'I never knew a man with less nonsense in him.’
Adam Smith on Joseph Black
Joseph Black (1723–90) was born in Bordeaux, where his father was in the wine trade. He studied medicine under William Cullen at Glasgow University, then in 1752 transferred to Edinburgh University, which had a better reputation for medical studies: he graduated as an MD in 1754.
Black became one of the great chemistry teachers and researchers, teaching at both Glasgow and Edinburgh universities.
His classes were very popular, and his research explained new ideas about specific and ‘latent heat’ - a term he introduced. He also identified ‘fixed air’, now known as carbon dioxide, and promoted the science of thermodynamics.
He demonstrated in 1764 that a balloon filled with hydrogen will rise: James Tytler and Vincenzo Lunardi’s experimental flights in a hot-air balloon followed twenty years later.
In the best traditions of the Scottish Enlightenment, Black was also very interested in practical agricultural improvements.
James Watt was one of Black’s early colleagues at Glasgow, and they became lifelong friends. Other friends were James Hutton, Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith. In later life, Black was involved with the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
'Professor Joseph Black, 1728 - 1799. Chemist', David Martin, © Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Picture credit: Two philosophers - Joseph Black and James Hutton - in conversation. From page 57 of 'Kay's Originals', Volume I (c. 1880s). Digitised and published by Edinburgh Bookshelf.
Free materials from the Open University about James Hutton, Joseph Black and how the principles of scientific enquiry were applied to other areas of learning.
Images from the National Museums of Scotland of 18th century scientific apparatus including equipment used by Joseph Black.