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The Production and Dissemination of Knowledge in Scotland

Lesley Graham

2. Professional Knowledge

Professor Anderson, Dr Franklin and president Washington

Ronald Crawford

Texte intégral

  • 1 Letter to Washington, with enclosures, of 26 August 1793. The Papers of George Washington, Presiden (...)
  • 2 Unpublished Buchan memorandum on Professor Anderson – University of Glasgow, Murray Collection MS. (...)

1In December 1754 John Anderson, then aged 28, was in Toulouse, having gone there from Montauban, acting as tutor to the son of Sir James Campbell, when he learned that as a result of the exercise of patronage on the part of another Campbell, this time Archibald, the great 3rd Duke of Argyll, he had been appointed professor of oriental languages – effectively Hebrew – at his alma mater, the University of Glasgow. So began for Anderson, a fluent French speaker, a long love affair with France culminating in his spending the summer of 1791 in Paris when, or so he tells George Washington, he mingled in the company of Generals Custine, Dumouriez and Lafayette himself.1 By that time he had been a professor at Glasgow for almost 40 years, most of the time occupying the chair of natural philosophy to which he had been translated in 1757. On the evidence of his former student, the 11th Earl of Buchan, we learn that when Anderson returned to Glasgow from Paris ‘his name and reputation’ had become ‘blackened to a Democrat & betrayer of his Country.’2

  • 3 Unpublished letter of May 9, 1808 to the Reverend James Wodrow – Mitchell Library, Glasgow MS. (no (...)

2 Who was John Anderson – and what was he doing in Paris at that momentous time? If his great contemporaries David Hume, Adam Smith and Joseph Black sit at the epicentre of the Scottish Enlightenment Anderson could be said to patrol the outer rim. As a scientist he was no James Hutton. He published little and, of what he did, virtually nothing is remembered today. Radical, irascible, disputatious and litigious he was not an easy colleague. His colleague at Glasgow, Adam Smith, famously fell out with him. The University Principal, William Leechman, seriously detested him. Yet he was loved by his students who affectionately called him ‘Jolly Jack Phosphorus’, a reference to the ingenuity of his classroom demonstrations to which he admitted the ordinary townsfolk of Glasgow – the ‘non-togati’ as they were called. Three of his more illustrious former students were James Boswell, David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan and William Windham, Pitt’s Secretary at War from 1794 to 1801. The eccentric Buchan brackets Anderson together with Leechman, Smith, Joseph Black and John Millar as belonging to a group ‘not equalled in their Departments at that time in any University in the world.’3

  • 4 Crawford, pp. 48-52. References to ‘Crawford’ are to this author’s monograph, Professor Anderson, D (...)

3Anderson was not a ground-breaking theoretical scientist. His interests lay in much more practical matters, especially in the mechanisms of war and, more narrowly still, in field artillery and how to improve its performance and facilitate its usefulness in military campaigns. The reason Anderson came to Paris in the summer of 1791 was because a couple of years earlier he had suffered the ignominy of his lightweight, easily transportable six-pounder field cannon - which sat on a tripod instead of on wheels, and with an ingenious hydraulic recoil check integral to the design – having been rejected by the British Board of Ordnance, after extensive field trials at Woolwich. Anderson’s gun had performed impeccably right up to the very last test when the recoil mechanism had unexpectedly jammed. According to his punctilious account of the Woolwich field trials of his gun preserved in the Strathclyde University archives, Anderson believed he had been the victim of an elaborate conspiracy.4

4All we can say for certain is that he had suffered the misfortune to approach the Board at a time – that is, 1789 – when the whole of Europe was about to embark on the biggest arms race in modern times in anticipation of a lengthy continental war. In Britain new designs of ordnance had just been resolved upon by the Board of Ordnance who, clearly, did not welcome, or wish to find credible - least of all endorse - the gruff Scotsman’s inventions. Shrewdly, in advance of the Woolwich trials, Anderson had sought and obtained from the Master General of the Ordnance, the 3rd Duke of Richmond, a grudging acceptance that if his gun failed to pass muster – as indeed, by the narrowest of margins, it did – he could then proceed to offer the weapon to foreign powers, meaning France and the United States of America. As we shall see, that is exactly what happened; and it explains Anderson’s 1791 visit to Paris and also his subsequent correspondence with President Washington two years later.

5While he was in Paris Anderson published in French an edition of his Essays on Field Artillery. We can compare the two editions: first, the English version is the extremely rare Bodleian copy, one of only two I have been able to trace in Europe and America. The French edition exists in multiple copies from Anderson’s own library now in Strathclyde University archives. As Muir was the first to point out, the text is by no means the same, the French version supplying, for example, a much more detailed explanation of Anderson’s secret gun-metal formula. In English it can be translated as follows:

  • 5 James Muir, John Anderson Pioneer of Technical Education and the College he founded (Glasgow, 1950) (...)

