Recorde, Robert (DNB00)

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RECORDE, ROBERT (1510?–1558), mathematician, was born of a good family at Tenby in Pembroke, probably about 1510. His father was Thomas Recorde, and his mother Rose, daughter of Thomas Jones of Machynlleth in Montgomeryshire. He was admitted a scholar at Oxford about 1525; proceeded B.A. and perhaps M.A., and was elected fellow of All Souls' in 1531. He subsequently removed to Cambridge, where he read, and probably taught, mathematics and medicine, two sciences at that time often united (Hutton, Tracts, ii. 243, and Dict. art. ‘Algebra’). He graduated M.D. at Cambridge in 1545. He then returned to Oxford, where he taught arithmetic and mathematics, ‘which he rendered clear to all capacities to an extent wholly unprecedented.’ He also taught rhetoric, anatomy, music, astrology, and cosmography. Though he had a great name in the university for his learning, his reception in Oxford seems to have been so unsatisfactory that he removed to London, where, from the preface to his ‘Urinal of Physick,’ he appears to have been practising as a physician in 1547. It is said that he was a physician to Edward VI and Mary, to whom he dedicated some of his books. The privy council directed him in 1548 to visit a pretended prophet, one Allen, then confined in the Tower. In 1549 Recorde was comptroller of the mint at Bristol, and in May 1551 he was appointed by the king general surveyor of the mines and money, in which capacity he served both in England and Ireland (Strype, Ecclesiatical Memorials, II. i. 473; Thomas, Historical Notes, 1856). He died in the king's bench prison, Southwark, in 1558, probably not long after making his will, 28 June 1558 (cf. Kennet in Lansd. MS. 980, Brit. Mus.) The assertion that he was imprisoned for debt accords with his allusions to pecuniary difficulties at the end of the ‘Whetstone of Witte,’ but he left a little money to his relatives in his will (see Halliwell, Connection of Wales with the Early Science of England. The will is in the prerogative office). He had four sons and five daughters (see Cambrian Quarterly Magazine, v. 116 &c.). The only known portraits of Recorde are woodcuts in the ‘Urinal of Physick’ and the ‘Pathway to Knowledge.’ There seems no doubt that he was an active champion of the protestant reformation (cf. Fuller, Worthies; Pits, p. 745).

Though the greatest part of his time was spent in the mathematical sciences, Recorde is said to have been deeply skilled in rhetoric, philosophy, polite literature, history, cosmography, astrology, astronomy, physic, music, mineralogy, and every branch of natural history. He was also conversant with all matters relating to the coinage, had a good knowledge of Saxon (cf. his marginal notes to Alex. Essebiensis, MS. C. C. C. Cantabr. E. ii.), was no mean divine, and was acquainted with the law. He was a zealous antiquary, and made a large collection of historical and other ancient manuscripts. He was probably the first, certainly one of the first, in England to adopt the Copernican system, which was only put forward as an hypothesis in 1543; though he seems to have thought the world not yet quite ripe for such a doctrine, and was perhaps afraid to avow it very distinctly (Halliwell in Phil. Mag. June 1840). He advises his reader not to rely too much on Ptolemy; but it appears that he had not quite abandoned astrology.

Recorde was practically the founder of an English school of mathematical writers. He was the first writer in English on arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, and the first to introduce algebra into England. He seems, in fact, to have been one of the first to see the independence of an algebraic operation and its numerical interpretation (Ball, History of Mathematics in Cambridge). Recorde is superior to others, even Vieta, in his perception of general results connected with the fundamental notation of algebra, and he is free from the tendency, then common, to invest simple numbers with the character of planes, solids, &c. He also uses fractions and arabic numerals with greater freedom than was usual in his time. De Morgan, in a most learned and valuable article on Recorde's works (Companion to the British Almanac for 1837, pp. 30–7), says that, to his knowledge, Recorde's ‘Pathway’ contains the first use of the term ‘sine’ in English. His only claims to originality of invention rest on his discovery of the method of extracting the square root of multinomial algebraic expressions, and on his having been the first to use the present sign of equality, i.e. ‘=’ (for both see Whetstone of Witte, 1557). This sign was probably taken from mediæval manuscripts, in which it is used for ‘est’ (cf. Henry, Revue Archéologique, 1879). The ‘Whetstone of Witte’ is also the first English book containing the symbols ‘+’ and ‘-,’ which Recorde seems sometimes to have used as symbols of operation, and not as mere abbreviations. Recorde's mathematical works continued to be standard authorities till the end of the sixteenth century (cf. Cunningham, Cosmographicall Glasse, 1559, and one of them (‘Grounde of Artes’) was still popular at the end of the seventeenth century. They are all written in the form of a somewhat diffuse dialogue between the master and scholar. Recorde's style, not very free in his earlier books, improved later. In his prefaces, introductions, and conclusions he frequently indulges in very passable poetry (a beautiful and dignified hymn from the ‘Castle of Knowledge’ is quoted in Collier's Bibliographical Account).

