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Sir David Brewster
Born 11 December 1781
Canongate, Jedburgh, Roxburghshire
Died 10 February 1868(1868-02-10) (aged 86)
Allerly House, Gattonside, Roxburghshire
Nationality Scottish
Citizenship Great Britain
Alma mater Edinburgh University
Known for Physical optics, Brewster's angle, photoelasticity, stereoscope, kaleidoscope
Awards Copley Medal (1815)
Rumford Medal (1818)
Keith Prize (1827–9, 1829–31)
Royal Medal (1830)
Scientific career
Fields Physics, mathematics, astronomy
Influences Isaac Newton, Étienne-Louis Malus
Influenced James David Forbes
Founding Director of the Scottish Society of Arts (1821)
Principal of St Andrews University (1837–59)
Principal of Edinburgh University (1859–68)

Sir David Brewster KH PRSE FRS FSA(Scot) FSSA MICE (11 December 1781 – 10 February 1868) was a Scottish scientist, inventor, author, and academic administrator.

Early life

Brewster cigar box
Inner picture of a cigar box from the early 1900s with a portrait of Brewster.

David Brewster was born at the Canongate in Jedburgh, Roxburghshire, to Margaret Key (1753–1790) and James Brewster (c. 1735–1815), the rector of Jedburgh Grammar School and a teacher of high reputation.

David was the third of six children, two daughters and four sons: James (1777–1847), minister at Craig, Ferryden; David; George (1784–1855), minister at Scoonie, Fife; and Patrick (1788–1859), minister at the abbey church, Paisley.

At the age of 12, David was sent to the University of Edinburgh (graduating MA in 1800), with the intention of being a minister. He was licensed a minister of the Church of Scotland, and preached around Edinburgh on several occasions.

He had already shown a strong inclination for natural science.


PSM V21 D055 The brewster stereoscope 1849
The Brewster stereoscope, 1849.

In science he is principally remembered for his experimental work in physical optics, mostly concerned with the study of the polarization of light and including the discovery of Brewster's angle.

A pioneer in photography, Brewster invented an improved stereoscope, which he called "lenticular stereoscope" and which became the first portable 3D-viewing device. He also invented the binocular camera, two types of polarimeters, the polyzonal lens and the lighthouse illuminator.

The view in a kaleidoscope

Among the non-scientific public, his fame spread more effectually by his invention in about 1815 of the kaleidoscope, for which there was a great demand in both the United Kingdom, France, and the United States.

As a historian of science, Brewster focused on the life and work of his hero, Isaac Newton. Brewster published a detailed biography of Newton in 1831 and later became the first scientific historian to examine many of the papers in Newton's Nachlass.


David brewster group
Calvert Jones, Lady Brewster (Jane Kirk Purnell), Mrs. Jones, David Brewster and Miss Parnell (seated)

Brewster married twice. His first wife, Juliet Macpherson (c. 1776–1850), was a daughter of James Macpherson (1736–1796), a probable translator of Ossian poems. They married on 31 July 1810 in Edinburgh and had four sons and a daughter:

  • James (1812–)
  • Charles Macpherson (1813–1828), drowned.
  • David Edward Brewster (17 August 1815 –) became a military officer (Lieutenant Colonel) serving in India.
  • Henry Craigie (1816–1905) became a military officer and photographer.
  • Margaret Maria Gordon (1823–1907) wrote a book on Brewster, which is considered the most comprehensive description of his life.

Brewster married a second time in Nice, on 26 (or 27) March 1857, to Jane Kirk Purnell (b. 1827), the second daughter of Thomas Purnell of Scarborough. Lady Brewster famously fainted at the Oxford evolution debate of 30 June 1860.

Brewster died in 1868, and was buried at Melrose Abbey, next to his first wife and second son. The physics building at Heriot-Watt University is named in his honour.

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