Brewster’s Law


David Brewster was a renowned figure in 19th-century science and also served as Principal of the United College of the University of St Andrews from 1838-1859.

Brewster was born in Roxburghshire, Scotland and started his academic career studying at the University of Edinburgh. His contributions to science are many, but perhaps his most famous work was related to the field of optics. ‘Brewster’s Law’, which gives the angle at which light reflected from a surface is totally plane polarised, bears his name. ‘Brewster’s Law’ has many practical applications from polarised sunglasses to underwater photography.

Brewster also invented and patented the kaleidoscope, which Brewster described as ‘a popular instrument for rational amusement’. Though largely considered a toy today, the invention sparked a craze in intellectual European society, with an estimated two hundred thousand sold in London and Paris within three months! Unfortunately unauthorized copies were prevalent, and Brewster did not receive all the profits despite his patent.

Within St Andrews Brewster had an important role to play as a founding member of the town’s Literary and Philosophical Society, which went on to established the first museum in St Andrews. A great figure in the science of his day, Brewster was also an active contributor to the growing field of the History of Science as well.

More on Sir David Brewster, including kaleidoscopes you can try yourself, can be found in Gallery 3. There you can also discover the host of other prominent academics associated with the University of St Andrews.

Rebecca Jackson, Visitor Services Facilitator, MUSA


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