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Drawn by Henry Lizars Arch!
Engraved by W. H. Lisars
To the Memory of the late Prof? Playfair
THE IMPERIAL MAGAZINE.
PRÓFESSOR PLAYFAIR, OF EDINBURGH.
(With an Engraving of his Monument.)
SCOTLAND has long been famed for its production of great men, who have rendered themselves conspicuous by their talents, not only in the senate and the field, but also in divinity, literature, metaphysics, and in almost every department of philosophy and science. It would be vain to inquire into the causes of this distinguishing characteristic. It is sufficient that we are furnished with the facts, which few will be disposed to question, and which no one can successfully gainsay. This acknowledgment of national greatness is willingly conceded to meritorious 'fame; and when renowned individuals have sunk beneath the horizon of life, the monuments erected to their memory, record at once the gratitude of survivors, and the worth of the deceased.
Among the remarkable individuals from whom Scotland has derived unfading honours, Professor Playfair is one of the most distinguished. We should have found no difficulty in procuring a portrait of this celebrated man, but, in compliance with the wishes of many subscribers to diversify oar embellisments, we have turned from the living to the dead, and drawn from his sepulchre a likeness of the silent memorial which guards his mouldering remains. The monument, however, is of much less importance to mankind than the individual whose ashes it covers; to him, therefore, our attention will be chiefly directed; and, in adverting to the productions of his powerful mind, we shall discover a monument formed of far more imperishable materials than marble can supply—a monument that will remain, when,
“ Worn on the edge of days, the brass consumes,
The busto moulders, and the deep-cut marble,
Unsteady to the steel, gives up its charge.”. John PLAYFAIR, the subject of this sepulchral record, was the eldest son of the Rev. James Playfair, a respectable clergyman of the church of Scotland. He was born in 1749, at the manse, or parsonage-house, of Bervie, a small and obscure village near Dundee, of which place his father was minister. By the instruction received from his parent, who was an excellent scholar, he became qualified for the university, and was accordingly sent to St. Andrew's, where, at the early age of fourteen, he obtained a bursary, or an exhibition. Making rapid advances in his studies, his acquirements in several departments were very considerable, yet the bent of his genius generally inclined him towards the exact sciences.
The first gentleman by whom he appears to have been noticed, was Dr. Wilkie, the author of the “ Epigoniad," then professor of mathematics, and distinguished for his unaffected candour, and affability of manners. This learned 2D. SERIES, NO. 17.–Vol. II.
teacher first became his friend, and shortly afterwards his general companion. At this time, the benevolent Earl of Kinnoul, who was chancellor of the university, having heard of young Playfair's talents, took him under his more immediate patronage, and invited him to his mansion at Dupin. Here he became a constant and welcome guest, was introduced to exalted company, and, during the vacations, Dupin was his general home.
At the age of nineteen, he obtained his first honorarium, in consequence of his accurate and numerous calculations for the Edinburgh Almanack. This circumstance speedily increased, as well as gave circulation to his fame; and, such was the exalted opinion entertained of his talents, that, when surveyors of land differed in opinion, as to the exact measurement, an appeal was made to Mr. Playfair, whose decision, as an arbitrator, very few were found to dispute.
But neither patronage nor fame could induce him to relax in his arduous pursuit of knowledge. The study of divinity engrossed much of his attention, and, having for some considerable time belonged to this class of students, he obtained a license to preach. Thus qualified, he frequently assisted his father, who, through infirmity and affliction, rather than age, was glad to receive this auxiliary aid.
Edinburgh, at this time, presented most powerful attractions to men of inquiring minds. Philosophy and science were studied and cultivated with ability and ardour, and Mr. Playfair was one among the many who resorted thither for improvement and society. Here, on these occasions, he formed many valuable friendships, and rendered himself conspicuous, by the part which he sustained in several institutions of which he became a member. Among these, was one named the “ Speculative Society,” which speedily rose into great reputation.
In 1772, Mr. Playfair's father died, leaving a widow and seven children, five of whom were under fifteen years" of age, with but scanty means for their support.
