Canaan House – Alexander Adie (1775-1858)

One of Scotland’s most eminent scientific instrument makers, Alexander Adie, lived at Canaan Cottage for most of his life. He and his uncle both purchased plots in 1802 when the 65-acre Canaan Estate was divided and sold for building private suburban houses. Adie’s plot was subsequently sold, but on the larger plot they built Canaan Cottage, by today’s standards a substantial property with extensive gardens: the house is marked as ‘Mr Edies Property’ on Robert Kirkwood’s 1817 large plan of Edinburgh (fig). The original entrance to it was from Grange Loan. It was large enough to have a gatehouse and outbuildings.

Alexander James Adie was the second, and posthumous, son of a printer, John Adie, and his wife Elizabeth, née Miller. The elder Adie had owned property near Dunfermline, and was one of the proprietors of the Edinburgh Evening Courant. Although his mother remarried, she also died shortly thereafter, and the boys were adopted by their mother’s unmarried brother, the Edinburgh instrument maker, John Miller (1746-1815). Alexander was initially apprenticed to a stocking maker; but his elder brother John died in about 1787, and he was then set to work with his uncle as an optician. Aged about twelve, he left school; and regretted his lack of formal education when he grew to maturity to the extent that he paid for evening tuition in mathematics, algebra, chemistry ‘and other branches of the rudiments of philosophy’. Adie worked with his uncle, first as apprentice, then as assistant, and in 1803, the business became a partnership, Miller & Adie. On 22 October 1804, Adie married Marion Ritchie, the seventeen-year-old daughter of John Ritchie, an Edinburgh slater, and together they had four sons and seven daughters. Three of Adie’s sons became successful scientific instrument makers; the eldest, John (1805-1857), subsequently went into partnership with his father; the third, Richard (1810-1881), started a business in Liverpool; and the youngest, Patrick (1821-1886), began one in London. The fourth son, second in age, Alexander James Adie (1808-1879) served an apprenticeship with a civil engineer, and became a respected railway engineer.

Initially, the firm’s products were aimed at satisfying the expanding demand for surveying instruments (the end of the eighteenth century saw much agricultural improvement in the Scottish countryside). However, Miller had supplied the University of Edinburgh with demonstration teaching apparatus for the Natural Philosophy Class, and through these contacts, the Miller & Adie firm continued to sell similar items to Anderson’s Institution in Glasgow and the University of St Andrews. Adie’s mechanical skills soon attracted the attention of a number of inventive patrons, among whom was the Edinburgh-based natural philosopher, David Brewster (1781-1868), who commissioned a number of newly designed instruments from Adie for his research work in optics. As a scientific journalist and editor, Brewster publicised Adie’s abilities by promoting his own work, particularly in connection with his experiments with jewel lenses for microscope optics during the 1820s. Adie also manufactured a series of differential thermometers used in the pioneering work on the nature of heat by Sir John Leslie (1766-1832), Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh; these were advertised in Leslie’s publications between 1808 and 1820. Another patron was the civil engineer, Robert Stevenson (1772-1850), whose improvements to lighthouse optics called upon Adie’s practical mechanical expertise. The construction of an improved form of the pantograph, called the eidograph, was produced by Adie in 1821 for its designer, William Wallace, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. After Miller’s death in 1815, Adie carried on working under the name ‘Miller & Adie’ until 1822, shortly after taking on his eldest son John as apprentice, when the name changed to ‘Alexander Adie’.

Adie was interested in the science of meteorology from an early date, and began a twice-daily register with barometer, thermometer, and wind and rain gauge, all constructed by himself. His records ran from 1795 to 1805 (when he was still based in Edinburgh), and subsequently, at Canaan Cottage from 1821 to 1850: these records were later used in an attempt to ascertain the climate of Edinburgh over a period of 56 years by James David Forbes (1809-1868), Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, and also a patron of the Adie firm in the 1830s. Adie’s interest in weather led him to design and subsequently patent, in December 1818, his sympiesometer or ‘new air barometer’. This instrument used oil as its hydrostatic fluid, together with a column of gas. It was particularly useful as a marine barometer, as its sensitivity provided early warning of weather changes at sea, and its construction meant that it was less likely to break in storms (fig).

Alexander Adie, ‘Improved sympiesometer’, private collection.

The business moved to prestigious premises on Princes Street, and traded as Adie & Son from 1835 until 1881, long after Alexander Adie and John Adie had died. It is not known when Alexander Adie ceased to work altogether, but he appears to have stopped going in to the shop by the early 1840s. It appears that he then spent most of his time in the garden at Canaan Cottage. His biographer stated:

In after life he was a most assiduous gardener trying many experiments, raising new apples and beyond his eightyeth year deriving the greatest pleasure from his garden works and in the culturation of his plants and flowers.
He remained scientifically curious, and in 1840 he was eager to begin observing the decomposition of specially prepared pieces of wood to be buried in the soil. In addition to his wife and children, the household at Canaan Cottage included lizards and birds, hens, pigs and a cow, all recorded in cheerful letters sent by Adie’s daughters to their engineer brother, A.J. Adie. The ‘Canaanites’, as they dubbed themselves, appear to have lived a tranquil life as ‘a highly favoured family’. Sadly, all the daughters died young, and by November 1858 after some years of failing health, a bad cold destroyed Alexander Adie’s own remaining strength and he died on 4 December 1858, aged eighty-three, at Canaan Cottage.

A.D. Morrison-Low, 2019

Forbes, James David. 1860. ‘The Climate of Edinburgh, for Fifty-six Years, from 1795 to 1850, deduced principally from Mr Adie’s Observation’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 22, pp. 327-360.
Clarke, T.N., A.D. Morrison-Low and A.D.C. Simpson. 1989. Brass & Glass: Scientific Instrument Making Workshops in Scotland (Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland), pp. 25-65.
Morrison-Low, A. D. 2004  “Adie, Alexander James (1775–1858), maker of scientific instruments.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 11 Jan. 2019.