The Doric Columns
Professor Patrick Copeland
Aberdeen's Water Supply
Patrick Copland was born in Fintray, Aberdeenshire. He received a bursary to Marischal College and studied Natural Philosophy under George Skene and Moral Philosophy with James Beattie, the Professors in their respective subjects at Aberdeen University at that time. In 1775 Copland became Professor of Philosophy at Marischal College, and Professor of Mathematics from 1779 to 1817. A very popular lecturer, Copland introduced the use of his own inventions into his lectures, where students were able to learn from practical demonstrations alongside the lectures. His teaching techniques gained the attention of the local government and he was appointed Academic Consultant to the City. Copland was also a consultant physicist and advised the town on fresh water supplies, sand and gravel filtration beds and surveying. He also helped record the first measurements of the Deeside hills using barometrics and was instrumental in the introduction of chlorine bleach to Britain. In 1780, he built the first publicly funded Astronomical Observatory with modern equipment in Castlehill near Marischal College. Observatories were later built on top of Kings and Marischal Colleges. Some of the instruments made for the observatory are still in the collection
In 1783 Copland obtained a 3-year grant to employ an instrument maker, John King, to furnish him with a set of working models to illustrate the application of mechanical principles to industrial and agricultural practice. These models were to be additional to Copland's own demonstration apparatus. By the autumn of 1785 the project was sufficiently well advanced for Copland to place an advertisement in the Aberdeen Journal announcing that he would begin a private evening class directed towards those ‘engaged in the mechanical professions, or to such gentlemen as are inclined to renew their acquaintance with those studies’. He continued: In this course, the Principles of Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Electricity, Magnetism and Astronomy, together with the late discoveries on the different kinds of air will be illustrated, chiefly by experiments, and reasoning deduced from them.
Aberdeen was a small place in the 1770s and Copland's reputation as a teacher would have extended well outside the College by the end of the decade. His name would have been widely known by 1782 when he set on foot a public subscription to buy Astronomical Instruments and as a result raised sufficient money and support to build a fully equipped Observatory on Castlehill. After 1785 he would have been familiar to many social levels for he began his extensive and popular evening lecture course for working men and gentlemen, specifically aimed to take physics to its point of application. This course will receive an account of its own. It was, however, for none of these that he was officially honoured by the town: it was for his involvement with Aberdeen's Water Supply.
In the late 1780s Copland and Robert Hamilton (Professor of Mathematics at Marischal College) were co-opted onto the Town Council Water Committee. This Committee normally advised on routine matters connected with wells and watercourses but it became clear in the early 1790s that there would need to be a major reassessment and expansion of the town's drinking water supply. In the autumn of 1791, Copland, Hamilton and some other committee members measured the capacity of the existing springs and endeavoured to discover what additional springs might most easily be brought into use. In 1792, Hamilton and Copland suggested that the Edinburgh Water Engineer James Gordon should be asked for his professional advice on what was clearly a matter of long-term importance to the town. Copland's role seems to have been that of a ‘technical expert’, familiar with the relevant concepts in hydrostatics and hydraulics, able to advise on possible water courses and calculate the flow of water expected from given pipework down a known slope. For several weeks Copland and Hamilton daily accompanied Gordon “and afforded him every information and Assistance in their power where necessary in the taking of levels and other operations made by him”. The result of this effort was the Gordon Water Report of 1792, and the improvements brought about by its implementation. The preamble to this report outlines the background just discussed. Further details of the committee's progress can be deduced from the Town Council Register. For their services Copland and Hamilton were made Burgesses of Guild of the City. with all the privileges and Immunities competent and enjoyed by any other Guild Brother both as to themselves and their families. In a gesture of generosity, possibly never again repeated by the Magistrates of Aberdeen, this title was given free, allowing Copland and Hamilton such privileges as voting rights for Council members for which other citizens paid quite heavily. They were, in fact, neither Honorary Burgesses nor Paying Burgesses.
Scrophula - In children, can also be caused by Mycobacterium scrofulaceum or Mycobacterium avium. Infection with mycobacteria is usually caused by breathing in air that is contaminated by these organisms. Dr Samuel Johnson also had a difficult life. He was blind in one eye from childhood, and carried permanent facial scarring from ‘scrofula’ – lymph nodes infected with tuberculosis – contracted from his wet nurse. His early ambition to become a lawyer was frustrated by lack of money, and he left university without a degree, to make what living he could as a school teacher. He married a woman twenty years his senior, who died an opium addict. He was a neurotic self-doubter, a depressive, and an eccentric (he collected orange peel, and touched every lamp post as walked down the street). He was well-known in London high society, despite being notorious for his rough manners and dress, and off-putting mannerisms.
