Sir David Brewster

Sir David Brewster

1781 - 1868
by David F. Coppedge

The man who invented the kaleidoscope and was a leading physicist in Britain and one of the founders of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was a born-again Christian and opponent of Darwinism.

David Brewster, a gentleman scientist, born 10 years before Michael Faraday, resembled his famous younger contemporary in many ways.  He was considered the greatest living experimental physicist in his time, yet was largely self-taught and born of humble means. He learned science as a teen from James Veitch, an ordinary plowman who had taught himself astronomy, mathematics and philosophy and had garnered a notable following from his inventions. For decades, Brewster designed his experiments using simple throwaway items like bottles and pieces of wire.

Also like Faraday, Brewster never was financially secure till well into his senior years, despite numerous inventions that could have made him a wealthy man. He eschewed personal glory, seeking instead to find what was interesting in each person he met. It was not scientific education and science degrees that made David Brewster one of the great scientists of the days before Darwin (and like Darwin, Brewster’s only degrees were in theology). It was hands-on experience, enthusiasm, diligence and love for God’s creation. An observer once watched Brewster in the lab every few minutes leaning back with his hands stretched upward exclaiming,

Good God!  Good God!  How marvellous are Thy works!

The kaleidoscope, one of Brewster’s clever optical inventions, became a huge fad. Hundreds of thousands of these “beautiful forms for seeing” (from the meaning of the name) were sold all over Europe. Sadly, Brewster never got much income from these curiosities, though he needed the money for his wife and four children. Patent laws at the time were insufficient to guard against piracy. Brewster watched helplessly as others profited enormously from his stolen (and poorly imitated) invention. Kaleidoscopes remain popular to this day; who can resist the geometric patterns formed from the reflection of random bits of glass? Other contributions to optical home entertainment that sprung from Brewster’s creative genius included improvements to photography and stereoscopes. He also wrote about optical illusions and was fascinated with the optical properties of soap bubbles.

Stare at this image until a figure pops out. Sometimes you have to hunt for design to detect it.

Brewster’s work in optics had much more scientific value than as mere toys, though.  For instance, he is considered the father of optical mineralogy. This discipline allows specialists to identify minerals by their properties with light. He even invented a new tool, the lithoscope, for this purpose. Another of his inventions probably has saved countless lives at sea. He invented the dioptric system for lighthouses—an advancement that produced a much more focused, planar beam that could be seen at much greater distances. These lenses were adopted widely, such that his successor at St. Andrew’s University remarked, “Every lighthouse that burns round the shores of the British empire is a shining witness to the usefulness of Brewster’s life.” (The Fresnel lens, developed independently in France, operates on similar principles). Brewster discovered fundamental properties about polarization, double refraction, color, emission and absorption lines in spectra, photography, and the structure of the eye. He considered the eye the pinnacle of God’s natural creation.  He wrote,

Although every part of the human frame has been fashioned by the same Divine hand and exhibits the most marvellous and beneficent adaptions for the use of men, the human eye stands pre-eminent above them all as the light of the body and the organ by which we become acquainted with the minutest and the nearest, the largest and most remote of the Creator’s work.

Sir David Brewster published over 1,000 articles, including 314 scientific papers. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and received most of its medals. Though his only earned degree was in theology, he received many honorary degrees for his scientific work. Of these he mostly valued an honorary MD German scientists had awarded him for his work to find a cure for cataracts. Sir David Brewster was knighted by the king at age 50, having done his most significant work in his thirties. At age 56, he was elected president of St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, where he served for 21 years.

Concerned over the decline of science in Britain, he helped found the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831. In 1851, he was elected president. By the late 19th century the British Association had turned into a pro-Darwin force, but not in its early years. Brewster resisted the rise of Darwinism and encouraged others to take a strong stand against it. In fact, in 1851 he had found an object that should have falsified the belief in millions of years gaining popularity at the time: a nail embedded in a rock freshly taken out of a quarry. Clearly, this human artifact could not be more than thousands of years old, he argued; but the scientific world ignored it, and embraced the long-age evolutionary views of Lyell and Darwin.

