1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Stevinus, Simon
|←Stevenston||1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 25
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STEVINUS, SIMON (1548-1620), Dutch mathematician, was born in 1548 at Bruges (where the Place Simon Stevin contains his statue by Eugen Simonis) and died in 1620 at the Hague or in Leiden. Of the circumstances of his life very little is recorded; the exact day of his birth and the day and place of his death are alike uncertain. It is known that he left a widow with two children; and one or two hints scattered throughout his works inform us that he began life as a merchant's clerk in Antwerp, that he travelled in Poland, Denmark and other parts of northern Europe, and that he was intimate with Prince Maurice of Orange, who asked his advice on many occasions, and made him a public officer — at first director of the so-called “waterstaet,” and afterwards quartermaster-general. The question whether Stevinus, like most of the rest of the prince's followers, belonged to the Protestant creed hardly admits of a categorical answer. A Roman Catholic would perhaps not have been so ready as Stevinus to deny the value of all authority. A Roman Catholic could not well have boasted, as Stevinus in a political pamphlet did, that he had always been in harmony with the executive power. But against these considerations it might be urged that a Protestant had no occasion to boast of a harmony most natural to him, while his further remark to the effect that a state church is indispensable, and that those who cannot belong to it on conscientious grounds ought to leave the country rather than show any opposition to its rites, seems rather to indicate the crypto-Catholic. The same conclusion is supported by the fact that Stevinus, a year before his death, bequeathed a pious legacy to the church of Westkerke in Flanders out of the revenues of which masses were to be said.
His claims to fame are varied. His contemporaries were most struck by his invention of a carriage with sails, a little model of which was preserved at Scheveningen till 1802. The carriage itself had been lost long before; but we know that about the year 1600 Stevinus, with Prince Maurice of Orange and twenty-six others, made use of it on the seashore between Scheveningen and Petten, that it was propelled solely by the force of the wind, and that it acquired a speed which exceeded that of horses. Another idea of Stevinus, for which even Hugo Grotius gave him great credit, was his notion of a bygone age of wisdom. The goal to be aimed at is the bringing about of a second age of wisdom, in which mankind shall have recovered all its early knowledge. The fellow-countrymen of Stevinus were proud that he wrote in their own dialect, which he thought fitted for a universal language, as no other abounded like Dutch in monosyllabic radical words.
Stevinus was the first to show how to model regular and semiregular polyhedra by delineating their frames in a plane. Stevinus also distinguished stable from unstable equilibrium. He proved the law of the equilibrium on an inclined plane. He demonstrated before Pierre Varignon the resolution of forces, which, simple consequence of the law of their composition though it is, had not been previously remarked. He discovered the hydrostatic paradox that the downward pressure of a liquid is independent of the shape of the vessel, and depends only on its height and base. He also gave the measure of the pressure on any given portion of the side of a vessel. He had the idea of explaining the tides by the attraction of the moon. Stevinus seems to be the first who made it an axiom that strongholds are only to be defended by artillery, the defence before his time having relied mostly on small firearms. He was the inventor of defence by a system of sluices, which proved of the highest importance for the Netherlands. His plea for the teaching of the science of fortification in universities, and the existence of such lectures in Leiden, have led to the impression that he himself filled this chair; but the belief is erroneous, as Stevinus, though living at Leiden, never had direct relations with its university.
Book-keeping by double entry may have been known to Stevinus as clerk at Antwerp either practically or through the medium of the works of Italian authors like Lucas Paccioli and Girolamo Cardan. He, however, was the first to recommend the use of impersonal accounts in the national household. He practised it for Prince Maurice, and recommended it to Sully, the French statesman.
His greatest success, however, was a small pamphlet, first published in Dutch in 1586, and not exceeding seven pages in the French translation. This translation is entitled La Disme enseignant facilement expédier par Nombres Entiers sans rompuz tous Comptes se rencontrans aux Affaires des Hommes. Decimal fractions had been employed for the extraction of square roots some five centuries before his time, but nobody before Stevinus established their daily use; and so well aware was he of the importance of his innovation that he declared the universal introduction of decimal coinage, measures and weights to be only a question of time. His notation is rather unwieldy. The point separating the integers from the decimal fractions seems to be the invention of Bartholomaeus Pitiscus, in whose trigonometrical tables (1612) it occurs and it was accepted by John Napier in his logarithmic papers (1614 and 1619). Stevinus printed little circles round the exponents of the different powers of one-tenth. For instance, 237 578/1000 was printed 237 (0) 5 (1) 7 (2) 8 (3); and the fact that Stevinus meant those encircled numerals to denote mere exponents is evident from his employing the very same sign for powers of algebraic quantities, e.g. 9 (4) - 14 (3) + 6 (1) - 5 to denote 9x4 - 14x3 + 6x - 5. He does not even avoid fractional exponents (“Racine cubique de (2) serait 2/3 en circle”), and is ignorant only of negative exponents.
Stevinus wrote on other scientific subjects — optics, geography, astronomy, &c. — and a number of his writings were translated into Latin by W. Snellius. There are two complete editions in French of his works, both printed at Leiden, one in 1608, the other in 1634 by Albert Girard. See Steichen, Vie et travaux de Simon Stevin (Brussels, 1846); M. Cantor, Geschichte der Mathematik.
- (M. Ca.)