John Anderson was born in Roseneath in 1726. He studied at the University of Glasgow and in 1756 became professor of oriental languages. In 1760 Anderson switched to physics and later wrote the pioneering textbook, Institutes of Physics. As well as teaching his students during the day, Anderson provided lectures for working-class men in the evenings.
Anderson held radical political views and supported the French Revolution. In 1791 Anderson designed and presented a new six-pound gun to the National Convention, announcing that it was "the Gift of Science to Liberty".
Anderson died in 1796. In his will he left his money to provide an education for the "unacademic classes". This led to the establishment of Anderson's College in Glasgow. Under the leadership of George Birkbeck, the college provided free classes for working-class men in mechanics and chemistry. The classes held at the college marked the beginning of what became known as the Mechanics Institute movement.