John Robison

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John Robison

Contemporary portrait of John Robison
Born February 4, 1739(1739-02-04)
Boghall, Baldernock, Stirlingshire
Died January 30, 1805(1805-01-30)
Citizenship Great Britain
Nationality Scottish
Fields Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry
Institutions Glasgow University, Edinburgh University
Alma mater Glasgow University
Residential Member of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society
Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1783)
Member of the Glasgow Literary Society

John Robison FRSE (4 February 1739 – 30 January 1805) was a Scottish physicist and mathematician. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.

A member of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society when it received its royal warrant, he was appointed as the first General Secretary to the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1783-98). Robison invented the siren and also worked with James Watt on an early steam car. Following the French Revolution, Robison became disenchanted with elements of the Enlightenment. He authored Proofs of a Conspiracy in 1797—a polemic accusing Freemasonry of being infiltrated by Weishaupt's Order of the Illuminati.

His son was the inventor Sir John Robison (1778-1843).



The physicist

The son of John Robison, a Glasgow merchant, he was born in Boghall, Baldernock, Stirlingshire (now East Dunbartonshire) and attended Glasgow Grammar School and the University of Glasgow (MA 1756).[1] After a brief stay in London in 1758 Robison joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman, and accompanied Thomas Wolfe on his expedition to Quebec and Portugal (1756-62). His mathematical skills were employed in navigation and surveying. Returning to England in 1762, he joined the Board of Longitude — a team of scientists who tested John Harrison’s marine chronometer on a voyage to Jamaica.

On his return he settled in Glasgow engaging in the practical science of James Watt and Joseph Black in opposition to the systematic continental European chemistry of Antoine Lavoisier and its adherents such as Joseph Priestly. In 1766 he succeeded Black as Professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow.

In 1769, he announced that balls with like electrical charges repel each other with a force that varies as the inverse-squared of the distance between them, anticipating Coulomb's law of 1785.[2]

In 1770 he travelled to Saint Petersburg as the Secretary of Admiral Charles Knowles, where he taught mathematics to the cadets at the Naval Academy at Cronstadt, obtaining a double salary and the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Robison returned to Scotland in 1773 and took up the post of Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He lectured on mechanics, hydrostatics, astronomy, optics, electricity and magnetism. His conception of mechanical philosophy’ became influential in nineteenth-century British physics. His name appears in the 1776 "Minute Book of The Poker Club", a crucible of the Scottish Enlightenment. In 1783 he became General Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and in 1797 his articles for the Encyclopædia Britannica gave a good account of the scientific, mathematical and technological knowledge of the day. He also prepared for publication, in 1799, the chemical lectures of his friend and mentor, Joseph Black.

Robison worked with James Watt on an early steam car. This project came to nothing and has no direct connection to Watt's later improvement of the Newcomen steam engine. He along with Joseph Black and others gave evidence about Watt's originality and their own lack of connection to his key idea of the Separate Condenser.

Robison did however invent the siren, though it was Charles Cagniard de la Tour who named it after producing an improved model.

The conspiracy theorist

Towards the end of his life, he became an enthusiastic conspiracy theorist, publishing Proofs of a Conspiracy ... in 1797, alleging clandestine intrigue by the Illuminati and Freemasons (the work's full title was Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the secret meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati and Reading Societies). The secret agent monk, Alexander Horn provided much of the material for Robison's allegations.[3] French priest Abbé Barruel independently developed similar views that the Illuminati had infiltrated Continental Freemasonry, leading to the excesses of the French Revolution. In 1798, the Reverend G. W. Snyder sent Robison's book to George Washington for his thoughts on the subject in which he replied to him in his Letter to the Reverend G. W. Snyder (24 October 1798).

