Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/October 1891/Sketch of Professor John Winthrop

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THE name of Winthrop has always been an honored one in New England, in the domain of public affairs, and one member of the family, at least, has placed it high on the rolls of science. Several of the Winthrops of colonial times were cultivators of the sciences, but none employed such high talents so exclusively in this field of activity as did the subject of the present sketch.

John Winthrop, one of many Johns in that family, was born in Boston, December 19, 1714, and was graduated from Harvard College in 1732. His family history is a part of the history of Massachusetts. His father, Judge Adam Winthrop, was a great-grandson of the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; a graduate of Harvard; chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas; colonel of the Boston regiment; and a lay member of the Provincial Council. Six years after graduation, John Winthrop, being then twenty-four years old, was elected to the Hollis professorship of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy by the corporation of Harvard College. The choice being submitted to the overseers of the college, that body appointed a committee "to examine the professor-elect as to his knowledge of the mathematics," which soon reported favorably. Certain of the overseers, who were especially anxious to protect the college from any possible contamination of heresy or schism, tried to have a committee appointed "to examine Mr. Winthrop about his principles of religion." This matter was debated at several meetings, but finally voted down, and Winthrop's election was thereupon approved. He was formally inaugurated, as was then the custom, January 2, 1738-'39. The ceremonies included two Latin orations, the reading of the rules to govern the professor, prescribed by the founder of the professorship, and the singing of a psalm, after which came a dinner.

Soon after entering upon his professorship, in 1740, Winthrop observed a transit of Mercury over the sun, and sent a report of his observations to the Royal Society. This paper was printed in the society's Transactions, and was favorably mentioned in the Memoirs of the French Academy. Prof. Winthrop was thanked by the society, and was asked to continue his communications. Winthrop was now launched upon a long and useful career, during which he was held in high esteem as a teacher of science at home, while his investigations won him much credit abroad. There is sufficient evidence as to his success as an instructor to justify the words of President Quincy, who, in his History of Harvard University, says of Winthrop: "The zeal, activity, and talent with which he applied himself to the advancement of these sciences [i. e., physics and astronomy] justified the expectations which his early promise had raised. As a lecturer he was skillful and attractive, and during forty years he fulfilled the duties of the professor's chair to universal acceptance." Many of his papers on astronomical subjects are to be found in the volumes issued by the Royal Society during his lifetime, among these being an essay on comets, in Latin, entitled Cogitate de Cometis, which he transmitted to the society in 17G5, on the occasion of his becoming a member of that body.

On November 18, 1755, an earthquake occurred which terrified the superstitious people of all New England, who regarded it as a direct expression of the wrath of God. To calm the popular terror, Prof. Winthrop read a public lecture on the earthquake in the college chapel. He accounted for such disturbances as being produced by the expansive action of heat upon vapors contained in underground cavities, and argued ably in support of this theory. He also stated that earthquakes had occurred at intervals in New England from the time the first settlers landed, but that not a single life had ever been lost, nor had any great damage ever been done by them. In conclusion, he maintained that earthquakes are "neither objections against the order of Providence nor tokens of God's displeasure, according to the views of skeptical or superstitious minds, but that they are the necessary consequences of general laws." This lecture was published by request of the college authorities, and an account of the earthquake which Winthrop sent to the Royal Society was also printed.

At that time lightning-rods had been invented about three years, and a Boston minister published an essay in which he suggested that the use of Franklin's "iron points" might have caused the earthquake by drawing the electric fluid from the clouds and concentrating it on that part of the earth. This led Prof. Winthrop to add an appendix to his lecture in which he defends the discoveries of his friend Franklin, and shows the unreasonableness of attributing the earthquake to the action of the rods. He concludes with the hope that he has "fully vindicated the character of those innocent and injured iron points." Some years after, in 1770, he seized another opportunity to defend Franklin's invention, by publishing an essay against the notion that there was great impiety in using lightning-rods, since they prevented the "tokens of Divine displeasure" from "doing their full execution." Under date of October 26, 1770, he writes to Franklin, who was then in London, acknowledging the execution of several commissions concerning books and instruments, and says in regard to the rods: "I have on all occasions encouraged them in this country, and have the satisfaction to find that it has not been without effect. A little piece I inserted in our newspapers last summer induced the people of Waltham (a town a few miles from hence) to fix rods upon their steeple, which had just before been much shattered and set on fire by lightning."[1]

Prof. Winthrop had a clearer understanding of earthquake movements than the generality of scientific men of his time, and was one of the earliest^ if not the first, to apply computation to these phenomena. The chimney of his house was thirty-two feet high, and, observing that bricks were thrown from it so that they fell thirty feet from its foot, he calculated the speed of their motion and found it to be twenty-one feet a second. He perceived also the resemblance between the vibrations of the earth and those of the strings of a musical instrument.