It was, therefore, with a knowledgeable eye that Copland viewed the Denburn in his daily travels from Fountainhall House to Marischal College in the summer of 1804. He was appalled to see bathing in water which could later be used for drinking “boys with scrophulous and other sores” as well as “mothers bathing scrophulous children in the same place”. Opposite Fountainhall, waste chemicals from a manufactory of coloured threads were piped into the burn and people brought their dirty clothes to be washed. Elsewhere “ashes and other nuisances” were thrown into the burn. He made his observations to the Commissioners of the Police (then responsible more for public amenities such as water, roads, lighting etc., rather than law and order) in the hope that something could be done. The Commissioners decided that although legal measures should be introduced, the best plan was to collect the water nearer its source and to consider filtration. On both these matters they asked Copland for his advice. In a reply of great clarity and good sense Copland pointed out that filtration in this case could only remove impurities mechanically mixed with the water and “little or nothing of what may be dissolved or chemically united with it”. He continued: As I have never seen an instance nor recollect any account of Filtering so large a supply of water as would be here necessary, I cannot with such confidence answer your last query relative to the best method of constructing such a Filter, as the preceding ones: but I would hope that the following method would be found sufficiently simple and effective.
Let a dam be built across the stream, where the water can be raised perhaps 4 feet. On the north side of this, a covered chamber is to be constructed, communicating with the water of the dam by a small sluice at the bottom; for regulating the quantity of water introduced. This chamber is to be filled first with a stratum of small pebbles, to allow the water to spread easily over its bottom. The next one of coarse gravel, and so finer and finer till the top is formed (perhaps) a foot in depth, of fine sea sand; the upper surface of which must be below the level of water in the Reservoir. Its pressure therefore will gradually raise the water through the gravel and sand, from above the surface of which it is to be conveyed into the Pipe. This part of Copland's reply has been quoted at length because it must be one of the very first practical suggestions for a gravel and sand slow filtration bed for a town's water supply. For example London's water supply, in desperate need of filtration, did not receive any on a large scale until 1829 and it was not made compulsory until 1855. The Commissioners appeared enthusiastic and resolved to make a trial of the proposed filtering system under the auspices of Mr Blackie, Superintendent of the Wells and Water courses.
However, they gave higher priority to the creation of a Dam and Reservoir at Gilcomston for the Gilcomston Spring and agreed that officially, at least, the Denburn water was only to be used for drinking in the emergency of a dry summer when normal sources became insufficient. The matter dropped out of discussion at their regular meetings. It is perhaps not surprising that May 1806 finds Copland digging a Well within his own garden. The supply issued from a fissure in the rock and was found “extremely pure and fit for every purpose on being drawn, its temperature from 46 degrees to 48 degrees Fahrenheit”. The commissioners returned to the question of a filtering machine in February 1807, when they were of the opinion that a small piece of ground, above the source of the springs and the Gilcomston Dam should be procured from Mr. Skene of Rubislaw, enclosed with a stone wall, and a proper building erected in it, with the necessary apparatus for filtering water, necessary as a supply in the dry season, from the Denburn, or Rivulet which passes from the Den of Rubislaw. In May of that year, “A letter was received from Mr Skene of Rubislaw, granting to the Board, in the most handsome manner, the ground necessary for the site of a Filtering House”. All seemed ready to embark on a small pioneering venture. Nothing happened. In September 1807, Copland appeared in person before the Commission but merely to ask whether his tenants (to the South of Fountainhall House) could be connected up to the new water mains. In March 1809, the Overseer and Blackie were directed to stake off ground 100 feet square for the filtering machine. Nothing further happened. In 8 years' time another Committee inspected the site for a filtering machine on the spot granted by Mr Skene of Rubislaw and a Plan was published by the city surveyor showing its location. The filter had certainly not been forgotten because in 1818 a local Act of Parliament was passed for improving the paving, streets and access roads, their lighting, cleaning and watching and also for supplying the inhabitants of Aberdeen with water. In several sections of this act relating to water, it is clear that the provision of ‘Filtering Machines’ was well to the fore of the consciousness of those who drafted the act. In April 1819, about 15 years after the original proposal, the Commissioners began to move.
