“If I do this, what farther
can I do?”
“Why, more than ever. Every task thou dost
Brings strength and capability to act.
He who doth climb the difficult mountains
Will the next day outstrip an idler man.
Dip thy young brains in wise men’s deep discourse,
In books which, though they freeze thy wit awhile
Will knit thee in the end with wisdom.”
The choice of life-work which
Brewster made was laborious in the extreme, and he might have said, with
Wesley, that “Leisure and I have taken leave of each other.” Yet it happened
with him, as with all active natures, that the more he did the more he found
time to do. The dying words, long years afterwards, of his friend M. Arago,
might have been taken at this time, as ever after, for the key-note of
Brewster’s life, “Travaillez, travaillez bien.” During these four succeeding
years the Encyclopedia bulks largest in his daily work, and on till the
publication of the last and eighteenth of its bulky volumes in 1830, it
continued a most anxious and arduous undertaking. Indeed, its unsatisfactory
pecuniary results, and a long and painful lawsuit arising out of it, weighed
heavily upon his whole future life, and was not removed till within a few
years of the close, when a compromise took place. The work itself commanded
great admiration, and still holds its own recognised place, but its extreme
irregularity of publication marred greatly its success at the time. This was
owing principally to the dilatory conduct of its literary contributors. It
was not only that the discomfort and the unpopularity fell heavily upon the
editor—himself a man of punctual habits of work,—but also the unavoidable
labour necessary to make any way at all against such negligence and delay.
Many of his friends promised articles and forgot all about them. Mr. Stuart
of Bolton having engaged to write, hired a room in the High Street to be
near books of reference, but even after such demonstrations of diligence no
article was forthcoming, and the editor was obliged, as usual, to do the
work himself. The mere correspondence of the Encyclopedia would have been
work enough for most men—many of the letters requiring editorial responses
being of a trivial and unnecessary kind. He thus writes to Yeitch :—
“Jessefield, Portobello, Sept. 6, 1810.
“I would have answered (your letter) long before this had I not been
prevented by a load of business. You will easily understand the nature of my
situation, when I mention to you that besides the duty of editing the
Encyclopedia, and writing many of the articles, I have a correspondence to
carry on with about an hundred different authors, who are writing for the
work, and have often twenty or thirty letters lying by me unanswered. Even
this labour, however, would not have prevented me from writing you, had I
not, for these two years, been constantly determining to come to Jedburgh to
see you. I have been hitherto unable to accomplish this journey, short as it
is, though I am not without hopes of seeing you some time this harvest.
. . . Your hygrometer of beech wood is very simple and ingenious; but though
it may be used for showing variations of humidity, yet it could scarcely be
depended upon for measuring these variations. I am afraid you will find that
the wood loses its power of expansion, and will not be so much affected by
moisture a few months hence as it is at present. I consider the cold
produced by evaporation as the only accurate measure of the degrees, and
consequently of the humidity of the atmosphere. I have not yet got my
achromatic telescope. There is no better method of polishing lenses than
with pitch and flower of putty.”
Most painful and harassing of all were the interrupted and broken
friendships which were the result of this uncomfortable period, of which it
is unnecessary at this lapse of time to say more, than that there were
probably faults on both sides,—a commonplace, but true, solution of much
that often appears inexplicable. In some instances, at least, the best and
oldest of these ties were happily reunited. One bright circumstance shines
like a sunbeam through the gloom connected with this literary undertaking. A
request from Dr. Brewster to the Rev. Thomas Chalmers of Kilmany, to write
the article Christianity, turned the mind of the young and careless, though
brilliant, divine, to study the truths of which he had then but a
superficial knowledge, and ultimately proved the means of leading him to
grasp them as a life-reality, with a force and power without which he could
not have been the blessing to his country which he proved in after years.
This was the beginning of a long and cordial friendship, which only
terminated with the death of Chalmers in 1847.
Whatever the pressure of work might be from the Encyclopedia and the
Edinburgh Journal, Brewster never stinted or stayed in his own peculiar
career. In 1811 he edited a new edition of Ferguson’s Astronomy, to which he
contributed an Introduction and twelve supplementary chapters. In 1812 he
wrote the article Burning-Glasses for the Encyclopedia, containing a
description of a polyzonal lens which he had invented the year before, when
examining the experiments of Buffon. This lens, the source of much pain to
himself, and yet, as many believe, of much blessing to his kind, will be
described in another chapter. Veitch writes to him at this time :—
“Inchbonny, 5th August 1812.