Of this family, the chief care now devolved on himself; and, succeeding to his father's living, he became their general parent, and declined entering into the marriage state, that he might be the better enabled to discharge the duties of the station in which Divine Providence had placed him.
After having settled for some time in this obscure country parish, as a minister of the established church of Scotland, an advantageous offer was made him by Mr. Ferguson, of Raith, a gentleman of considerable landed property, and of great influence, to undertake the education of his two sons. This liberal offer was accepted ; in consequence of which, he resigned his living, and removed to Edinburgh. Here his talents became more generally known, and so highly appreciated, that, when Professor Ferguson resigned the chair of moral philosophy to the late celebrated Dugald Stewart, he was selected by the magistrates, who are the patrons, to preside over the mathematical class of the University. Soon after this, the Royal Society was established, by charter from the king, and he was nominated to be secretary. To the transactions of this northern institution he contributed many valuable papers; and, in 1796, published his “ Elements of Geometry,” which was speedily followed by a new edition of Euclid.
In 1812, his “Outlines of Natural Philosophy" appeared, and, shortly afterwards, he had the pleasure of beholding a nephew, whom he had adopted, obtain a prize for, and carrying into execution, a plan for building the New College at Edinburgh.
When the Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica was first con
templated at Edinburgh, the most eminent men in that city were selected, to compose the various articles of which the volumes consisted. Accordingly, on the appearance of the first, it was preceded by a masterly dissertation from the pen of Dugald Stewart, “On the Progress of Metaphysical, Ethical, and Political Philosophy, since the Revival of Letters in Europe.” To another portion of this work was appended, “A General View of the Progress of Mathematical and Physical Science, since the Revival of Letters in Europe," by John Playfair, Professor of Natural Philosophy,” &c.
Soon after the commencement of the present century, the subject of geology engrossed a considerable share of scientific 'attention, and numerous disputes were carried on by the various theorists. Into these investigations, Mr. Playfair very warmly entered, and soon became a disciple of Dr. Hutton. Not being satisfied, however, with speculative reasonings, he formed a resolution of paying a visit to nature in her more retired and elevated retreats. Accordingly, in the year 1816, when approaching his 68th year, he repaired on a scientific mission to Italy, and spent much time in examining the geological structure of the Alps ; and from his investigations, obtained a confirmation of the opinion he had previously embraced.
It was not long, however, after his return to Edinburgh, before his health began to decline; yet while able, he pursued his studies with unremitting ardour, and even at this advanced period of life he made some scientific discoveries respecting the solar rays. But these exertions could not be long continued. A malady had seized upon the vitals of his constitution, which no medicine could subdue. This was a suppression with which he had been previously afflicted; but it now returned with increased violence, and he was speedily convinced that there was no remedy.
On finding his end draw near, on the evening of July 19th he assembled his sisters and nephews around his bed, and, after giving them his kind advice, and laying before them a statement of his affairs, he took his leave with much affection, although his agonies were exceedingly great. About two o'clock the next morning his pain wholly ceased; but this was only a presage of the approaching crisis. The event corresponded with the anticipation. He expired in a very short time, in the presence of his afflicted relatives, on the 20th of July, 1819, in the 70th year of his age.
The funeral of this justly celebrated man took place in the Calton burying-ground, Edinburgh, on the 26th of July, amidst a vast concourse of persons, who assembled to witness the mournful occasion, and express their unfeigned regard. Among these were many of the highest respectability, both in the City and the University.
At half-past two, the mournful procession began to move towards the place of interment in regular order, advancing four abreast; and it is preşumed that not less than five hundred persons honoured the obsequies with their presence.
All the windows in the streets through which the funeral passed, were filled with ladies, seemingly anxious to view the power of sympathy in so large an assemblage of talent and learning, and to participate in the general sorrow. On reaching the burying-ground, the gentlemen who preceded the corpse, took off their hats, and opened their ranks two and two, that it might pass on between them to the place of interment.
Immediately after the funeral, a meeting of the pupils of the deceased, who had been attending it, was held in the college, when it was unanimously resolved, that they should testify the high admiration which they entertained of his genius and worth, by some tribute of respect to his