CANTON, Vans), in biography, an ingenious natural philosopher, was born at Stroud, in Gloucestershire, in 1718 ; and was placed, when young, under the care of Mr. Davis, an able mathematician of that place, with whom he had learned both vulgar and decimal arithmetic before he was quite nine years of age. He next proceeded to the higher parts of the ma thematics, and particularly to algebra and astronomy, in which he had made a considerable progress, when his father took him from school and set him to learn his own business, which was that of a broad-cloth weaver. All his leisure time was devoted to the assiduous cultivation of astronomical science ; by which he was soon able to calculate eclipses, and to construct various kinds of sun-dials, even at times when he ought to have slept, be ing done without the knowledge and con sent of his father, who feared that such studies might injure his health. It was during this prohibition,and at these hours, that he computed, and cut upon stone, with no better an instrument than a com mon knife, the lines of a large upright sun-dial, on which, beside the hour of the day, were shewn the sun's rising, his place in the ecliptic, and some other particulars. When this was finished, and made known to his father, he permitted it to be placed against the front of his house, where it excited the admiration of several neigh bouring gentlemen,and introduced young Canton to their acquaintance, which was followed by the offer of the use of their libraries. In the library of one of these gentlemen he found Martin's Philosophi cal Grammar, which was the first book that gave him a taste for natural philoso phy. In the possession of another gen tleman he saw a pair of globes ; a circum stance that afforded him great pleasure, from the great ease with which he could solve those problems that he had hitherto been accustomed to compute.
Among other persons with whom he became acquainted in early life was Dr. Henry Miles, of Tooting, who, perceiving that young Canton possessed abilities too promising to be confined within the nar row limits of a country town, prevailed on his father to permit him to come up to London. Accordingly he arrived at the metropolis the 4th of March 17S7, and resided with Dr. Miles at Tooting till the 6th of May following, when he articled himself, for the term of five years, as a clerk to Mr. Samuel Watkins, master of the academy in Spital Square. In this situation, his ingenuity, diligence, and prudence, were so distinguished, that on the expiration of his clerkship, in .1742, he was taken into partnership with Mr. Watkins for three years; which gen tleman he afterwards succeeded in the school, and there continued during the remainder of his life.
Towards the end, of 1745, electricity received a great improvement by the dis covery of the famous Leyden phial. This event turned the thoughts of most of the philosophers of Europe to that branch of natural philosophy ; and our author, who was one of the first to repeat and to pur sue the experiment, found his endeavours rewarded by many notable discoveries.
Towards the end of 1749, he was en gaged -with his friend, the late ingenious Benjamin Robins, in making experiments to determine the height to which rockets may be made to ascend, and at what dis tance their light may be seen. In 1750 was read at the Royal Society, Mr. Can ton's " Method of making Artificial Mag nets, without the use of, and yet far supe rior to, any natural ones." This paper procured him the honour of being elected a member of the Society, and the present of their gold medal. The same year he was complimented with the degree of A. M. by the University of Aberdeen. •And in 1751 he was chosen one of the council of the Royal Society ; an honour which was twice repeated afterwards.
In 1752, Mr Canton was so fortunate as to be the first person in England, who, by attracting the electric fire from the clouds during a thunder-storm, verified Dr. Franklin's hypothesis of the similari ty o lightning and electricity. Next year his paper, entitled "Electrical Experi ments, with an Attempt to account for their several Phenomena," was read at the Royal Society. In the same paper Mr. Canton mentioned his having disco vered, by many experiments, that some clouds were in a positive, and some in a negative state of electricity : a discovery which was also made by Dr. Franklin in America much about the same time. This circumstance, together with our author's constant defence of the doctor's hypothesis, induced that excellent philo sopher, on his arrival in England, to pay Mr. Canton a visit, and gave rise to a friendship which ever after continued between them. Mr. Canton was a con tributor to the Philosophical Transac tions, and, among many other papers, he sent, in 1765, an account of the transit of Venus of the 6th of June that year, ob served in Spital Square. On the 16th of December, the same year, another curi ous addition was made by him to philo sophical knowledge, in a paper, entitled "Experiments to prove that Water is not incompressible." And on Nov. 8, the year following, were read before the So ciety, his farther " Experiments and Ob servations on the Compressibility of Wa ter, and some other fluids." These expe riments are a complete refutation of the famous Florentine experiment, which so many philosophers have mentioned as a proof of the incompressibility of water. For this communication he had a second time the Society's prize gold medal. Mr. Canton was a contributor to many other publications, particularly to the Gentle man's Magazine. In every period of his life he was an ardent promoter of useful science ; and while philosophy lives, the name of Canton will not be forgotten. He died of the dropsy, in his 54th year, on the 22d of March, 1772.