John Anderson (1726-1796) was born at Rosneath, Dunbartonshire, the grandson of the Reverend John Anderson (1668-1721), Preceptor to the Duke of Argyll and first minister of St David's Ramshorn Church in Glasgow and son of the Reverend James Anderson, minister of Rosneath. Following the early death of his father, Anderson was brought up by an aunt in Stirling and later attended Glasgow University, where he graduated in 1745. Following employment as tutor to several young gentlemen, Anderson was appointed Professor of Oriental Languages at the College or University of Glasgow in 1755 and transferred to the Chair of Natural Philosophy in 1757.
Anderson had a wide range of interests - in natural philosophy, natural history, antiquities and ballistics and military engineering - and was a prolific writer and inventor. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and many other scientists of the day. He installed the first lightning conductor in Glasgow, on the College steeple.
Glasgow in the 18th century was a centre of the Industrial Revolution and Anderson realised the need to encourage technical education. He gave an evening class in experimental philosophy open to the mechanics in the city, which proved to be so popular that the lecture room had to be twice extended to accommodate the numbers wishing to attend. He was an inspired teacher and was nicknamed 'Jolly Jack Phosphorus' by his students. He was associated with James Watt and encouraged the latter's revolutionary work on the steam engine.
Anderson found himself often at odds with his colleagues in Glasgow University over matters of governance and their hostility, as he saw it, to new ideas, and some of these disputes ended in lawsuits. In 1795 he drew up a detailed plan in his will for a new University to be founded in Glasgow, which would be 'a place of useful learning'. Even women would be welcome to attend classes. After his death in January 1796 his trustees, although left with insufficient funds, were able to establish Anderson's Institution, which evolved into the present day University of Strathclyde.