Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Atwood, George

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ATWOOD, GEORGE (1746–1807), a distinguished mathematician, was born in 1746, entered Westminster School in 1759, and was elected to a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1765. He graduated B.A. in 1769 as third wrangler and first Smith's prizeman, became subsequently a fellow and tutor of his college, took a degree of M.A. in 1772, and was chosen fellow of the Royal Society in 1776. His lectures were remarkable both for the fluent ease of their delivery, and for the ingenuity of their experimental illustrations, and exercised much influence on the scientific studies of the university. Amongst his auditors and admirers was William Pitt, who bestowed upon him, on leaving Cambridge in 1784, a sinecure place as one of the patent searchers of the customs, with a salary of 500l. a year. This, however, was only an indirect mode of remunerating financial services of a very arduous kind, all the calculations connected with the revenue being executed by him until failing health forbade the intense application said to have been its cause. He died at his house in Westminster, in July 1807, at the age of 61, and was buried in St. Margaret's Church. As a writer he was less gifted than as a lecturer. His treatises, though marked by considerable ability, are deficient both in power and elegance, and are now completely superseded. In accuracy of calculation he could scarcely be surpassed, and he possessed musical as well as mathematical accomplishments.

He wrote:

  1. 'A Description of the Experiments intended to illustrate a Course of Lectures on the Principles of Natural Philosophy,' London, 1776.
  2. 'A Treatise on the Rectilinear Motion and Rotation of Bodies, with a Description of Original Experiments relative to the Subject,' Cambridge, 1784, in which occurs (p. 298) the first description of the ingenious apparatus since so well known as 'Atwood's Machine,' for exhibiting and verifying the accelerative action of gravity.
  3. 'An Analysis of a Course of Lectures on the Principles of Natural Philosophy,' London, 1784, still of interest as illustrating the state of science at Cambridge a century ago.
  4. 'A Dissertation on the Construction and Properties of Arches,' 1801, with a supplement, 1804, written at the request of a committee of the House of Commons, then engaged in considering Telford's plan for replacing London Bridge with a one-arched iron construction.
  5. 'A general Theory for the Mensuration of the Angle subtended by two Objects,' Phil. Trans. vol. lxxi., 1781.
  6. 'Investigations founded on the Theory of Motion for determining the Times of Vibration of Watch Balances,' Phil. Trans. vol. lxxxiv., 1794.
  7. 'The Construction and Analysis of Geometrical Propositions determining the Positions assumed by homogeneal Bodies which float freely, and at rest, on a Fluid's Surface,' Phil. Trans. vol. lxxxvi., 1796, honoured with the Copley medal (1796).
  8. 'A Disquisition on the Stability of Ships,' Phil. Trans. vol. lxxxviii., 1798.

[Gent. Mag. Ixxvii. pt. ii. 690; Hutton's Phil. and Math. Dict. (1815), i. 189; De Morgan in Biog. Dict. Soc. D. U. K. iv. 44.]

A. M. C.