By now the novelty had gone. Blackie was dispatched to Glasgow to examine their filters. Skene began discussions on compensation for laying pipes and loss of water from his land, amicably at first but when agreement was not reached, arbitration was abandoned in favour of a formal jury. Gilcomston Brewery added an unexpected twist to the story by obtaining, in the Court of Session, an interdict against the Commissioners because they feared a significant loss of power to their water wheel. Copland was called in by Skene this time, asking him to calculate the expected flow through the take-off pipes and how this might be regulated. The compensation wrangle continued until finally the Commissioners threw in their hand, somewhat piqued, abandoning the scheme to seek alternative supplies. Aberdeen's 1st filtered water did not occur in Copland's lifetime.
Perhaps the story of a failure scarcely deserves the space it has just been given. However, the lessons of history are not confined to the successes of our predecessors and in this case it seems fairly clear that the Commissioners must take most of the blame. They were dilatory, failed to do their homework properly on the water supply rates and misjudged their public relations. The role of Copland is interesting because it is a rather early and well documented example of an academic ‘physicist’ acting as a Consultant on a matter of public concern. In fact Copland was once more to be called as a consultant on water, for the pollution of the Denburn had continued since he drew the Commissioners' attention to it in 1804. Skene and Maberly a textile Miller (the manufacturer at fault) were engaged in a law suit in August 1820. Skene's Factor wrote to Skene that he would get Professor Copland and Dr Davidson to examine the water. The case came up in October 1820, and the astonished Factor was forced to write to Skene (in France) stating that they had lost the case because although the jury were quite satisfied that the water was polluted they thought Skene had not personally sustained any actual damage thereby. Hence Professor Copland's involvement with Aberdeen's water supply ends with something of a whimper.
Measuring & Surveying - ABERDEEN'S STANDARDS
There is no doubt that clearly defined standard measures are essential for a nation which is to depend for its survival on technology and trading. The force of this fact was being felt in Britain at the end of the 18th century both at national and local levels. First there was the matter of fair trading. The standards required were usually not of great precision but they had to be clearly stated and accessible. Secondly, there was the problem of making accurate machinery or composite articles using parts made by different craftsmen, possibly in different places. Finally there was the problem of measuring land. In all 3 areas, Aberdeen was finding that the standards it had inherited from earlier in the century were inadequate for the more sophisticated requirements of the late 18th century. In academic terms, only 2 standards were involved, mass and length. In basic practical terms, there were 4, namely weight, volume, length and angle. In reality there were a very considerable number because the standard used depended on the commodity being measured. Standard weights were least likely to age because they are virtually unaffected by atmospheric conditions, temperature and denting. Unfortunately, rather a lot were required as trading standards. For example, a set of 6 weights, starting at 1/4 pound and doubling in size are necessary to cover the modest range from 1/4 of a pound to 8 pounds. In Aberdeen, Scots troy weight (the legal weight in Scotland), sometimes called Amsterdam weight, was generally used to sell country produce such as butter, cheese, wool, tallow, lard, etc. ; English troy weight (the legal weight in England) was used only for gold, silver and apothecaries' measures while avoirdupois was widely used everywhere. The units in each system were significantly different. A number of items now sold by weight were then sold by volume. For example, potatoes and turnips were sold by sleeks and pecks, wheat and rye by bolls and firlots, all ultimately related to the Aberdeen pint jug. Unfortunately, there was plenty of scope for confusion because the wheat firlot contained 26 Aberdeen pints, the oats firlot 34 Aberdeen pints and the lime and linseed firlots 32 Aberdeen pints. The Aberdeen pint (about 3 of today's pints) was defined by a container a little larger than the widely used ‘Stirling jug’ but not as large as it used to be owing to an injury of its rim. One can summon up a little sympathy for the Aberdeen potato merchant of 1787 whose measure was required by the Magistrates to be smashed at the town cross by the hands of the Public Hangman on account of its being too small. According to Baily, the country never possessed a legal standard of length prior to 1824, when an Act of Parliament apparently established Bird's yard of 1760 as the standard of length.
