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Thomas Whitehead (1716-1788)

Thomas Whitehead was born in Bolton in 1716 and died in 1788, the year of the birth of his grandson James, father of Robert Whitehead, inventor of the Torpedo, grandfather of Agathe Whitehead, mother of the von Trapp singers, immortalised in the enchanting The Sound of Music. Thomas is the first Bolton scholar on record to have been educated at a Scottish university and moreover to have studied physics. He would have been 18/19 years old when he matriculated at Glasgow University in 1735, recorded as English, the son of David Whitehead, in the Parish of Bolton, in the County of Lancaster. Presumably he had been previously educated at Bolton Grammar School. James Bateman, a Manchester man and graduate of Brasenose, Oxford, had been appointed schoolmaster in 1705 at the age of 21, but retired early in 1727 due to infirmity. Richard Asburner who succeeded was apparently not a graduate, although at least one of his pupils went to Cambridge, ie John Heaton in 1740. In the previous century, William Baldwin, a graduate of Glasgow University, had been the schoolmaster from 1673 to 1677. Glasgow was probably the only British university at the time where it was possible to study Physics per se as an integral part of a degree course, but would have been a formidable choice necessitating a long and arduous journey.

At Oxford University there already was The Philosophical Club, a group of natural philosophers mathematicians, physicians, virtuosi and dilettanti gathering around John Wilkins FRS (1614–1672), Warden of Wadham College, in the period 1649 to 1660, referred to as an ‘experimental philosophical club’ run weekly. Its historical importance is that members formed one of the major groups that came together in the early 1660s to form the prestigious Royal Society of London. Around 1652 Wilkins was very active on behalf of the club and Wadham as a scientific centre, bringing in technical expertise, and finding ways to finance equipment. Eventually Wadham had a laboratory area and Robert Hooke became involved, through his work for Robert Boyle. The Hon Robert Boyle FRS, son of the 1st Earl of Cork, an Anglo-Irish natural philosopher, chemist, physicist and inventor, is largely regarded today as one of the founders of modern chemistry, and one of the pioneers of modern experimental scientific method. He is best known for Boyle’s Law, published in 1662, which describes the inversely proportional relationship between the absolute pressure and volume of a gas, if the temperature is kept constant within a closed system. Hooke’s law is a principle of physics that states that the force (F) needed to extend or compress a spring by some distance X is proportional to that distance. That is: F = kX, where k is a constant factor characteristic of the spring: its stiffness, and X is small compared to the total possible deformation of the spring. Robert Hooke, although he was aware of the law already in 1660, first stated it in 1676 as a Latin anagram. He published the solution of his anagram in 1678 as: ut tensio, sic vis (‘as the extension, so the force’ or ‘the extension is proportional to the force’).
At Cambridge University physics then meant theoretical physics and was regarded as the province of the mathematicians. The outstanding experimental contributions of Sir Isaac Newton, Thomas Young and George Gabriel Stokes were all carried out in their colleges. The need for the practical training of scientists and engineers was emphasised by the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the requirements of an industrial society which led to the foundation of the Natural Sciences Tripos.

This set the scene for the need to build dedicated experimental physics laboratories, on condition that the Colleges provided the funding for a Professorship of Experimental Physics. It was achieved through the generosity of the Chancellor of the University, William Cavendish, the 7th Duke of Devonshire. He provided £6,300 to meet the costs of building the Cavendish Laboratory which has an extraordinary history of discovery and innovation in Physics, since its opening in 1874 under the direction of James Clerk Maxwell, Cambridge’s first Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics.

At Glasgow University, founded in 1451 and granted a Royal Charter by King James VI in 1577, teaching was carried out through lectures and disputations (debates). The academic year began in early October and continued through to early April with only a short break at Christmas. Following lectures, all classes met for an hour each weekday afternoon for disputations, with two hours of debate each Saturday. For almost three hundred years, Latin was the language of instruction, with lectures delivered and debates carried out in Latin. The use of English and Scots only gradually replaced Latin from the early eighteenth century. The most dramatic shift in the delivery of teaching at the University from the beginning of the eighteenth century was the move away from the system of unspecified ‘regenting’ to the establishment of professorships with chairs in specified subjects. Whilst there were no formal examinations, students were required to successfully complete their studies in each subject in order to progress through the curriculum. Questions posed in class and disputations were used to allow the regents to test the abilities of their students. Attendance at class was first testified through the class register, and later by the issue of class tickets by the regent or professor. Until the nineteenth century, the only undergraduate degrees awarded by the University were Arts degrees. The Master of Arts (MA) was awarded after five years study in Latin, Greek, Logic, Moral Philosophy, Natural Philosophy (Physics) and/or Mathematics. A Bachelor of Arts (BA) could be obtained after only three years study, providing a licence to teach.

Robert Dick was a tutor to John Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, heir of Lord Belhaven and Stenton, until October 1714, when he was elected a regent at the University. He was appointed to the new Chair of Natural Philosophy in 1721 after the abolition of the office of regent. In 1749 the University purchased apparatus for Dick to enable him to carry out electrical experiments, and he is reported to have been very interested in telescopes. His son, Robert Dick Junior, succeeded him as Professor in 1751. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Glasgow University and its students benefited from the teaching and research of some of the world’s leading academics. From the foremost figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, including Adam Smith, through to the world famous scientists and engineers, Joseph Black and William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs, the University's academics were at the forefront of ground-breaking developments in a wide range of fields.

Thomas Whitehead graduated MA in 1738, presumably excused two years study of the Classics, having studied Physics under Robert Dick, as recorded in the archives of Glasgow University: Nomina discipulorum Classis Physicae qui hoc anno Academiam Intrarunt Sub praesidio Mri Roberti Dick.

However, there would have been no realistic career prospects for a scientist as such in those days, except employment as a tutor. Nevertheless, his degree qualified for entry into Holy Orders and he was curate of Walmsley Chapel, Egerton, from 1738 to 1748. The vicar of Bolton presented the incumbent and the benefice was worth £350 a year in 1911. He married in 1747, at Ringley, Rachel Unsworth of Prestwich, by licence and Samuel Lawson was bondsman. The last of the Sharples of Sharples Hall, John, had died in 1736 and his daughter, Mary, was the wife of the Reverend Samuel Lawson. In 1749 the manor of Sharples was partitioned and Sharples Hall passed to their son John Lawson.

Was the undoubted scholastic intellect of the Reverend Thomas Whitehead inherited by his great-grandson, the inventor Robert Whitehead, both of whom were educated basically in Classics at Bolton Grammar School?

Malcolm Howe (1948-1956)