Alexander Wilson (astronomer)

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Alexander Wilson
Born 1714
St Andrews, Fife, Scotland
Died 16 October 1786
Nationality Scottish
Fields Astronomy
Institutions Glasgow University
Alma mater St Andrews University
Known for Wilson effect
Wilson Greek
Member of the Glasgow Literary Society
Member of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society
Founder Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1783)

Alexander Wilson FRSE (1714 – 16 October 1786) was a Scottish surgeon, type-founder, astronomer, mathematician and meteorologist. He was the first scientist to record the use of kites in meteorological investigations.[1]

His son Patrick Wilson succeeded him as Regius Professor of Practical Astronomy at Glasgow University, in 1784.

Early life

Wilson was born in St. Andrews, Fife, the son of Patrick Wilson, the town clerk. Alexander was educated at the University of St. Andrews from where he graduated MA in 1733, at the age of 18.

He was first apprenticed to a physician in St Andrews where he became skilled in constructing mercury thermometers in glass. In 1737 he left for London, to make his fortune and found work as assistant to a French surgeon-apothecary, which included caring for his patients. During this time he was introduced to Lord Isla who like Wilson was interested in astronomy, and Wilson constructed instruments for Isla during 1738.

After visiting a type foundry with a friend in London, he had an idea for making better typefaces. He and his friend John Baine returned to St Andrews in 1739, where they started a type-founding business in 1742.

Glasgow University

The company moved to Camlachie, near Glasgow in 1744. In 1748 he was appointed type-founder to Glasgow University. In the following year the partnership with Baine was dissolved. Later his sons became partners. He supplied types to the Foulis press making possible their beautiful and artistic publications. Among modern typefaces, Fontana, Scotch Roman, and Wilson Greek are based on types cut by Alexander Wilson.

In 1749 Wilson made the first recorded use of kites in meteorology with his lodger, a 23-year-old Glasgow University student Thomas Melvill, who went on to discover sodium light. They measured air temperature at various levels above the ground simultaneously with a train of kites.

With the help of his friend Lord Isla, now the 3rd Duke of Argyle, he was appointed in 1760 to the new chair of practical astronomy at the University of Glasgow, which had recently built the Macfarlane Observatory. Wilson primarily made contributions to astronomy and meteorology, and posited that "what hinders the fixed stars from falling upon one another", the question that Newton had posed in his Opticks (1704), was that the entire universe rotated around its centre. This has been found to be true of the stars of the Galaxy, the then known universe, which rotates around a central black hole. It is not true for the galaxies of the Universe which is expanding.

Wilson noted that sunspots viewed near the edge of the Sun's visible disk appear depressed below the solar surface, a phenomenon referred to as the Wilson effect. When the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters announced a prize to be awarded for the best essay on the nature of solar spots, Wilson submitted an entry. On 18 February 1772 the Academy presented Wilson with a gold medal[2] for his work on sunspots.[3]

The crater Wilson on the Moon is named for him, Ralph Elmer Wilson and CTR Wilson.

He, and his second son Patrick (Peter) Wilson, were two of the founding members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE). Peter wrote a biographical article of his father which was published both in the Transactions of the RSE and Edinburgh Journal of Science, now available on-line.


  1. Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002: Biographical Index (PDF). II. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Retrieved 22 March 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Lomholt, Asger (1942) Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab 1742–1942. Samlinger til Selskabets Historie, volume I (Danish). Copenhagen, Ejnar Munksgaard, page 67.
  3. Kiøbenhavnske Efterretninger om lærde Sager from Thursday 7 May 1772 (No. 19, p. 289). It reads: "In the Mathematics category it was found that Alexander Wilson, M.D., professor of Astronomy at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, deserved the prize; although his hypothesis about the solar spots is not deemed to have been sufficiently proven." ("I den Mathematiske Classe, hvor det Problem om Soel-Pletterne etc. var udsat, fandt man, at Alexander Wilson, M.D., Professor i Astronomien ved Universitetet i Glasgow i Scotland, havde fortient Præmium; Skiønt man ey anseer hans Hypothese over Soel-Pletterne at være tilstrækkelig beviist.")
  • Royal Society of Edinburgh accessed 10 Mar 2009
  • Williamson, Peter & Woodby, John, 'Scottish Book Trade Index (SBTI)', National Library of Scotland' accessed 19 Dec 2008
  • Smith, George Fairfull, "Robert & Andrew Foulis, the Foulis Press, and Their Legacy", accessed 19 Dec 2008.
  • Stronach, George, rev. Hutchins, Roger, "Wilson, Alexander (1714–1786)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 19 Dec 2008
  • Wilson, Alexander (1774) "Observations on Solar Spots", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 64, part I.
  • Wilson, Patrick (1824). "Biographical account of Alexander Wilson, MD, late professor of practical astronomy in Glasgow". Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 10: 279–97.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>Also published in Edinburgh Journal of Science 10:1–17 from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
  • "Alexander Wilson". MacTutor archive. Retrieved 4 December 2005.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Academic offices
Preceded by
None: new position
Regius Professor of Practical Astronomy
at Glasgow University

Succeeded by
Patrick Wilson