Aberdeen did not possess any bar whose length was known relative to either Bird's yard or the standard measures in Edinburgh. The town possessed one or two plaiding ells (about 37 inches). This kind of standard consisted of a bar with upright end markers. A rod to be tested was placed between the markers and if it was short it was rejected. If it just fitted or could be shaken down it was passed by the inspectorate and officially stamped (thereby destroying any precision it may have had). One such Imperial Yard standard (possibly dating to 1824) can be seen in Provost Skene's House and an earlier Aberdeen Dean of Guild standard yard and ell are in the Town House. Copland himself had probably the best measure, a one-foot rule by Sisson (now in the Natural Philosophy Department). However, a standard foot in a glass cabinet is no reference between contenders in a dispute involving the siting of boundary markers on an estate. The town possessed no standard chain nor had the county been surveyed. Plans of Aberdeen and its surroundings were produced in 1746 by G. and W. Paterson, in 1773 by George Taylor and in 1789 by Alexander Milne. A comparison of identifiable features with a modern ordnance survey shows them to be wanting in precision. This, very briefly, is the background against which Copland's involvement with measures and surveying must be seen. A fuller account of the national problem affecting all weights, measures and coins is given by George Skene Keith, Minister of Keith-Hall and Kinkell in Aberdeenshire, who campaigned for many years to have the standard of length referred to the seconds pendulum.
A most detailed summary of local weights and measures is given in a long quantitative section of William Kennedy's Annals of Aberdeen which appears to be a reprint of George Skene Keith's 1795 report to the Dean of Guild. About 1800, Copland suggested to the town (i.e. the Dean of Guild and hence to the Dean of Guild Court) that a very accurate divided brass scale of five feet be purchased from Troughton because from it any measure which has been compared with the English yard could be taken with great accuracy. Troughton made the scale in 1801 as the last of only three similar scales and the Town Council accounts show a payment.33 It is described briefly by Copland and further by Francis Baily in a comprehensive survey of standard measures in existence in 1835 where the Aberdeen scale is found wanting by about 0.001 inch on the Imperial Standard Yard. This error is commensurate with that of other scales though larger than some (A standard 5 foot measure very similar to the Aberdeen scale that was made by Troughton in 1801, used by Copland in his comparative study of 1811 and kept by him in the Marischal College observatory. Two travelling microscopes, one with a micrometer screw, allowed reading to 1/10,000th part of an inch).
Clearly the purchase of Troughton's scale was an overkill to the immediate problem of commercial standards in Aberdeen. However, as a long-term solution to what was clearly a long-term problem it was a very sensible move, the equivalent of which ought to have been made by the authorities in Edinburgh. Copland suggested that a standard chain be marked out along a granite wall in a public place in the town. This was later done on a granite step in Trafalgar Square (London) but it is not known to have been done in Aberdeen. In 1811, the Dean of Guild made a concerted effort with the Town Council to improve their standards of weight and volume. They ordered new sets of avoirdupois weights from London, new Scots troy weights from Edinburgh, new firlots for barley, wheat and oats (all different), new liquid measures and apparently others besides. Copland and George Skene Keith “whose knowledge and accuracy in such matters are universally acknowledged” were asked for a comparative study of these new measures and the old ones, including those of length. It is Copland who presents the comparisons and since he had the apparatus we can take it he actually did the work. The results of this study are transcribed in the Town Council Register.
The report shows clearly the accuracy to which Copland worked and the accuracy achieved by the makers at that time: it may also be of some interest in a historical study of weights and measures. The whole exercise again shows Copland in the newly emerging social role of ‘consultant physicist’. In addition to the Aberdeen standards, Copland was also sent the standard measures of length in Edinburgh for comparison with the English yard. This was at the insistence of some of the Lords of Session who were unable to resolve legal cases concerning the demarcation of land for want of a precise measure of the Scots chain in yards. In Aberdeenshire, with the great improvements in agriculture as the 18th century closed, the value of land was quickly increasing and the lack of adequate maps strongly felt. In the town, a rapid expansion of the street plan was begun in late 1790s and it is surely no coincidence that the City purchased a very large and accurate theodolite made by Troughton in 1801, just as this major reconstruction was beginning. Copland gives an account of this theodolite describing it as “on the same plan as the great Theodolite made by Ramsden for the Survey of Great Britain” (The great theodolite made by Ramsden to survey the large triangles upon which the ordnance survey of Great Britain was based. This theodolite was brought to Aberdeen by Colby in 1814 to locate the Belhelvie baseline and again in 1817 on the ill-fated Shetland expedition mounted jointly with the Bureau de Longitude.). It was no instrument for everyday use. Since Copland was given the safe keeping of it, it seems likely that he had something to do with its purchase. It can be seen that in 10 years Aberdeen went from being impoverished in standards to surely the best equipped City in Scotland. In this improvement, Copland played a significant part.
