical Transactions of London and other scientific journals. The fact that other scientists – notably Étienne-Louis Malus and Augustin Fresnel – were pursuing the same investigations contemporaneously in France does not invalidate Brewster’s claim to independent discovery, even though in one or two cases the priority must be assigned to others. His classmate Thomas Dick, also went on to become a popular astronomical writer
Brewster studied The laws of light polarization by reflection and refraction, and other quantitative laws of phenomena.,He discovered the polarising structure induced by heat and pressure, He discovered crystals with two axes of double refraction, and many of the laws of their phenomena, including the connection between optical structure and crystalline forms, he studied The laws of metallic reflection and conducted experiments on the absorption of light and discovered the connection between the refractive index and the polarizing angle; biaxial crystals, and the production of double refraction by irregular heating.
These important discoveries were promptly recognised and the degree of LL.D. was conferred upon Brewster by Marischal College, Aberdeen; in 1815 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and received the Copley Medal; in 1818 he received the Rumford Medal of the society; and in 1816 the French Institute awarded him one-half of the prize of three thousand francs for the two most important discoveries in physical science made in Europe during the two preceding years. In 1821, he was made a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and in 1822 a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Around 1815 he also invented the kaleidoscope, Which soon became popular in United Kingdom, France, and the United States. Brewster chose renowned achromatic lens developer Philip Carpenter as the sole manufacturer of the kaleidoscope in 1817. Although Brewster patented the kaleidoscope in 1817 (GB 4136) however it was copied and sold in large numbers. In 1849 Brewster also released the Stereoscope. However a rival Sir Charles Wheatstone had already discovered the 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 was unwilling to credit Wheatstone with the invention as he thought the true author of the stereoscope was a Mr. Elliot, a “Teacher of Mathematics” from Edinburgh, who conceived of the principles as early as 1823 and constructed a lensless and mirrorless prototype in 1839, to which Brewster suggested that prisms be used for uniting the dissimilar pictures. Another valuable and practical result of Brewster’s optical researches was the improvement of the British lighthouse system when he improved upon the dioptric apparatus.
In 1799 Brewster began writing a regular contribution to the Edinburgh Magazine. In 1807, he undertook the editorship of the newly projected Edinburgh Encyclopædia, of which the first part appeared in 1808, and the last not until 1830. He also contributed to the Encyclopædia Britannica (seventh and eighth editions) writing articles on electricity, hydrodynamics, magnetism, microscope, optics, stereoscope, and voltaic electricity. He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1816. In 1819 Brewster published the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal with Robert Jameson (1774–1854), this took the place of the Edinburgh Magazine. The first ten volumes (1819–1824) were published by Brewster and Jameson, while Jameson edited the last four volumes. 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. He contributed around three hundred papers to the transactions of various learned societies including the North British Review. He also published the Life of Sir Isaac Newton,In 1831, a short popular account of the philosopher’s life in Murray’s Family Library, followed by an 1832 American edition in Harper’s Family Library. In 1855 he published the much fuller Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton.
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” This was taken up by various Declinations and was created by the
British Association for the Advancement of Science. Its first meeting was held at York in 1831; and was attended by Brewster, CharlesBabbage and Sir John Herschel. Brewster also received a knighthood and the decoration of the Royal Guelphic Order. In 1838, he was appointed principal of the united colleges of St Salvator and St Leonard, University of St Andrews. In 1849, he acted as president of the British Association and was elected one of the eight foreign associates of the Institute of France in succession to J. J. Berzelius. in 1859 he became principal of the University of Edinburgh and In 1855, the government of France made him an Officier de la Légion d’honneur. He was a close friend of William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the calotype process, who sent Brewster early examples of his work. It was Brewster who suggested Talbot only patent his process in England. Which led to The worlds first photographic society the Edinburgh Calotype Club, in 1843 Brewster was a prominent member of the club until its dissolution sometime in the mid-1850’s and was then elected the first President of the Photographic Society of Scotland when it was founded in 1856.
Brewster also wrote Notes and Introduction to Carlyle’s translation of Legendre’s Elements of Geometry, Treatise on Optics, Letters on Natural Magic, addressed to Sir Walter Scott, The Martyrs of Science, or the Lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler, More Worlds than One. In his Treatise he demonstrated that vegetal colors were related with the absorption spectra and he described for the first time the red fluorescence of chlorophyl. In addition to his many scientific works and biographies of notable scientists, Brewster also wrote ‘The History of Free Masonry, Drawn from Authentic Sources of Information; with an Account of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, from Its Institution in 1736, to the Present Time’, published in 1804, The work was commissioned by Alexander Lawrie, publisher to the Grand Lodge of Scotland.
Due to Brewster’s Christian beliefs he did not believe in transmutation of species and the theory of evolution and In 1845 he wrote a highly critical review of the evolutionist work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, in the North British Review. which he considered to be an insult to Christian revelation and a dangerous example of materialism. In 1862, he responded to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and published the article The Facts and Fancies of Mr Darwin in Good Words. He stated that Darwin’s book combined both “interesting facts and idle fancies” which made up a “dangerous and degrading speculation”.
Brewster sadly died 10 February 1868 however his pioneering scientific work in the field of Photography, lenticular stereoscopes, portable 3D-viewing devices such as the binocular camera, polarimeters, the polyzonal lens, the lighthouse illuminator,and the kaleidoscope plus his many other scientific works and discoveries make him an important figure in the field of Science.