“You have pointed out some very curious things concerning burning mirrors,
and it would be of very great importance to put your devices into practice.
I could wish that you would pay a little more attention to the fluid which
you showed me, and find the true proportion of the curvatures of the two
crown glasses, for I am convinced that it will answer better than the best
flint glass that ever was made. I intend to make you a small reflector as a
specimen of my workmanship ; the tube will be about nine inches long, and
two inches and a quarter diameter, or thereabouts.
“As for the comet, I do not know what to say about it; the first sight I got
of it was on the 27th August 1811, and it was very nigh the star marked 26
on the shoulder of the Little Lion; if I had lost sight of it three weeks
after it had made its appearance, I would have concluded that its angle with
the ecliptic would have been so great that it would have passed by the
pole-star, for the only motion it had was that of latitude; but it lost that
motion, and had little other motion but in longitude, till near its
disappearance on the 25th of December, when it was in the 15th degree of
Aquarius, with one degree of south declination ; from the observations that
I made on it, I was convinced that its path could neither be a straight line
nor any regular course. Mr. Playfair told me that the astronomer at Glasgow
had found its path .corresponded very well with a parabola. It was as easy
for him to make its path correspond with that curve, as to make one of
Herschel’s planetary nebula into a comet, which you will remember he
published in the newspaper. On seeing the paper I sought diligently for it,
and found it to be the planetary nebula discovered by Herschel on Feb. 1,
1785, vol. lxxv. of the Transactions, page 266.
“I must now remain, your sincere friend, James Veitch.
“The above was written before I received your letter. I am very happy that I
have had it in my power to serve you at this time,—I did not make any delay
in making the two glasses, as I am always very impatient about anything that
I want, I thought you would be the same ; they are scarcely so fine as I
could have wished them, on account of the want of emery properly prepared,
but I hope they will in some measure answer your purpose.”
In 1813 Dr. Brewster sent his first paper to the Royal Society of London, on
“Some Properties of Light,” and in the same year he published a Treatise on
New Philosophical Instruments for various purposes in the Arts and
Sciences,—a subject with which his early Inchbonny days had made him
practically, as well as theoretically, acquainted. His health at last began
to give way, or at least seriously required change of scene and complete
relaxation. He therefore determined to take his first tour on the Continent.
He had resided at Portobello for some time after his marriage, but had now
settled in an unpretending “flat” in Duke Street, Edinburgh. His home had
become the abode of little children. His eldest son James was born in 1812,
and his second son, Charles Macpherson, a child of much love and much
sorrow, was born in 1813. Mrs. Brewster could not, therefore, accompany her
husband, and we see on this occasion much of the tender and beautiful
romance of character which edged many of the dark clouds of his life with a
silver light—his warm home affections being a characteristic through life,
though often veiled and marred by a certain constitutional reserve, and
other causes. He got a miniature portrait of his wife taken, as a travelling
companion, and with a sad heart at the separation, set out on his first
foreign journey. He writes to his wife, July 17, 1814:—“I was in a very
melancholy mood all yesterday, my dearest Juliet, at the prospect of such a
long absence from you and my dear children; but the rapid travelling, and
the constant succession of new objects, have raised my spirits and
habituated me in a slight degree to the first separation in our married
life. My imagination, too, has been very kind to me. It has never allowed me
to be for a moment absent from the only objects on which it delights to
rest. I have seen every hour the scene that has been enlivening your little
circle : our dear and intelligent little James kissing his sweet Charles,
and their lovely mamma, like their guardian angel, watching her little
charge, and teaching them to remember their dear papa. Send me a lock of
your hair, and another of theirs.” Dr. Brewster continued a close and minute
correspondence with his wife, containing everything that he could think of
to amuse and interest her in her quiet life and delicate health, even to a
sketch which he entitles, “Form of fashionable bonnet,” apparently combining
the formation of a helmet and a coal-scuttle ! From these familiar letters I
extract the following, as interesting notices of the great men of that now
past generation, which show the warm appreciation which he ever had of those
who had distinguished themselves in any branch of science, and also the
pleasant and honest surprise which their recognition of him as a brother and
peer caused in his mind :—
“Portland Place, July 23, 1814.