The fullest published account of the scientific work of Prof. Winthrop is contained in the chapter on Boston and Science, contributed to the Memorial History of Boston by Prof. Joseph Lovering, who for over fifty years has occupied the same professorship that Winthrop held. "Prof. Winthrop was fortunate," says Prof. Lovering, "in living at a time when he could be a witness of three celestial occurrences of transcendent importance to the progress of astronomy—namely, the first predicted return of Halley's comet in 1759, after an absence of twenty-seven years, and the transits of Venus across the sun in 1761 and 1769. In 1759 the accuracy of astronomical prediction was on its trial, and, months before the time of the expected visit, astronomers were at their posts and looking; but they were all anticipated by a Saxon peasant who first saw the comet on December 25, 1758. Winthrop saw it on April 3, 1759." He delivered two lectures on comets at this time, which were printed the same year, and reprinted in 1811. Prof. Winthrop also observed the comets of 1769 and of 1770, "one remarkable for its brilliancy and the other for the disurbances which Jupiter inflicted upon its orbit," and contributed accounts of the phenomena to the Boston newspapers.

Like the earthquake already mentioned, the comet of 1759 aroused considerable popular apprehension, and the following passage from one of his lectures, in which the professor essayed to calm this feeling, will serve as a good sample of his style: "It may not be unseasonable to remark, for a conclusion, that as, on the one hand, it argues a temerity unworthy a philosophic mind, to explode every apprehension of danger from comets, as if it were impossible that any damage could ever be occasioned by any of them, because some idle and superstitious fancies have in times of ignorance prevailed concerning them; so on the other, to be thrown into a panic whenever a comet appears, on account of the ill effects which some few of these bodies might possibly produce, if they were not under a proper direction, betrays a weakness equally unbecoming a reasonable being."

The transits of Venus, which were not to occur again until 1874 and 1882, were precious opportunities for astronomical work, and preparations were widely made to take advantage of them. The governor of the province, Francis Bernard, was interested in the matter by Prof. Winthrop, and sent a message to the House of Representatives, stating that the King of England had sent "a Man-of-War with Mathematicians to be stationed in different Parts of the East Indies, etc.," to observe the transit; that the French king and other powers had taken similar action, the comparison of observations taken in different parts of the earth being important, that Prof. Winthrop had offered to go to Newfoundland for the same purpose, and he therefore recommended that the House furnish the professor transportation on the province sloop, which would be sent to Penobscot a little before the time of the transit. The House of Representatives immediately passed a vote in accordance with this suggestion.

The sloop with Prof. Winthrop on board sailed from Boston May 9th, and reached St. John's thirteen days later. The professor took with him the college instruments and two members of the senior class. Some difficulty was met with in finding a suitable station, but at last a position was taken on a considerable elevation, which was afterward named Venus Hill. The work of setting up the clock and other instruments was made arduous by persecution from swarms of bloodthirsty insects, which had possession of the hill. June 6th was the day of the transit, and the weather proved favorable. In every part of America except Labrador, the phenomenon began before sunrise. At St. John's the sun rose at 4 h. 18 m., with Venus upon its disk, from which the planet passed off at 5 h. 6 m. On his return Prof. Winthrop published an account of his voyage and his observations.

When the transit of June 3, 1769, was approaching he delivered two lectures on the coming phenomenon, which were published. Dr. Maskelyne, then astronomer royal of England, desired that Prof. Winthrop should go to the neighborhood of Lake Superior, where the whole of this transit would be visible, but his health would not admit of this. Accordingly, he saw only the beginning of the passage, as at Cambridge the sun set before it was finished. Prof. Winthrop observed the transit of Mercury January 20, 1763, and prepared an account of it for the Memoirs of the American Academy of Sciences (vol. i, p. 57), of which society he was one of the founders.