The cast cannon of Anderson has copper for its base, but there is no mixture of tin or of zinc or of brass as in ordinary cannons of bronze; and it is easy to regulate the degree of heat necessary for casting, so that the mixture and the pouring temperature produces always the same effects.5

6And he proceeds to itemise six advantages ‘over all other kinds of cast cannon’ including the following:

  • 6 ibid., pp. 44-5.

Although it has a greater specific weight than bronze, it is so much stronger, that a cannon made of this metal is able to be reduced in weight until it may be lighter than a bronze cannon of the same nature; and yet it will be stronger because of its greater tenacity.6

7When Anderson tried to interest Washington in his inventions in his long letter with attachments of 26 August 1793, he sends the President a copy of both the English and the French Essays and elaborates on the Paris visit of two years previously:

  • 7 See note 1 above.

In summer 1791, I went to Paris, where I had been several times when a young man. I was kindly received by men of Letters, by M. La Fayette, and by other French Officers. It is a curious, fact that in the end of the eighteenth century, my invention was despised at Woolwich, but at Paris it was received with ardour, gratitude, and confidence of success.
… The success with which the French made use of the Guns of my invention, and with which they wrought their Common Artillery, in consequence of the advices I gave them, is known over Europe; and would still be of great use to them, if Dumouriez had not been a traitor in that as well as in other things.7

  • 8 With the Austrians under pressure from the forces of the revolutionary army led by Jourdan and Carn (...)

8By far the most interesting of the enclosures with the Washington letter bears the title A short account of the Field Pieces presented by Mr. Anderson Professor of Natural Philosophy to M. La Fayette, and the first National Assembly of France. In this document Anderson provides Washington with testimonials purporting to confirm the effectiveness of his six-pounder at the siege of Maubeuge8 and related engagements.

9Anderson, writing nine months prior to that engagement, tells the President that the Artillerie Volante ‘in the army of M. de Rochambeau’ (a hero of the American war), making use of his gun, had distinguished themselves ‘particularly from four pieces … under the direction of Captain Barrois.’ Anderson even cites his source for this claim:

The first public account that was given of the Artillerie Volante was by a letter dated June 11th 1792, from M. La Fayette to the National Assembly. They were in a very trying situation from the nature of a retreat [by virtue of] rough ground, and the superiority of the enemy’s numbers. The words were printed in every News Paper…

  • 9 In a note to Washington of 9 July 1794 Henry Knox, United States Secretary of War, submits among ot (...)
  • 10 The full story of this visit and of Washington’s near-obsession with the idea of a National Univers (...)

10So far I have been unable to trace Lafayette’s letter. It does not appear to be included in the collected edition of his letters. Nor have I succeeded in tracing any reply to Anderson’s letter of August 1793 to Washington.9 The President’s personal secretary, Tobias Lear, came to Glasgow at the end of the same year when he met with the by now ailing old professor and enthused to Washington on Anderson’s advanced ideas on education, ideas which, he told the President, could aid in the process of setting up a National University of the United States – a pet project of Washington’s which he endowed in his Will but which after his death withered on the vine.10

11If we don’t remember Anderson today for his writings or even for his military inventions why is he so fascinating and why is the scholarly neglect he has endured inopportune and undeserved? The answer is that he incurred the wrath and condemnation of his contemporaries by seeking to turn university-level education on its head by challenging old, conventional ideas of curricular relevance and by championing the concept of useful learning/useful knowledge allied to service to one’s country. Buchan again, referring to Anderson’s employer and alma mater, Glasgow University:

  • 11 Buchan memorandum, University of Glasgow, MS. 502/76.

In the midst of Toryism & Superstition by the strength of his own mind he [Anderson] became early a Whig & a Philosopher which ill suited with the corporation Spirit & silly gossiping of a modern College fettered by old Gothic rules… .11

12These Whiggish new ideas of education espoused by such as Anderson attracted the generic description of ‘improvement’ and they inspired others after his death both in Britain and also post-Napoleonic France to replicate them. Some of these ideas he had already shared with another great friend of France, Benjamin Franklin, who had similarly sought to introduce them into colonial America and the fledgling United States where they took root and have survived into the present age.

13John Anderson died on 13 January 1796 and his Will is dated Glasgow, 7 May 1795. Having fought unsuccessfully throughout the latter half of his life for a new approach to higher learning that promoted access, would bring what today we would term ‘relevance’ into the curriculum and deliver rigorous accountability and financial scrutiny, he was determined that what he had failed to achieve in his lifetime should become a reality after his death. In his Will he left virtually all his property ‘to the Public for the good of Mankind and of the Improvement of Science, in an Institution to be denominated Anderson’s University, to be managed by Eighty One Trustees’ whom he names in nine different classes – including, please note, ‘manufacturers or merchants’. His university would be no ivory tower.