“ . . . When we were about three miles to the north of Slough, I observed in
a carriage, which passed us very rapidly, Mr. Watt and his lady, whom I was
so anxious to meet in London. The separation of the two carriages was so
rapid that I could not make myself heard in attempting to stop the driver.
When I reached Slough I learned from Dr. Herschel that Mr. Watt had spent
three days with him, and had left him that morning. This was very mortifying
to me, as I should otherwise have had the pleasure of meeting these two
great men under circumstances of peculiar interest. Dr. Herschel received me
with the utmost warmth, and begged that I would stay to dinner. He requested
me to present his. compliments to La Place when I went to Paris; and when I
observed to him that I had only a letter of introduction to M. Prony, and
might not have the honour of meeting such a man as La Place, he remarked
that this was the same as a letter of introduction to all the French
philosophers ; and that if I had no letters at all, my own name would be a
sufficient introduction. This was obviously saying too much, but it was
pleasant to receive such a compliment from such a great and venerable man as
“Paris, August 13, 1814.
“ . . . Biot came to me very early in the forenoon, and repeated along with
me the greater part of my experiments, leapt from his chair, clapped his
hands, and constantly exclaimed, “O! que c’est magnifique! 0! que, c’est
joli!” complimenting me in the true French style. I then accompanied Biot to
the Library of the National Institute, where I had the good fortune to be
introduced to Arago, an able astronomer, who has also made some fine optical
“At three o’clock M. Biot and I set off for Arcueil, and on the road he
promised to write the article Magnetism for the Encyclopaedia, in which
branch of science he has made several discoveries. When we arrived at the
chateau of La Place, we were told by the servant that he was in the garden,
and for nearly ten minutes we sought for him in vain among beautiful arbours
and alleys of trees. He at last appeared, and gratified my curiosity, which
had been wound up to the highest pitch. I was introduced to him by Biot,
presented him with copies of my papers, and had a little conversation with
him before dinner, in which he spoke of Mr. Playfair with kindness. La Place
is a man below the middle size, of a fair complexion, and thin make. He is
distant in his manner, speaks very little, and walks with the stiffness of a
senator. When he walks in his grounds he carries a coarse stick about two
feet higher than himself, and wears a grey cloth cap resembling a helmet.
His hair was tied and powdered in the French style, but in other respects he
was dressed like an English gentleman. He was a great favourite of
Buonaparte, who loaded him with kindness, and took his son along with him as
one of his aides-de-camp. Our party consisted of six, La Place and his son,
his son-in-law, M. Biot, and M. Poisson, a most distinguished mathematician,
who has recently made some brilliant discoveries in electricity. Our dinner
consisted of soup, fresh eggs, bouilli, roasted veal, mutton-chops, roasted
fowl, salad, French beans, honeycomb, and a hind of rice potage, besides a
dessert of apricots, pears, cherries, currants, and tarts, most of which
dishes were served in succession, and without any order whatever. I was
highly amused with the fresh eggs, and every person during the whole of the
dinner kept the same knife and fork. After coffee we all set off to the
house of the celebrated chemist, M. Berthollet, for the purpose of
introducing me to him, and in order that he might see my experiments on
mother-of-pearl, which La Place requested me to show him. He appeared,
however, at the end of a long vista of trees, accompanied by his wife, on
their way to La Place’s chateau. A more homely pair you never saw, and
though very rich, they were dressed little better than a decent Scotch
farmer and his wife. We then went into La Place’s study, where M. Biot
explained at great length the different experiments which I made. La Place
was highly pleased with them, and was very slow in believing that they were
“Paris, August 19, 1814.
“ . . . Went with M. Biot to a sitting of the National Institute, and had an
opportunity of seeing almost all the distinguished philosophers in Paris.
There were many strangers there, and several Englishmen of eminence, all of
whom were seated at the backs of the members, who were arranged round an
oblong circular table. When the business commenced, M. Biot desired me to
follow him, and I was confounded when I saw that he was taking me from the
rest of the visitors into the very centre of the circular table, where three
chairs were placed beside the President. I was then introduced to the
President, M. Lefevre Gineau, and ordered to take my seat in that
conspicuous situation. In a short time M. Biot left the hall, and I was left
alone in that solitary spot, wondering, along with all the other visitors,
why I had been placed there. For a person of my nerves this was sufficiently
trying, but it did not overpower me. . . . On Thursday I went to see M.