Brewster remained stalwart against the Darwinian tide. When challenged about his religious faith, Brewster proudly showed a list of 717 scientists who had signed a statement affirming the priority of God’s Word over the changing opinions of science. This document urged students not to be hasty to trust in the word of man over Scripture when contradictions were alleged. It was impossible for God’s created world and His revealed Word to disagree, the document stated, and priority should be given to God’s word over the fallible and ever-changing opinions of man.

Brewster’s contributions to a Christian philosophy of science, and to church history, are no less significant than his scientific discoveries. As an early editor of the fledgling Encyclopedia of Edinburgh, he wrote 40 of its articles himself. As a pre-teen, he followed his father’s wishes to study for the ministry. Entering the University of Edinburgh at 12, he completed his master’s degree at 19. He was not cut out to be a preacher, though, and he knew it; he was too shy as a speaker. Nevertheless, he had many Christian associates and friends.

One episode contributed incidentally yet significantly to the Scottish Free Church movement. While editing the encyclopedia, Brewster asked his friend and colleague Thomas Chalmers, a mathematician, to write the article on Christianity. It was through researching this article that Chalmers awakened to the truths of the gospel. Chalmers became a historic leader of the Scottish Presbyterian Church, and later, a leader in the Free Church movement. This was no easy break. It meant giving up centuries of encrusted traditions and foregoing the financial gain and prestige of their positions in the established church. Counting the cost, 470 men, a third of the pastors of the Scottish Presbyterian Church, bravely and willingly signed their names in 1843 to a document committing their lives to follow Christ and the purity of the Scriptures. Brewster joined them (he was now 62 years old). It nearly cost him his position at St. Andrews. The public rallied to his support, so he was able to remain another 15 years.

Though Brewster believed in God and the Scriptures all his life, his faith did not become personal and real to him till his senior years.  Most of what he believed had been a collection of intellectual convictions. Only after the death of his wife after 40 years of marriage did he struggle to understand the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross for him personally. This point should be noted by creationists and by those in the “intelligent design” movement. Just knowing there is a Creator is not the same as knowing the Creator personally. Facts are not enough. Each person must take the step beyond the evidence to trust in the Person to whom the evidence points.

Though David Brewster was intellectually convinced of the truth of the Bible and the divinity of Christ, he had a contentious and argumentative streak. The work of the Holy Spirit was not evident in his life. After diligent study of the Scriptures in his sorrow over his bereavement, he understood that he needed to trust the death and resurrection of Christ alone for his salvation: not his science, not his fame, not his intellectual knowledge. As each pilgrim must do to enter the door of salvation, he confessed his sin personally and gave his life unreservedly and completely to Christ. Only then did real evidence of regeneration begin. He grew less opinionated and more gracious, more peaceful and contented. The last years of his life were characterized by dynamic and confident faith and infectious love for Jesus Christ, his personal Lord and Savior.

One conviction remained constant throughout his 86-year life: the harmony of science and Scripture as a means to know God. Brewster denied there were contradictions between the two. When confronted with alleged contradictions, he argued for the deficiency of science, not the Bible; any discrepancy was due to imperfect understanding or faulty interpretation, not the trustworthiness of God’s Word. On his deathbed, he lamented the growing skepticism among men of science. “Few received the truth of Jesus,” he said. “But why? It was the pride of intellect—straining to be wise above what is written; it forgets its own limits, and steps out of its province. How little the wisest of mortals knew—of anything! How preposterous for worms to think of fathoming the counsels of the Almighty!” Looking ahead to his earthly end, he said, “I shall see Jesus, who created all things; Jesus, who made the worlds!” His family heard him express his innermost feelings, filled with joy and confidence: “I have had the Light for many years, and oh! how bright it is!  I feel so safe, so satisfied!”

David Brewster’s epitaph is fitting for a man who had spent so many years studying light, vision, and optics. Quoting Psalm 27:1, it reads simply, “THE LORD IS MY LIGHT.”

Credit: This short biography is adapted primarily from the excellent chapter on the life of David Brewster by George Mulfinger and his daughter Julia Mulfinger Orozco, in Christian Men of Science (Ambassador Emerald, 2001), ch. 3, pp. 49-68.  Incidentally, Brewster was also a historian of science. He wrote works on the lives of Brahe, Kepler and Newton.

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