John Robison (physicist)

John Robison (February 4, 1739 – January 30, 1805) was a Scottish physicist and inventor. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.


The physicist

He was born in Boghall, West Lothian, Scotland and attended Glasgow Grammar School and the University of Glasgow. After a brief stay in London in 1758 Robison accompanied Thomas Wolfe on his expedition to Quebec (Canada). His mathematical skills were employed in navigation and surveying. Returning to England in 1762, he joined the Board of Longitude — a team of scientists who tested John Harrison’s marine chronometer on a voyage to Jamaica.

On his return he settled in Glasgow engaging in the practical science of James Watt and Joseph Black in opposition to the systematic continental European chemistry of Antoine Lavoisier and its adherents such as Joseph Priestly. In 1766 he succeeded Black as Professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow.

In 1770 he travelled with Admiral Charles Knowles to Saint Petersburg where he taught mathematics to the cadets at the Naval Academy. Robison returned to Scotland in 1773 and took up the post of Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He lectured on mechanics, hydrostatics, astronomy, optics, electricity and magnetism. His conception of mechanical philosophy’ became influential in nineteenth-century British physics. His name appears in the 1776 "Minute Book of The Poker Club", a crucible of the Scottish Enlightenment. In 1783 he became General Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and in 1797 his articles for the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" gave a good account of the scientific, mathematical and technological knowledge of the day. He also prepared for publication, in 1799, the chemical lectures of his friend and mentor, Joseph Black.

Robison worked with James Watt on an early steam car. This project came to nothing and has no direct connection to Watt's later improvement of the Newcomen steam engine. He along with Joseph Black and others gave evidence about Watt's originality and their own lack of connection to his key idea of the Separate Condenser.

Robison did however invent the siren, though it was Charles Cagniard de la Tour who named it after producing an improved model.

The conspiracy theorist

Towards the end of his life, he became an enthusiastic conspiracy theorist, publishing "Proofs of a Conspiracy ..." in 1797, alleging clandestine intrigue by the "Illuminati" and Freemasons (the work's full title was "Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the secret meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati and Reading Societies"). Robison and French priest Abbé Barruel independently developed similar views that the "Illuminati" had infiltrated Continental Freemasonry, leading to the excesses of the French Revolution. In 1798, the Reverend G. W. Snyder sent Robison's book to George Washington for his thoughts on the subject in which he replied to him in his [
] . Modern conspiracy theorists like Nesta Webster and William Guy Carr believe that Robison's book described what the Illuminati may have started was the template for the subversion of otherwise benign organizations by radical groups through the 19th and 20th centuries.


* "Outlines of mechanical philosophy : containing the heads of a course of lectures", Edinburgh, William Creech, 1781.
* "Outlines of a course of experimental philosophy", Edinburgh, William Creech, 1784.
* "Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free-Masons, Illuminati and Reading Societies, etc., collected from good authorities", Edinburgh, 1797.
* "Outlines of a course of lectures on mechanical philosophy", Edinburgh, J. Brown, 1803.
* "Elements of mechanical philosophy : being the substance of a course of lectures on that science", vol 1, Edinburgh, Archibald Constable, 1804.
* "The articles "steam" and "steam-engines" written for the Encyclopedia Britannica", edited by David Brewster with notes and additions by James Watt and a letter on some properties, Edinburgh and London, James Ballantyne & Co. 1818.
* "A system of mechanical philosophy", Edinburgh, J. Murray, 1822.

Proofs of Conspiracy, reprints and related documents

* "Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free-Masons, Illuminati and Reading Societies, etc., collected from good authorities", Edinburgh, 1797 ; 2nd ed. London, T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1797 with a Postsript ; 3rd ed. with Postscript, Philadelphia, T. Dobson & W. Cobbet, 1798 ; New York, 1798 ; Dublin 1798 ; "Proofs of a Conspiracy", Western Islands, 1900 ; "The Illuminati", taken from "Proofs of a world conspiracy", Elizabeth Knauss [1930] ; "Proof's [sic!] of a conspiracy", Ram Reprints, 1964 ; "Proofs of a conspiracy", Boston, Western Islands, "The Americanist classics", [1967] ; Proofs of a conspiracy, Islands Press, 1978 ; C P a Book Pub, 2002 ISBN 0944379699 ; Kessinger Publishing, 2003 ISBN 0766181243
** "Ueber geheime Gesellschaften und deren Gefährlichkeit für Staat und Religion...", translated in german, Königslutter, 1800.
* [Anti-Jacobin] , "New Lights on Jacobinism", abstracted from Professor Robison’s History of Free Masonry, with an appendix containing an account of Voltaire’s behaviour on his death-bed, and a letter from J. H. Stone to Dr. Priestley, disclosing the principles of Jacobinism. By the author of "Jacobinism displayed", Birmingham, E. Piercy, Birmingham, 1798.
* [Cornelius] (pseudonym), "Extracts from Professor Robison’s "Proofs of a Conspiracy" & c.", with brief reflections on the charges he has exhibited, the evidence he has produced and the merit of his performance, Boston, Manning & Loring, Boston, 1799.
* Seth Payson, "Proofs of the real existence, and dangerous tendency, of Illuminism", containing an abstract of what Dr. Robinson and the Abbé Barruel have published on this subject ; with collateral proofs and general observations, Charlestown, 1802 ; Invisible College Press, LLC, 2003 ISBN 1931468141
* [A Master Mason] ," Free Masonry. Its pretensions exposed in faithful extracts of its standard authors", with a review of [Salem] Town’s "Speculative Masonry" : its liability to pervert the doctrines of revealed religion discovered, its dangerous tendency exhibited in extracts from the Abbé Barruel and Professor Robison, and further illustrated in its base service to the Illuminati, New York, 1828.


* [ Past anti-Masons : John Robison, on]
* [ Biography, Papers of John Robison, Edinburgh University Library]
* [ "The French Revolution and the Bavarian Illuminati", on Robison and Barruel, Freemasonry BC-Y]

External links

* [ Complete text of "Proofs of a Conspiracy ..." at]
* [ Biography at "Significant Scots"]
* [ Introduction and first two chapters of Robison's book: "Proofs of a Conspiracy ..."]

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