Little is known about Nicol’s early life and education, other than that he was born in Humbie, near Edinburgh c. 1771. It is not until his teenage years that his life became better documented. This was when he took on the role of assistant to Henry Moyes (1749 – 1807), an important public lecturer on science in his day. The two are believed to have had an extremely close relationship (Moyes was blind and so Nicol acted as his ‘eyes’) and on Moyes’ death, Nicol followed in Moyes’ footsteps as a well-respected lecturer on Natural Philosophy.
In 1826, Nicol began publishing papers, with his first paper concentrating on minerals. He had a good reputation and is known to have worked with Sir David Brewster (1781 – 1868), the Scottish physicist responsible for ‘Brewster’s Law’. In 1829, Nicol published a short paper detailing his ‘Nicol’s prism’. The Nicol prism utilizes the double refractive effect of Iceland Spar to produce plane-polarised light. Although its significance went unrecognised at the time, the Nicol prism is now used in all polarising microscopes today.
Another significant invention that can be attributed to Nicol is his development of thin sections – used by petrologists the world over to study and identify rocks. He had originally developed the technique around 1830 to study plant fossils.