Arago, and the Observatory, which contains many curious instruments, but few
very good ones. Arago is a very interesting young man. He was employed by
Government in making astronomical observations in Spain, and was thrown into
prison and cruelly treated. He afterwards escaped to Africa, where he
travelled with a long beard as a Mussulman, and through many hazards reached
his native country. He has a lovely wife, and a son. Being the particular
friend of the celebrated traveller, Baron Humboldt, the Prussian Ambassador,
he introduced me to him after we had seen the Observatory. I was very kindly
received by Humboldt, who was acquainted with my experiments on Light, and I
hope to see him frequently before I leave Paris. He is a plain, frank man,
and speaks English, French, Spanish, and German with equal fluency. I
believe I have not mentioned to you that my book has been long known on the
Continent by means of a most extensive analysis of it inserted in four
successive numbers of the Bibliotheque Britannique, a work published at
Geneva, and circulated in every part of Europe.”
Besides correspondence, Brewster found time to' keep a most minute and
particular journal, which he seems to have had some thoughts of publishing,
and for which his friend Williams, the eminent water-colour painter, drew
six beautiful little sketches, which are now at Belleville. This journal,
although now quite out of date, is extremely interesting, as showing the
minute observation which was one of his characteristics even at that time,
and probably one of the secrets of his success. Nothing escaped his quick
eyes, which seemed to photograph on his mind every stone and crevice, every
light and shadow, every window of a house, every colour of a landscape,
every line or curve in pictures and statues. His journal is far more than a
diary; it goes to the accuracy of hours and minutes. I shall only extract
enough to show this characteristic minuteness and observation, and also some
further interesting notices of French savans.
Dr. Brewster’s appearance at this time was extremely prepossessing, although
he had neither striking features nor commanding figure. His clusters of
brown curling hair were often remarked, and the open, intellectual
expression of his pale face, with the exceeding sweetness of his eyes.
Although thirty-three, he was very youthful-looking, so much so that, along
with his extremely unassuming manners, the French philosophers were quite
puzzled, and it was probably at the very meeting of the Institute described
on another page that they are recorded to have said, “What! is that boy the
great Brewster?” The constitutional nervousness from which he had long
suffered showed itself principally at this time in a degree of timidity
which he made considerable efforts to overcome, thus alluded to amusingly in
one of his home letters:—“I am trying as hard as possible to get impudent. I
began this new career by calling upon Mr. Sylvester, the chemist, at Derby.
I tried it a second time at Oxford, and introduced myself to Dr. Robertson,
Savilian Professor of Astronomy, and I hope to have soon some other
opportunities of showing off my new acquirements in this way.”
EXTRACTS FROM DIARY.
“Paris, Tuesday, August 16, 1814.
“M. Biot and M. Cauchoix called upon me at two o’clock, and showed me the
ingenious instrument called a Spherometer, invented by the latter, for
measuring the thickness of very thin plates.
“About half-past two o’clock I accompanied M. Biot to the Institute, the
ordinary meetings of which are held in one of the apartments of the Library,
in the Palais des Beaux Arts. The business transacted at this meeting
consisted in a report by M. Poisson, on some inventions that had been laid
before the Institute by one Muret; a proposal by M. Legendre to alter the
law relative to the annual prize ; a communication by M. Bossel; an
explanation of an improved circle, probably by the inventor; and a long
paper on iodine by M. Gay-Lussac.
“As this meeting was well attended, I had an opportunity of seeing many of
the most distinguished men in Paris; the principal members were—
“Carnot.—He resembled very much the picture of him which I have, but appears
to be dissatisfied and discontented, and in bad health.
“Legendre.—A very tall and very thin man, with an expressive and intelligent
countenance, white powdered hair, tied and curled above the ears.
“Desmarets.—An old, reverend-looking man. One of the old chemists.
“Poisson.—A young and active little man, with a sweet and expressive
“Arago.—Young (28), good-looking, dark, very pleasant and intelligent.
