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Significant Scots
Professor William John MacQuorn Rankine

1820 - 1872

"With a profusion of auburn hair, he had a head like imperial Jove. As Professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics in Glasgow University he was learned in mathematics, profuse in his use of algebraic symbols, and profound in all kinds of equation and analysis. Some of his calculations were too deep for ordinary understandings to fathom. Yet his social character had a light and airy side. He wrote rhymes of infinite jest; some of his original songs he sang to tunes of his own composition, accompanying himself on the piano; while he was also the author of a little series of ‘Fables,’ very brief and very pointed, which, as he repeated them with quaint gravity, were always received with relish."

This is a description of Professor Rankine, given by Dr. Hedderwick, in his delightful volume, "Backward Glances," while enumerating the company to be met at dinner at the house of Sheriff Glassford Bell. For the following details of the Professor’s career the present writer is indebted to a manuscript book of memoranda by Rankine himself, in possession of his cousin, Miss Grahame, London. An account of his life by his cousin, James Grahame, evidently condensed from the same notes, was printed in "Memoirs and Portraits of One Hundred Glasgow Men," in 1886.

His father, a younger son of Macquorn or M'Oran Rankine of Drumdow, in Ayrshire, after serving as a lieutenant m the 21st Regiment, was latterly Secretary to the Caledonian Railway Company. His mother, Barbara Grahame, elder daughter of Archibald Grahame of Drumquhassel, banker in Glasgow, was a niece of James Grahame, author of The Sabbath (see page 125). The poet, an elder son, was born at Edinburgh, 5th July, 1820, and was educated at Ayr Academy, Glasgow High School, and Edinburgh University. He had been early instructed by his father in elementary mathematics, mechanics, and physics; and when he was fourteen a gift of Newton’s "Principia" from his uncle, Archibald Grahame, gave him a foundation in higher dynamics, and may be said to have decided his career.

Two years latei Rankine gained a gold medal for an essay on the undulatory theory of light. In 1838, after helping his father on works of the Dalkeith railway, he became a pupil of Sir John Macneill, the eminent civil engineer, and three years later he contrived, on the Drogheda railway, a new device for setting out curves, since known as "Rankine’s method." At the age of twenty-two he published his first pamphlet, "An Experimental Enquiry into the Advantages of Cylindrical Wheels on Railways," and on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s first visit to Edinburgh superintended the erection of the bonfire on Arthur’s Seat so scientifically that the rock was partially vitrified. Ten years later, along with John Thomson, he revived the scheme proposed in 1848 by his friend Lewis Gordon and by Lawrence Hill, junior, to supply Glasgow with Loch Katrine water. In 1855 he succeeded Gordon as Regius Professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics in Glasgow University. And in 1857 Dublin University recognised his scientific discoveries communicated to the many learned societies of which he was a member, by conferring on him the degree of LL.D.

Two years afterwards the Professor entered a new rd/d. Government accepted the offer to raise a corps of Glasgow University Volunteers, and Rankine received a commission as its captain. For four years he remained an enthusiast in the new movement, and published papers on target and rifle practice. On the amalgamation of his corps with the 1st Lanarkshire Regiment in 1860 he became senior major, and commanded the second battalion in the great review of 21,514 volunteers by the Queen at Edinburgh on 7th August. He resigned in 1864. The rest of his career was that of the busy engineer, professor, lecturer, and author of scientific works. His chief productions were his "Manual of Civil Engineering", published in 1862, and in 1866 his "Shipbuilding, Theoretical and Practical," of which some parts near the beginning were written by F. K. Barnes. He was also author, in 1870, of a memoir of John Elder, the eminent shipbuilder. During his life Rankine’s poetic gift was known chiefly to friends by his singing of his own songs, to which his voice and manner lent a singular charm. Some of these songs were published with the music, and at least three appeared in Blackwood's Magazine. After his death, however, in 1874, a small volume of his "Songs and Fables" was published in Glasgow by Mr. MacLehose. He was never married, and died in Glasgow, 24th December, 1872. "The Engine-Driver " is reproduced here by kind permission of Messrs. William Blackwood & Sons.

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