Alexander Cumming (ca. 1731 – 1814)
John Hill (1714 – 1775)
by Brian Stevenson
last updated March, 2016
The names of Alexander Cumming and John Hill are intertwined in microscope history due to Hill’s production of a book on structures of wood as examined under the microscope, which was made possible by a microtome invented by Cumming. George Adams wrote that prior to the publication of Hill’s book in 1770, interest in microscope development had waned, “either satisfied with the discoveries already made … or tired by it's own exertions”. Hill’s The Construction of Timber from its Early Growth, Explained by the Microscope described the fine structures of woods, and provided ways to evaluate strength, etc. of this important construction material. Adams wrote, “So important a subject soon revived the ardor for microscopic pursuits, which seems to have been increasing ever since”. The Cumming-pattern section cutter was subsequently improved upon by Robert Custance, whose highly-regarded plant sections further stimulated excitement over the microscope.
Most of us will never be able to afford one of Cumming’s section-cutters, nor any of the fine clocks and other instruments he constructed. Fortunately, at least two Cumming microtomes appear to be on public display, at England’s Museum of Science History and The Science Museum (Figure 1). Hill’s ground-breaking book can be freely downloaded via the internet.
Figure 1. A Cumming-pattern microtome, at the Museum of Science History, Oxford, England. This instrument is marked as having been made by Jesse Ramsden, who made the majority of Cumming-pattern section cutters (see Figure 2). In functioning, a piece of wood was adjusted through the body to protrude through the wedge-shaped opening visible to the upper right. The elliptical blade was rotated against the wood, using the sharp edge and friction to slice off a thin section of wood. The circular mechanism belies Cumming’s chief occupation as a clockmaker. The Museum notes that, “The rotary blade is difficult to make, and very difficult to keep sharp”. They also state, “This particular machine has been used in 1974 to test its performance, and it produces good sections of about 20 micrometres in thickness”. Used for nonprofit, education purposes, adapted from http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/collections/imu-search-page/record-details/?TitInventoryNo=65389&querytype=field&thumbnails=&irn=1733.
Another Cumming-pattern microtome, with an ivory body, can be seen on line at the Science Museum, http://www.ssplprints.com/image/81932/microtome-1770
Figure 2. Engravings of the Cumming cutting-engine, from Hill’s ‘The Construction of Timber from its Early Growth, Explained by the Microscope’. Jesse Ramsden was master to William Cary, who later became famous for the microscopes invented by his employee and former apprentice, Charles Gould.
Figure 3. Cover of John Hill’s 1770 book on wood morphology.
Figure 4. A plate from Hill’s ‘Construction of Timber’, showing fine details of oak wood. This was made possible by Cumming’s section-cutter.
Figure 5. (left) John Hill and (right) Alexander Cumming.
John Hill was born in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, in 1714, son of clergyman. He apprenticed as an apothecary, and was awarded an MD in 1750. He lived in London from, at latest, 1738. Along with those occupations, he edited The British Magazine until 1750, and after that, wrote a daily column for The London Daily Advertiser. He wrote over 100 books and pamphlets, including novels, plays, medical texts and scientific works. Some of his works were taken seriously, but much was considered hack work. Hill created a stir from his frustrated attempts to join the Royal Society. Although the Royal Society was England’s premier scientific organization, in the mid-1700s many of its members were non-scientists, while actual, working scientists such as Hill were often excluded. Eventually, Hill became so disappointed by his rejection that he published works that derided the Society.
Botany was one of Hill’s main interests, likely due to the extensive use of plants in medicines. His 1757 British Herbal caught the attention of the Earl of Bute, who engaged Hill to work with his botanical collection and revise Linnaeus’ nomenclatures. The resulting Vegetable System ran to 26 volumes.
Bute was also a patron of Alexander Cumming, and likely helped bring the machinist and the botanist together. That level of society probably also brought them into contact with George Adams Sr., Optician to the King. Adams’ microscopes and Cumming’s microtomes enabled Hill’s detailed examination of woods that led to his significant Construction of Timber from its Early Growth, Explained by the Microscope. After the Earl of Bute died in 1792, the sale of his effects included several Cumming microtomes.
Alexander Cumming was born ca. 1731 in Inverness-shire, Scotland. By 1752, he operated a watchmaking business in Inveraray, Argyll, and was a significant enough citizen to be enrolled as a burgess. He was patronized by the Duke of Argyll, and produced a clock and an organ for the Duke’s castle at Inveraray. Following the Duke’s death in 1761, Cumming moved to London, establishing a shop on New Bond Street. He developed a strong reputation as watchmaker. He also developed an interest in air pressure, and built a clockwork barometric recorder for King George III (Figure 6).
Cumming also developed and patented a device that most of us use daily: the curved drain pipe found in sink drains and toilets (Figure 8). The small amount of water retained in the “S” curve prevents fumes from coming back up from the sewer.
He retired in the early 1790s, moving to suburban Pentonville. He continued to investigate and write on various mechanical subjects, such as the effects of variously-shaped carriage wheels on roadways and the use of gravity for mechanical power. He invested in land in the area, and became a magistrate. He died on March 8, 1814, at the age of 82.
Figure 6. The clockwork recording barometer made by Alexander Cumming for King George III in 1765. He was paid £150 per year to maintain it. From http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/2752/barometrical-clock
Figure 7. A clock by Alexander Cumming. Adapted for nonprofit, educational purposes from an internet auction site.
Figure 8. A diagram of Alexander Cumming’s flush toilet design, which included a curved drainpipe.
Adams, George (1787) Essays on the Microscope, first edition, Adams, London, page 21
Adams, George (1798) Essays on the Microscope, second edition, edited by Frederick Kanmacher, W. & S. Jones, London, pages 19-20
Clifton, Gloria (2004, online edition 2008) Cumming, Alexander (1731/2–1814), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed April 2014, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/6893
Fraser, Kevin J. (1994) John Hill and the Royal Society in the Eighteenth Century, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 48, pages 43-67
Hellyer, S. Stevens (1891) Priciples and Practice of Plumbing, George Bell and Sons, London, pages 194-196
Hill, John (1770) The Construction of Timber, from its Early Growth, Explained by the Microscope, Hill, London
Museum of the History of Science (accessed April, 2014) http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/collections/imu-search-page/record-details/?TitInventoryNo=65389&querytype=field&thumbnails=&irn=1733
The Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library (accessed April, 2014) http://www.ssplprints.com/image/81932/microtome-1770
Smith, Gilbert M. (1915) The development of botanical microtechnique, Transactions of the American Microscopical Society, Vol. 34, pages 71-129