“Monge.—Below the middle size, stoops, has a full face, and white curled
“Lamarck.—A good-looking old man, with a light coat and an embroidered
waistcoat, little, and rather crooked.
“Portal.—A fine, reverend-looking old man, with a small face.
“Gay-Lussac.—A slender young man, a little marked on the face with the
small-pox. Apparently a great enthusiast in chemistry.
“Rossel.—A little, thick, and active man.
“Charles.—An old man, intelligent face.
“Burckhardt.—A thin, pale, and slender young man.
“Delamhre.—A little, oldish man, very yellow ; a little marked with the
“Cuvier.—Has rather the appearance of being self-sufficient; is a little
man, with a projecting brow and chin.
“Huissard.—A stout, and rather corpulent man. He sat on the left hand of the
President; spectacles, and sallow. Y.-President.
“Prony.—Not handsome ; large nose, intelligent and active.
“Lefevre Gineau.—Like Prony, so much so, that I took the one for the other.
He is President of the class.’’
“Paris, Tuesday, August 23, 1814.
“I went this morning to call upon M. Rochon, formerly the Abbe Rdchon, a
venerable and intelligent old man of seventy-three, who is well known to
philosophers by his scientific works and inventions. He showed me his
prismatic micrometer, a small instrument, with a level for measuring the
inclination of lines to the horizon by the coincidence of two images, and
his method of doubling the double refraction of Iceland crystal by
extinguishing two of the images, and employing the two that are most remote.
In the shop of the optician who works for him, he showed me a huge plate of
glass, 6 feet in diameter, and 3 inches thick, which had been melted at the
Gobelins in the time of Louis xvi., for the purpose of making a burning
lens. He expects that it will soon be ground, the operation being already
begun. The instrument mentioned above for measuring the inclination of lines
to the horizon was first suggested and described in my Treatise on
Instruments, the only difference between the two being in the way of forming
the double images. M. Arago having mentioned to me that M. Rochon had
discovered before me the double dispersive power of calcarean spar, I
replied that he had given merely the two dispersions, not the two dispersive
powers of that crystal. M. Arago assured me that this was not the case, and
I of course applied for information to M. Rochon himself. He showed me the
table containing the results of his experiments, which was exactly what is
given in Cavallo’s Natural Philosophy, to which I have alluded in my book. I
explained to M. Rochon that his results were merely the dispersions, and he
admitted that I was perfectly correct. The slightest examination of his
table, indeed, is a sufficient proof that this is the case.”
Brewster and his travelling party left Paris en voiture on August 28th. He
stayed three days only at Geneva, where, however, he made acquaintances so
agreeable and so congenial that they were never forgotten in after life,
Professor Prevost, M. Pictet and his family, amongst the number. Sir
Humphrey and Lady Davy he also met frequently. An expedition to Ferney
interested him much ; in Voltaire’s bedroom he saw an engraving of Newton,
which he long afterwards described. The short tour through France and
Switzerland was concluded by their arrival in England on September 28th, the
journal being continued by hour and minute. Thus we have—
“Sept. 10, Sat. 9.25.—Cross the wooden bridge of St. Pelissier, which is now
very good and safe, and from which there is a fine view of the Arve, Mont
Blanc towering above it. We then ascend a most dreadful road over unbroken
masses of rock. I observed several fine examples of the scoops and grooves
which Sir James Hall observed upon Corstorphine Hill. They stretch in the
direction of S.E., which is the direction of the valley. . . .
“9.45.—Most beautiful scoops on the right hand, and ruts in the rock; many
of the hollows are finely smoothed out.
“9.48.—The ruts and scoops are here most distinct, and more perfect than any
of those seen at Corstorphine Hill.
“9.50.—Enter the Valley of Chamounix, and observe scoops below the road near
the Arve. .
“9.58.—A fine hollow on the right, where the mountains retire, in which is
situated the village of Chavan, on the banks of a brook; the aiguilles of
Mont Blanc are now seen. ... f
“10.50.—Enormous blocks of stone, not rounded, appear here ; a little wheat
is grown in this quarter.
