Thomas Dick (scientist)

24 Nov 1774
29 Jul 1857
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Reverend Thomas Dick (24 November 1774 – 29 July 1857), was a Scottish church minister, science teacher and writer, known for his works on astronomy and practical philosophy, combining science and Christianity, and arguing for an harmony between the two.

Thomas was brought up in the strict tenets of the presbyterian United Secession Church of Scotland, and his father, Mungo Dick, a small linen manufacturer, designed for him his own trade. But the appearance of a brilliant meteor impressed him, when in his ninth year, with a passion for astronomy; he read, sometimes even when seated at the loom, every book on the subject within his reach; begged or borrowed some old pair of spectacles, contrived a machine for grinding them to the proper shape, and, having mounted them in pasteboard tubes, began celestial observations.

His parents, at first afflicted by his eccentricities, let him choose his own lifestyle when he was sixteen years old.

Dick became assistant at a school in Dundee, and in 1794 entered the University of Edinburgh, supporting himself by private tuition.

His philosophical and theological studies terminated, he set up a school at Dundee, took out a license to preach in 1801, and officiated as probationer during some years at Stirling and elsewhere.

An invitation from the patrons to act as teacher in the Secession School at Methven resulted in a ten years’ residence there, distinguished by efforts on his part towards popular improvement, including a zealous promotion of the study of science, the foundation of a people’s library, and what was substantially a mechanic’s institute.

Under the name Literary and Philosophical Societies, adapted to the middling and lower ranks of the community, the extension of such establishments was recommended by him in five papers published in the Monthly Magazine in 1814; and, a year or two later, a society was organised near London on the principles there laid down, of which he was elected an honorary member.

As an undergraduate, Dick had several noteworthy classmates at the University of Edinburgh including Robert Brown, Joseph Black and Robert Jameson.

On leaving Methven, Dick spent another decade as a teacher at Perth, Scotland. During this interval he made his first independent appearance as an author. The Christian Philosopher, or the Connexion of Science and Philosophy with Religion, was published first during 1823.

In this work, among many other topics the author computed that the Solar System contained 21,891,974,404,480 (21+ trillion) inhabitants.

Several new editions were published during the next few years, the eighth edition being published in Glasgow during 1842.

Its success determined the author’s vocation to literature. He finally gave up school teaching in 1827, and built himself a small cottage, fitted up with an observatory and library, on a hill overlooking the Tay at Broughty Ferry, near Dundee.

Here he wrote a number of works, scientific, philosophical, and religious, which acquired prompt and wide popularity both in the United Kingdom and the United States, and which are available on the internet and in print.

An honorary degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him early in his literary career by Union College, New York, and he was admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society on 14 January 1853.

A paper on Celestial Day Observations, giving the results of a series of observations on stars and planets in the daytime with a small equatorial at Methven in 1812–1813, was communicated by him in 1855 to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (xv. 222). He had written on the same subject forty-two years previously in William Nicholson’s Journal of Natural Philosophy (xxxvi. 109).

Despite the success of his books, however, Dick made such loose bargains with his publishers, that he derived little profits from them, and his poverty was relieved in 1847 by a pension of 50 pounds a year, and by a local subscription of 20 or 30 pounds. He died at the age of eighty-two, on 29 July 1857, and was buried at Broughty Ferry.

Thomas Dick’s books enabled the advances made by the Scottish Enlightenment in the previous century to flourish alongside Victorian moral and religious thinking.

They influenced many scientists, engineers, politicians, writers and thinkers. For instance David Livingstone, who inspired health care, education and the end of slavery in central Africa, regarded Dick’s Philosophy of a Future State as his most important influence after the Bible.

In 1851, Mr. Thomas met William Wells Brown, who later would describe Dick as “an abolitionist… who is willing that the world should know that he hates the “peculiar institution” [of slavery]”.

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