Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Emerson, William

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

EMERSON, WILLIAM (1701–1782), mathematician, the son of Dudley Emerson, a schoolmaster, was born at Hurworth, Durham, on 14 May 1701. He was first educated by his father and a curate who boarded in the house, and was afterwards sent to school at Newcastle, and then at York. Returning to Hurworth, he took pupils, but possessing no gift of teaching, and his temper being warm, he soon lost them, and determined to live on the income of 70l. or 80l. left him by his father. Though by no means studious as a boy, he now devoted himself entirely to the study of mathematics, but not till 1749 did he publish his treatise on ‘Fluxions,’ the first of a series of books, a list of which will be found below. In 1763 he walked to London to arrange with Nourse, the publisher, for a regular course of mathematical manuals for young students, and the publication of these followed in rapid succession. They were fairly successful, for Emerson, though he possessed no originating power, had a comprehensive grasp of all existing knowledge in all branches of his subject; but they were found too advanced for their alleged purpose, the explanations and demonstrations being far too concise to be readily understood by the young. While staying in London, Emerson resided with a watchmaker that he might learn his trade, in which, in common with all branches of practical mechanics, he took a keen interest. He was accustomed to make for himself all instruments required for the illustration of his studies, and he constructed for his wife an elaborate spinning-wheel, a drawing of which is inserted in his ‘Mechanics’ (fig. 191). His knowledge extended to the theory of music, and though he was but a poor performer, his services were much in request for the tuning of harpsichords, as also for the cleaning of clocks. His favourite amusement was fishing, and he would frequently stand up to his middle in water for hours together. The studied eccentricity of his dress produced a belief that he dealt in magic, and he professed to be much annoyed at the frequency with which his advice was sought for the discovery of secrets. His manner and address were extremely uncouth, and though he could talk well on almost any subject, he was very positive and impatient of contradiction. He declined to become a member of the Royal Society, because, as he said, ‘it was a d—d hard thing that a man should burn so many farthing candles as he had done, and then have to pay so much a year for the honour of F.R.S. after his name.’ Towards the end of his life he suffered much from stone, of which he eventually died on 20 May 1782. He had married in 1732 or 1733 a niece of Dr. Johnson, at that time rector of Hurworth, but had no children. In addition to his books, Emerson was a frequent contributor to the ‘Ladies' Diary,’ the ‘Palladium,’ the ‘Miscellanea Curiosa Mathematica,’ and other periodicals, in which he wrote over various signatures, among them being ‘Merones,’ ‘Nichol Dixon,’ and ‘Philofluentimechanalgegeomastrolongo.’ He also carried on a long controversy in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ with an anonymous correspondent, who attacked his views on astronomy (Gent. Mag. xli. 113, 349, 398, 490, 538, xlii. 74). De Morgan (Arithmetical Books, p. 78) remarks that Emerson was as much overrated as Thomas Simpson was underrated. The following is a list of Emerson's publications: 1. ‘Fluxions,’ 1749, 3rd edit., enlarged, 1768. 2. ‘The Projection of the Sphere,’ 1749. 3. ‘Elements of Trigonometry,’ 1749, 2nd edit., 1764. 4. ‘Principles of Mechanicks,’ 1758, 5th edit., 1825. 5. ‘The Doctrine of Proportions,’ 1763. 6. ‘Elements of Geometry,’ 1763, new edit., 1794. 7. ‘The Method of Increments,’ 1763. 8. ‘Cyclomathesis,’ 1763, 2nd edit., 1770. 9. ‘Treatise on Algebra,’ 1764. 10. ‘Navigation,’ 1764. 11. ‘The Arithmetic of Infinites,’ 1767. 12. ‘Elements of Conic Sections,’ 1767. 13. ‘Elements of Optics,’ 1768. 14. ‘Perspective,’ 1768. 15. ‘The Laws of Centripetal and Centrifugal Force,’ 1769. 16. ‘The Art of Surveying or Measuring Land,’ 1770. 17. ‘Calculation, Libration, and Mensuration,’ 1770. 18. ‘Chronology,’ 1770. 19. ‘Dialling,’ 1770. 20. ‘The Doctrine of Combinations, Permutations, and Composition of Quantities,’ 1770. 21. ‘The Mathematical Principles of Geography,’ 1770. 22. ‘A short Comment on Sir I. Newton's “Principia,”’ 1770. 23. ‘A System of Astronomy,’ 1770. 24. ‘Miscellanies,’ 1776. 25. ‘Tracts, with a Memoir of the Author by W. Bowe,’ 1794.

[W. Bowe's Some Account of the Life of W. Emerson, Lond. 1793; Hutton's Phil. and Math. Dict. i. 471; Gent. Mag. lxiii. 610; Brit. Mus. and Bodleian Catalogues.]

A. V.