Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Spencer, William George

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SPENCER, WILLIAM GEORGE (1790–1866), mathematician, born at Derby in 1790, was the son of Matthew Spencer (1762–1827), schoolmaster at Derby, by his wife Catherine Taylor. Thomas Spencer (1796–1853) [q. v.] was his younger brother. He was educated at his father's school at Derby. After assisting his father he commenced, at the age of seventeen, to take private pupils in algebra, Euclid, astronomy, physics, and other mathematical subjects, and continued to teach them throughout life. Spencer was a man of much strength of character, and his originality, which he sometimes carried to an extreme, proved of service to him as a mathematician. Debarred in large measure from independent research by the demands made upon his time by his calling, he perfected a method of teaching elementary geometry by a gradual transition from the concrete to the abstract, thus avoiding the obstacles that the realisation of mathematical conceptions presents to the ordinary student of Euclid. In 1860, in accordance with his methods, he published a series of problems and exercises under the title ‘Inventional Geometry,’ London, 8vo, which he stated were ‘intended to familiarise the pupil with geometrical conceptions, to exercise his inventive faculty, and to prepare him for Euclid and the higher mathematics.’ It was republished in 1892 with a preface by the author's son, Mr. Herbert Spencer, and has been extensively adopted as a textbook. The principles which he laid down had long been in favour in France and Germany, and are now generally recognised in England (cf. Journal of Education, 1893, pp. 349–51). Spencer died in March 1866. By his wife Harriet, daughter of John Holmes, whom he married in 1819, he had one son, Mr. Herbert Spencer.

Besides the work mentioned, Spencer was the author of ‘A System of Lucid Shorthand,’ of which the manuscript was completed in 1843. Mr. Herbert Spencer published it for the first time in 1894. It is remarkable for its extreme simplicity and the ease with which it may be read.

[Information kindly given by Mr. Herbert Spencer; Mozley's Reminiscences, chiefly of Oriel College, i. 147; Mozley's Reminiscences, chiefly of Towns, ii. 144–74. Mr. Herbert Spencer does not consider that Mr. Mozley's impressions of his father are always quite accurate.]

E. I. C.