As a mathematician and astronomer Prof. Winthrop had no equal in the American colonies, and his fellowship of the Royal Society, together with the degree of LL. D. which he received from the University of Edinburgh in 1771, attests his reputation in the mother-country. Prof. Lovering states that his views of the nature of heat were greatly in advance of the science of his day. His scholarship, moreover, was not limited to his specialty. He wrote Latin with purity and elegance, studied the Scriptures critically in their original languages, and was well versed in the tongues of modern Europe. "He is, perhaps," says Quincy, "better entitled to the character of a universal scholar than any individual of his time in this country." Rev. Charles Chauncy, D. D., in A Sketch of Eminent Men in New England, written in 1768, says: "Mr. Winthrop, Hollisian professor, I have been very free and intimate with. He is by far the greatest man at the college in Cambridge. Had he been of a pushing genius and a disposition to make a figure in the world, he might have done it to his own honour, as well as the honour of the college."[2]

The office of a professor in Harvard College during the last century was not a lucrative one. The salaries obtained were fluctuating and always small. From about the middle of the century the Professor of Mathematics and Physics received £80 a year. In reply to inquiries made by a committee of the Provincial Legislature, Winthrop wrote a letter in which he stated that his salary had been far from adequate, and that he had run in debt for the support of his family.

Prof. Winthrop married, August 22, 1746, Rebecca, daughter of James Townsend, of Boston, and by this marriage had five sons. His wife died after seven years, and he married again in 1756. His second wife was Hannah, daughter of Thomas Fayerweather, and widow of Farr Tolman, of Boston. She was the well-known correspondent of Mrs. John Adams.

The first vacancy in the presidency of Harvard College that occurred during Prof. Winthrop's professorship was made by the death of President Holyoke in June, 1769. Winthrop presided at commencement that year, and had he been a few years younger (he was then fifty-five) would doubtless have become president of the college. In a letter to Mr. Thomas Hollis, in England, under date of July 10, 1769, Dr. Andrew Eliot, a member of the corporation, remarks: "It is difficult to find one every way qualified to undertake such a task. Mr. Winthrop, Hollis Professor of Mathematics, will probably be the successor to Mr. Holyoke. His learning and abilities are unquestionable. He is older than we could wish, and is frequently taken off from business by bodily infirmities." The office was tendered to Prof. Winthrop, but he declined it. In 1774, when the chair was again vacant, it was offered to Winthrop a second time, and again declined.

The tide of discontent with the mother-country was now running high in the colonies, and Winthrop was clearly identified with the patriot cause. The Massachusetts Historical Society's Collections (Series V, vol. iv) contain a correspondence between the professor and John Adams. The letters cover a period within which occurred the battle of Bunker Hill, the evacuation of Boston, and the Declaration of Independence; and they show that Winthrop had a thorough understanding of public affairs, a fearless patriotism, and an eager desire for American independence. In 1773 he was elected to the Governor's Council, but, together with two other members, all having been opponents of the Government, he was negatived by Governor Gage, in compliance with a special mandate from the English ministry. Prof. Winthrop was chosen a delegate to the Provincial Congress in 1774, and in 1775 was finally admitted to a seat in the Council. About this time he was appointed Judge of Probate for Middlesex County, and held the office for the remaining years of his life. His death occurred in Cambridge, before the Revolutionary struggle was decided, on May 3, 1779.

The portrait which accompanies this sketch has been engraved from a photograph, furnished by Mr. Robert C. Winthrop, Jr., of a painting by Copley, which belonged to the late Colonel John Winthrop, of Louisiana, a great-grandson of the professor, and his last descendant in the male line.


A union of friends of astronomy and cosmical physics has been formed in Berlin for the purpose of organizing practical co-operation in these subjects in the countries of central Europe and in their colonies. Sections are formed for observations of the sun, of the moon, of the intensity and color of starlight and of the milky way, of the zodiacal light and meteors, of electrical and magnetic phenomena, and of clouds, hail, and thunderstorms.
  1. Massachusetts Historical Society's Proceedings, vol. xv, p. 13.
  2. Massachusetts Historical Society's Collections, Series I, vol. x, p. 159.