CodeDS/UK/69
Person NamePlayfair; John (1748-1819); Professor; geologist; mathmetician
Dates1748-1819
TitleProfessor
Epithetgeologist; mathmetician
HistoryPlayfair was born on 10 March 1748 at Benvie, near Dundee and attended the University of St Andrews to qualify for the church. Having graduated in 1765, he completed his theological studies in 1770, when he was licensed as a minister.

John applied successfully for his father's living, into which he was inducted in 1773. Next year he joined Nevil Maskelyne, astronomer royal, who with colleagues was endeavouring to measure the density of the earth by means of the gravitational attraction exerted by Schiehallion, a mountain in Perthshire, on a plumb-line. Through this contact with Maskelyne he was introduced to scientific society in London. In 1783 Playfair resigned his living and moved to Raith, near Kirkcaldy, as private tutor for five years to Robert and Ronald Ferguson.

In 1785 Playfair became joint professor of mathematics with Adam Ferguson in the University of Edinburgh, where each session he taught three courses, two of which focused on geometry and trigonometry. In the third he sometimes taught continental analysis and from 1792 applied mathematics (astronomy, gunnery, fortification, geography, and navigation). In 1795 he published his lectures entitled Elements of Geometry, which went through five editions in his lifetime and, with revisions by Wallace and Kelland, reached a thirteenth edition in 1875. In 1805 he was elevated to the chair of natural philosophy at Edinburgh.

In addition to enjoying a high reputation as a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, Playfair was a geologist, a builder of scientific institutions in Edinburgh, a promoter of whiggery, and a man of letters. In his Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802) he analysed, modified, and defended the ideas of his close friend Hutton, whose publications suffered from prolixity and obscurity.

Though Playfair was elected FRS London in 1807, he devoted himself far more to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which he was a founder member. He became secretary to its physical class in 1789 and from 1798 to his death was its general secretary. He not only administered the society but edited its Transactions. In 1811 he was the leading spirit in establishing the Astronomical Institution of Edinburgh, of which he was president until his death. This private body procured the replacement of the existing observatory, left half-built in 1792, by a new one begun in 1818 and completed in 1830 to a design by Playfair's nephew William Henry Playfair.

Playfair spent seventeen months in 1816 and 1817 on a geological tour of but thereafter his health declined and he died on 20 July 1819.

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