The contribution of Copland and his fellow professors to the highly professional surveying team under Colby was undoubtedly slight. Nevertheless, Colby had the courtesy to write, “I cannot better testify my gratitude for the honour done by the Professors of Aberdeen than by evincing my attention to their advice." His respect for Copland may have been coloured by the fact that he had some hopes of Copland becoming his father-in-law. The one-armed and enthusiastic Colby proposed to Copland's only daughter, Mary, but was not accepted. Even after this, Colby was to name Copland amongst other Academics as a reference in his successful application for the post of Director of the Ordnance Survey upon the death of William Mudge in 1820.
Biot's Shetland Trip
In account of Biot's trip to Scotland has been given by David F. Larder in the Review 63 but he did not have access to the Copland correspondence and he does not mention the controversy that clouded the expedition.
The Introduction of Bleaching by Chlorine
The introduction of chlorine bleaching into this country has been well documented by Musson and Robinson as an example of rather close co-operation between academic science and industrial practice. The only recognition Copland has been given so far by modern historians of science has been because he and 2 Aberdeen bleachers were contestably the first to introduce commercial chlorine bleaching into this country. For example, Singer et alia in A History of Technology ascribe its introduction to Copland. Samuel Parkes, in his Chemical Essays of 1815, certainly believed that Copland was the 1st and when his account was challenged on behalf of Thomas Henry of Manchester, he quoted Copland's descriptive letter in full. No claim is made by anyone in Britain for discovering the chemical reactions involved, this having been done by Scheele in 1774 and Berthollet in 1785. In brief, Copland learned of the process from a practical demonstration by de Saussure, with whom he and the Duke of Gordon spent 3 weeks at Geneva in the spring of 1787, probably no earlier than the 2nd week of May. Impressed with the idea of its importance to our manufacturers, and well acquainted with the chemical knowledge of the Mr. Milnes, I immediately on my return communicated it to them, and perfectly recollect our instantly trying it on a hank of yarn directly from the spinner, to which in less than an hour we gave a good white colour. To the best of my recollection this was about the end of July, 1787, and from that time I was frequently informed by Mr. Milne and his late brother that they always continued to use this new mode of bleaching in their manufacture.
These are Copland's own words but written almost 30 years after the event in response to a request from Samuel Parkes.70 It is easy to believe that Copland had close industrial contacts for by that time his evening classes to artisans and others had already begun. His chemical knowledge would have been better then than some years earlier for one of the purposes of these evening classes was to introduce the fairly recent work of Priestley on various gases. However, Copland never claimed in this context or. in any other to be a ‘chemist’ and from a reading of his own account quoted above it seems that a substantial amount of the credit for the Aberdeen effort should go to Alexander and Patrick Milne, of Gordon, Barron & Co, cotton manufacturers. One result of their efforts was to prevent a Parliamentary monopoly being granted to Messrs Bourboulon de Boneuil & Co of Liverpool in 1788 for the process of making liquid chlorine bleach, thereby aiding the spread of chlorine bleaching. Chlorine was so superior to other bleaching recipes that the priority of its introduction was a matter of some prestige. The other main claimant was James Watt, better known for his stationary steam engines, whose father-in-law, Mr MacGregor, was a Glasgow Bleacher and to whom he introduced the method early in 1787. There was no rivalry between Watt and Copland on this score. In a letter about several matters, Watt remarks to Copland: I am much obliged to you for the trouble you have taken about the Manganese which as you rightly observe could not pay the expense of working so narrow a vein in Granite. I hope however you will be able to procure enough for your experiments, the vein of that mineral near Exeter is said to be nearly exhausted and its produce now not as good as it was. I shall thank you at your convenience to write me your results of its produce in Dephlogisticated air.
Manganese, along with common salt and sulphuric acid, was an ingredient in the production of chlorine for bleaching. The vein referred to was probably the Manganese Mine at Grandholm that students in Copland's time were taken to see. Returning to the matter of priority, Thomas Thomson, the author of the extensive 1824 article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica on bleaching, favoured Watt. The important point, if there is one now, is when the experiment was 1st transformed from a demonstration to a large scale commercial process. On this point none of the evidence is sufficiently precise that honour can unequivocally be bestowed.
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