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Robinson, Bryan

The Continuum Encyclopedia of British Philosophy

John Henry

Robinson, Bryan (1680–1754) 

Bryan Robinson died in Dublin on 26 January 1754. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was awarded MB in 1709 and MD in 1711, he went on to make his career there as Lecturer in Anatomy from 1716 and Professor of Physics from 1745. He became a Fellow of the King and Queen's College of Physicians in Ireland in May 1712, and was President of the College in 1718, 1727 and 1739. He also maintained a highly successful medical practice in Dublin. Robinson's first published work was a translation of P. de la Hire's New Elements of Conick Sections (1704), which he dedicated to his ‘best friend’, John Harris. As Harris was giving public lectures on mathematics in London from 1698 to 1704, and private tuition at his house from 1702, it is possible that Robinson acquired his mathematical expertise under Harris's tuition. Certainly Harris suggested that Robinson should prepare this translation. Harris, who later published and translated an influential short piece by Isaac Newton, De natura acidorum (1710), may also have been the inspiration behind Robinson's subsequent devoted Newtonianism.

Robinson's Newtonianism first manifested itself in his Treatise of the Animal Œconomy (1732), in which he seeks to explain physiology in terms of hydro-dynamic studies of the motion of fluids through pipes and channels of various shapes, sizes and convolutions. Being aware that the nerves are not hollow pipes, however, Robinson argues that muscles are activated, not by ingress of fluids via the nerves but by the vibrating motions of an ‘elastick aether’ contained in the nerves, which cause (by means unexplained) a contraction of the muscle fibres. Robinson explicitly equated this aether with ‘the Aether described by Sir Isaac Newton’ (Treatise, p. 93). By 1743 Robinson had extended his views on the explanatory potential of aether and published his most influential work, the Dissertation on the Aether of Sir Isaac Newton. The aim of the Dissertation was to show how a subtle aether could cause gravitational attraction, the repulsive force of elasticity, the phenomena of light and heat, the rarefaction of bodies by heat, muscular motions, cohesion and fermentation. The system depended upon the assumption that all matter was inert except for the matter of the aether, whose particles were mutually repellent. He declared the cause of the activity and power of the aether to be some kind of immaterial spirit, but he nevertheless endeavoured to present aethereal activity in terms of equations, measurements and calculations, even if these frequently turn out to be merely specious. Robinson's work was very influential in bringing Newton's aether speculations to the attention of natural philosophers, particularly after 1745 when he published a short anthology of Newton's writings on the subject. Robinson's work helped to turn Newton's speculations about an aether into the basis for a number of full-blown natural philosophical systems.


A Treatise of the Animal Œconomy (Dublin, 1732; 2nd edn, 1734–7; 3rd edn, 2 vols, 1738).Find this resource:

    Dissertation on the Aether of Sir Isaac Newton (Dublin, 1743; London, 1747).Find this resource:

      Sir Isaac Newton's Account of the Aether, with some Additions by Way of Appendix (Dublin, 1745). The ‘aether Queries’ of the 1717 edition of the Opticks together with a letter of 1679 from Newton to Boyle which had been made public in 1744 in Thomas Birch's edition of the Works of Boyle.Find this resource:

        Other Relevant Works

        [Hire, P. de la] New Elements of Conick Sections, trans. from the French by Bryan Robinson (1704).Find this resource:

          Further Reading

          Heimann, P. M., ‘Ether and Imponderables’, in G. N. Cantor and M. J. S. Hodge (eds), Conceptions of Ether: Studies in the History of Ether Theories 1740–1900 (Cambridge, 1981), pp.61–83, esp. pp. 68–70.Find this resource:

            Schofield, Robert E., Mechanism and Materialism: British Natural Philosophy in an Age of Reason (Princeton, New Jersey, 1970), pp.108–14.Find this resource:

              Thackray, Arnold, Atoms and Powers: An Essay on Newtonian Matter-Theory and the Development of Chemistry (1970), pp.135–41.Find this resource:

                John Henry

                See also Mathematics, Philosophy of; Medicine; Science, Philosophy of