“11.—Descend and walk to the Glacier de Boisson, which is very fine ; the
peaks of ice are extremely grand, and have a fine blue colour in the
crevices ; at the side of the glacier numerous trees are crushed to pieces ;
large blocks of granite are suspended on the flanks of Mont Blanc, and the
earth is turned up in such a manner as if some great convulsion had taken
place. The plateau of the glacier is in no respect remarkable; huge blocks
of granite are lying upon the ice, by the descent of which they are
transported to a lower level. . . .
‘‘3.25.—Keach the summit of Montanvert, and rest in the house erected by M.
Felix Deporte, once the French resident at Geneva, for this purpose. There
was a fine wooden fire blazing, and we were supplied with bread, milk, and
cheese. The names of De la Saussure, Dolomier, La Lande, and Pictet are
painted on the walls.
“4.3.—Set out to .see the glaciers, and descend a hill till we reach the Mer
de Glace. It is like the waves of the sea, as if they had been fixed by
sudden congelation. Where the ice is most perfect, which is on the sides of
the deep crevices, the colour is a fine blue. There is an appearance of a
vertical stratification in the icy masses stretching in the direction of the
valley in which the glacier lies. We passed a huge granite block, about 25
feet high, resting upon the ice. It descends continually. The noise of the
waters rushing below is very fine, and the sound of large stones or masses
of ice tumbling into the crevices continually remind the spectator that his
situation upon the summit of the frozen waves is not exempt from danger.
Towards the edge of the Mer de Glace the ice is covered with pounded
granite, and huge masses of that stone mark the boundary between the ice and
the mountains. In these places where the ice is covered with sand, it has
the appearance of being perfectly black, like the darkest Cairngorm, while
in other places the perfect ice is green. Upon breaking this apparently
black ice it is perfectly transparent, and remarkably pure and hard.
“The surface of the glaciers exhibits also the appearance of veins exactly
like rocks of stone. . . .
“4.56.—When we had reached the bottom we were accosted in English by an old
man, who was one of the two Cretins described by Saussure, and exhibited in
England. I recollected having seen him in J edburgh many years ago along
with his brother. He is very poor, and draws a small subsistence from the
generosity of the English. . . .
“Sept. 12, 4.15.—Reach Vevay, where we stop for the night. It is a large
town, with many excellent houses, but the streets are narrow, and without
footpaths. In the evening I walked along the banks of the lake in a fine
mall of trees, from which there was a charming view of the sun setting
behind the ridge of Jura. He had just descended below the horizon, and left
a fine glow of purely yellow light along the whole of the western sky. Above
was a warm glow of red, and the whole extent of the lake towards the west
was of a lovely purple colour. As the sun descended the yellow gradually
deepened into orange, and the purple glow upon the lake became more faint.
This lovely scene formed a grand contrast with the dark gloom which was
thrown over the Eastern Alps, and the blackness of the part of the lake
which intervened. . . .
“Sept. 15, 11.27.—Passed some cottages ; the country beautiful, and wooded.
After passing through a very pretty country we reach the village of Lechelin,
with a church, and many thatched houses with roofs extremely steep. The
women most extraordinarily dressed, with a circle of wrought horse-hair like
gauze sticking up over their heads, and their hair in two large plaits
behind, with strings tied to it, and reaching to their feet. . . .
“Sept 16, 4.25.—Reach the Liitschine, a large and rapid river formed by the
Black Liitschine, which runs through Grindelwald, and the White Liitschine,
which flows through Lauterbrunnen. The rocks on the right are so high that
they are covered with snow. On the left is a lofty mount, with singular
convolutions on the strata.
“4.55.—Most extraordinary rock on the right, with trees on its perpendicular
face like men walking up. These are called the rocks of Eisenfluh ; they are
900 feet high, and have a village of the same name on the top.
“5.25.—Most extraordinary convolutions on the left towards the root of the
rock ; they are really double convolutions included in a single one. . . .
“6.35.—Turn back to the inn ; the valley and its precipitous flanks were
almost wholly in total darkness, while the red twilight shed a bright hue
over the Jungfrau, the Breithorn, and the Lauterhorn. The whole appeared as
if we were looking out of a dark room into a , higher region. This
appearance was still more striking at a later hour, when Saturn was seen
over the Jungfrau, and when the lights in the cottages appeared like so many
stars in the dark declivities of the valley. The blue and white streaks on
the calcareous rock had a very singular appearance.”