14Anderson left no money, only a library and some bits and pieces of scientific apparatus, yet miraculously his university – originally called ‘Anderson’s Institution’ – came into being on schedule and the first professor, Thomas Garnett, was in post before the end of the year of Anderson’s death. Anderson expresses the hope in his Will that the Trustees ‘will be possessed of the power of managing an Institution that may, in time, be a great benefit to their kindred and their Country.’ – the notion of improvement again. And he envisages that ‘in the course of time perhaps from these small beginnings, this Institution may become a Seminary of Sound Religion; Useful learning; and Liberality of Sentiment.’ Today that university is known as the University of Strathclyde. It was created out of the Will of its founder, John Anderson – and it is his monument.

15The Anderson story will no doubt be familiar to students of American cultural history. In 1749 Benjamin Franklin published his Proposals relating to the education of youth. The paper represents Franklin’s educational blueprint for the creation of the College of Philadelphia which eventually migrated into the first true university in the United States, the modern University of Pennsylvania, or ‘Penn’ as that world-famous Ivy League institution is known today.

16But it may surprise some of you to learn that Franklin’s paper is also of unusual relevance to the Scottish Enlightenment. In a preface to the paper Franklin acknowledges his debt to his sources including ‘the famous Milton’, ‘the great Mr Locke’ and ‘the much admired Mons. Rollin’ – and to two Scots: ‘the ingenious Mr Hutchison’ [sic] and ‘the learned and ingenious Dr George Turnbull.’

17But Franklin gets it wrong since the title he cites as the work of Francis Hutcheson - Dialogues concerning Education (London, 2 vols., 1745-48) – was not by Hutcheson, whom Adam Smith called the ‘never to be forgotten Hutcheson’ and who is sometimes acknowledged as the ‘father of the Scottish Enlightenment’. Instead, the Dialogues was written by a student of Hutcheson’s, the much more obscure David Fordyce, one-time regent of Marischal College, Aberdeen who drowned in September 1751 on a voyage to Leith from Amsterdam. Fordyce was just 40 years old. Franklin especially liked this quote from ‘Hutcheson’ (i.e. Fordyce): “The principal End of Education is, to form us wise and good Creatures, useful to others, and happy ourselves.”

18Curiously, the other Scottish writer named by Franklin in his Proposals whose views on education closely corresponded with his own is also connected with Marischal College – George Turnbull, a theologian and teacher originally from Alloa, later elected (like his contemporary Fordyce) a regent in the College. John Anderson owned a copy of Turnbull’s Observations on Liberal Education, in all its Branches (London, 1742). The Latin quotation on the title page from Juvenal’s Satires would alone, one senses, have delighted him: in the Liberty Fund edition it is rendered thus –

It is good that you have presented your country and your people with a citizen, if you can make him serviceable to his country, useful for the land, useful for the things both of peace and war. For it will make all the difference in what practices, in what habits, you bring him up.

19Franklin made two visits to Scotland – in 1759 when he went with Anderson to St. Andrews where he was admitted to the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws – and again in 1771 when he probably lodged with Anderson in his house on the High Street in Glasgow and assisted with the design and installation of a lightning conductor on the roof of the university steeple.

20By that time, of course, Franklin’s Experiments and observations on electricity, made at Philadelphia in America was long in print in successive English and American editions. This is the work in which he successfully challenged the views on the principles of electricity of the Abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet. The quarrel between the two scientists – both incidentally Fellows of the Royal Society of London - is described by Franklin in Part Three of his Autobiography. Franklin emerged as victor in the dispute and he writes:

  • 12 Franklin, Autobiography, Part Three (Franklin Writings, ed. J. A. Leo Lemay, Library of America, 19 (...)

What gave my book the more sudden and general Celebrity, was the Success of one of its propos’d Experiments, made by Messrs Dalibard & Delor, at Marly; for drawing Lightning from the Clouds.12

21One wonders whose side John Anderson, friend of Benjamin Franklin and, it is believed, one-time disciple of Nollet in Paris, would have taken. His personal library preserved in the archives of Strathclyde University has substantial holdings of the works of both scientists – the rivals, Nollet and Franklin.

  • 13 Michel Yves Bertrand, Le Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (Les Éditions Eyrolles, Paris, (...)
  • 14 Dupin records that when in Glasgow he also met the professor of applied chemistry in Anderson’s Ins (...)