Modern conspiracy theorists like Nesta Webster, Gerald Winrod and William Guy Carr believe that Robison's book described what the Illuminati may have started was the template for the subversion of otherwise benign organizations by radical groups through the 19th and 20th centuries. Spiritual Counterfeits Project editor Tal Brooke has compared the views of Proofs of a Conspiracy with those found in Carroll Quigley's Tragedy and Hope (Macmillan, 1966). Brooke suggests that the New World Order, which Robison believed Adam Weishaupt (founder of the Illuminati) had in part accomplished through the infiltration of Freemasonry, will now be completed by those holding sway over the international banking system (e.g., by means of the Rothschilds' banks, the U.S. Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank).[4]


  • Outlines of mechanical philosophy : containing the heads of a course of lectures, Edinburgh, William Creech, 1781.
  • Outlines of a course of experimental philosophy, Edinburgh, William Creech, 1784.
  • Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free-Masons, Illuminati and Reading Societies, etc., collected from good authorities, Edinburgh, 1797.
  • Outlines of a course of lectures on mechanical philosophy, Edinburgh, J. Brown, 1803.
  • Elements of mechanical philosophy : being the substance of a course of lectures on that science, vol 1, Edinburgh, Archibald Constable, 1804.
  • The articles "steam" and "steam-engines" written for the Encyclopædia Britannica, edited by David Brewster with notes and additions by James Watt and a letter on some properties, Edinburgh and London, James Ballantyne & Co. 1818.
  • A system of mechanical philosophy, Edinburgh, J. Murray, 1822.

Proofs of Conspiracy, reprints and related documents

  • Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free-Masons, Illuminati and Reading Societies, etc., collected from good authorities, Edinburgh, 1797 ; 2nd ed. London, T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1797 with a Postsript ; 3rd ed. with Postscript, Philadelphia, T. Dobson & W. Cobbet, 1798 ; New York, 1798 ; Dublin 1798 ; Proofs of a Conspiracy, Western Islands, 1900 ; The Illuminati, taken from "Proofs of a world conspiracy", Elizabeth Knauss [1930] ; Proof's [sic!] of a conspiracy, Ram Reprints, 1964 ; Proofs of a conspiracy, Boston, Western Islands, "The Americanist classics", [1967] ; Proofs of a conspiracy, Islands Press, 1978 ; C P a Book Pub, 2002 ISBN 0944379699 ; Kessinger Publishing, 2003 ISBN 0766181243
    • Ueber geheime Gesellschaften und deren Gefährlichkeit für Staat und Religion..., translated in German, Königslutter, 1800.
  • [Anti-Jacobin], New Lights on Jacobinism, abstracted from Professor Robison’s History of Free Masonry, with an appendix containing an account of Voltaire’s behaviour on his death-bed, and a letter from J. H. Stone to Dr. Priestley, disclosing the principles of Jacobinism. By the author of Jacobinism displayed, Birmingham, E. Piercy, Birmingham, 1798.
  • [Cornelius] (pseudonym), Extracts from Professor Robison’s "Proofs of a Conspiracy" & c., with brief reflections on the charges he has exhibited, the evidence he has produced and the merit of his performance, Boston, Manning & Loring, Boston, 1799.
  • Seth Payson, Proofs of the real existence, and dangerous tendency, of Illuminism, containing an abstract of what Dr. Robinson and the Abbé Barruel have published on this subject ; with collateral proofs and general observations, Charlestown, 1802 ; Invisible College Press, LLC, 2003 ISBN 1931468141
  • [A Master Mason], Free Masonry. Its pretensions exposed in faithful extracts of its standard authors, with a review of [Salem] Town’s Speculative Masonry : its liability to pervert the doctrines of revealed religion discovered, its dangerous tendency exhibited in extracts from the Abbé Barruel and Professor Robison, and further illustrated in its base service to the Illuminati, New York, 1828.


See also


  1. Former RSE Fellows 1783–2002. Royal Society of Edinburgh. Retrieved on 22 September 2010.
  2. John Robison, A System of Mechanical Philosophy (London, England: John Murray, 1822), vol. 4. On page 68, the author states that in 1769 he announced his findings regarding the force between spheres of like charge. On page 73, the author states the force between spheres of like charge varies as x-2.06.
  3. Mark Dilworth, ‘Horn, Alexander (1762–1820)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  4. When the World Will be as One. Tal Brooke. Harvest House Publishers, 1989. ISBN 0890817499. p.247-272

External links

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