22I would like to add a brief postscript to my paper. Some years ago I had a cordial correspondence with a professor in the CNAM – Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers – Michel Yves Bernard, in the course of which Professor Bernard informed me of the background to the founding of the Conservatoire in Paris in 1819 due to the initiative of three men, a politician (Charles Dupin), an industrialist (Nicolas Clément) and an ‘entrepreneur’ (Jean-Baptiste Say). According to Bernard, who later sent me a copy of his book on the subject, published in 1994,13 the prime mover for setting up the Conservatoire was Dupin. Bernard’s book explains that in 1816 Dupin had spent a year in Great Britain ‘pour examiner notamment le développement de l’industrie britannique.’ In the course of that year Dupin met the elderly James Watt and also Professor George Birkbeck, who had succeeded Thomas Garnett in the chair of natural philosophy in Anderson’s Institution. On his return to France Dupin had published in six volumes his formidable Voyage dans la Grande-Bretagne entrepris relativement aux services publics de la guerre, de la marine, des ponts et chaussés, du commerce et de l’industrie. According to Bernard, in that work – “Rentré en France, Dupin cherche à mettre en application les idées de J. Anderson dans une institution française.”14

  • 15 Bertrand, pp. 30-31.

23Dupin and others won over the Prime Minister, the Comte Decazes, to support the project and it was Decazes who secured the signature of Louis XVIII to an Ordinance dated 25 November 1819 providing for ‘un texte révolutionnaire instituant en France une structure comparable a l’Institution andersonienne’. This Ordinance, modelled on John Anderson’s ideas as set out in his Will of 1795, and as put into effect after his death in the following year, created ‘une haut école d’applications des connaissances scientifiques au commerce et à l’industrie.’15 Professor Anderson – a lover of France and all things French – would have been immensely proud.


1 Letter to Washington, with enclosures, of 26 August 1793. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, V. 13, 1 June-31 August 1793, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2007), pp. 547-52; and the ‘Memorial’ enclosure, ibid., 552-554. (Crawford, pp. 81-5).

2 Unpublished Buchan memorandum on Professor Anderson – University of Glasgow, Murray Collection MS. 502/76.

3 Unpublished letter of May 9, 1808 to the Reverend James Wodrow – Mitchell Library, Glasgow MS. (no specific ref., other than ‘Buchan MSS.’).

4 Crawford, pp. 48-52. References to ‘Crawford’ are to this author’s monograph, Professor Anderson, Dr. Franklin and President Washington (Glasgow, University of Strathclyde, 2014), published to mark the 50th anniversary of the Royal Charter formally establishing the University of Strathclyde, the institution originally founded under the terms of John Anderson’s Will of 1795 as ‘Anderson’s Institution’.

5 James Muir, John Anderson Pioneer of Technical Education and the College he founded (Glasgow, 1950), 44. Muir usefully highlights some of the most important differences between the English and French editions of Anderson’s Essays on Field Artillery.

6 ibid., pp. 44-5.

7 See note 1 above.

8 With the Austrians under pressure from the forces of the revolutionary army led by Jourdan and Carnot, and then withdrawing eastward, the siege of Maubeuge was raised on 16 October 1793.

9 In a note to Washington of 9 July 1794 Henry Knox, United States Secretary of War, submits among other papers for approval, ‘Draft of a letter to Drs Anderson and *Pollock’ but the draft has never been traced. Notes appended to relevant items in the Washington Papers in the Library of Congress clearly show, however, that the US Minister to Britain, Thomas Pinckney, informed Knox in a letter of 27 December 1794 that he had delivered Knox’s letter to Anderson, ‘but had not yet received a reply.’ (Crawford, p. 70).

10 The full story of this visit and of Washington’s near-obsession with the idea of a National University being set up in the new Federal City on the Potomac is told in Crawford, pp. 72-3 and note p. 151.

11 Buchan memorandum, University of Glasgow, MS. 502/76.

12 Franklin, Autobiography, Part Three (Franklin Writings, ed. J. A. Leo Lemay, Library of America, 1987), p. 1455.

13 Michel Yves Bertrand, Le Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (Les Éditions Eyrolles, Paris, 1994).

14 Dupin records that when in Glasgow he also met the professor of applied chemistry in Anderson’s Institution, Dr. Andrew Ure (1778-1857), who had succeeded George Birkbeck in the chair of natural philosophy. Dupin apparently hit it off with Ure conspicuously well: ‘Je dois à l’obligeance extrême de ce savant, d’avoir bien connu l’industrie et les institutions de la ville la plus digne d’être etudiée.’ (Force Commerciale de La Grande Bretagne, par le Baron Charles Dupin, Paris, 1826), p. 177.

15 Bertrand, pp. 30-31.


FRHistS is an Honorary Research Fellow in History at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, with special interests in church history aspects of the Scottish Enlightenment and in eighteenth-century Scottish-American studies. He is the author of ‘The Lost World of John Witherspoon. Unravelling the Snodgrass affair, 1762 to 1776’ (Aberdeen University Press, 2016). Dr Crawford is a graduate of Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities.

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