Recorde's earliest work was: 1. ‘The Grounde of Artes,’ on arithmetic, 1540, 1542, 1543, 1549, 1551, 1552, 1558, 1561, 1570, 1571, 1573; with additions by John Dee and John Mellis, 1582, 1583, 1590, 1600, 1607, 1610; and by Robert Norton, 1618; and by Robert Hartwell and R. C., 1623, 1636, 1646, 1648, 1652, 1654; and by Thomas Willsford, 1658, 1662; the last known edition is by Edward Hatton in 1699. From the preface Recorde seems to have contemplated a publication on alloys, which was probably not encouraged by the ministers of Edward VI., part of whose policy it was to adulterate the coin. Perhaps his best known work is 2. ‘The Whetstone of Witte, or the second Part of Arithmetike,’ 1557, on algebra (the title, = cos ingenii, is a play on the word cosa = thing, then used for the unknown in algebra). This work is referred to in Scott's ‘Fortunes of Nigel,’ chap. xxiv., as being the only book in the usurer's house besides the bible. Halliwell (Letters on Scientific Subjects, Preface, p. x) says that it ranks ‘with the ablest foreign contemporary productions on the subject,’ and that ‘it appears as an oasis in an age deficient in science.’ Recorde follows Scheubel and Stifel. He has nothing on cubic equations, and does not appear to have known of the Italian algebraists (for an analysis see Hutton's Dict. art. ‘Algebra;’ there is a quotation from the preface, relating to the North-West passage, in Brydges's Censura Literaria, 1815, pp. 188–91).

Others of Recorde's writings are: 3. ‘The Pathway to Knowledge, or the first Principles of Geometry,’ &c., in four books, 1551, 1574, 1602 (containing two out of the four parts). In the dedication to the reader (quoted in Perce's Anecdotes of Science, p. 113), Recorde claims to be clearing the path for others who might attain to greater fame than himself. He explains solar and lunar eclipses, promises a treatise on cosmography, and gives a description of Euclid, bk. i. prop. iv., a method of working various questions in practical geometry, and a list of astronomical instruments in use. There is also a rough determination of the magnitude of the earth, which is said to be 21,600 miles round. 4. ‘The Castle of Knowledge, a Treatise on Astronomy and the Sphere,’ 1551, 1556, and 1596, with an emblematical title-page, dedicated in English to Queen Mary, and in Latin to Cardinal Pole. He also wrote a medical treatise: 5. ‘The Urinal of Physick’ (also known as the ‘Judicial of Urines’), 1547, 1548, 1558, 1559, 1567, 1574, 1582, 1599, 1651, 1665; a short but methodical treatise with figures and good descriptions (see Hutchinson, Biogr. Medica). A number of other works, none of which are extant, are also assigned to Recorde. Among these are: ‘The Gate of Knowledge,’ 1556, probably on mensuration, and ‘The Treasure of Knowledge,’ 1556, probably on the higher part of astronomy, both of which, in his ‘Castle of Knowledge,’ he says that he wrote; and a translation of Euclid referred to by John Dee ‘in carmine encomiastico’ at the end of Dee's edition of Recorde's ‘Arithmetike.’ ‘The Ancient Description of England and Ireland, with a simple Censure of the same,’ is also ascribed to him. In the preface to the second book of the ‘Pathway’ Recorde states that he intended ‘shortly to set forth’ works on the following subjects, viz. ‘The arte of Measuryng,’ ‘The arte of makyng of Dials,’ and ‘The use of the Globe and the Sphere;’ and that he had ‘other sundrye woorkes partely ended, and partely to bee ended,’ viz. ‘Of the peregrination of man, and the originall of all nations,’ ‘The state of tymes, and mutations of realmes,’ ‘The image of a perfect common welth,’ and ‘Of the wonderfull woorkes and effectes in beastes, plantes, and minerals.’ Bale and Pits credit him with books on all these topics, as well as with others entitled ‘Anatomia Quædam,’ ‘Cosmographiæ isagoge,’ ‘De auriculari confessione,’ and ‘De negotio Eucharistæ’ (cf. Sherburne, Sphere of Manilius; Vossius, De Scientiis Mathematicis, 1650).

Most of Recorde's books were printed by Reynold or Reginald Wolfe. He was also employed by John Kyngston to collate the first and third editions of Fabyan's ‘Chronicles,’ and compare it with the history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, in order to produce an improved fourth edition of Fabyan. Recorde's edition was brought out in 1559 (cf. Ellis, Fabyan, pp. 19, 30, for additions by Recorde).

[Cuningham's Cosmographicall Glasse, 1559; Tanner's Bibl. Brit.; Pits, De Illustr. Angl. Script.; Bale's Script. Brit.; Ames's Typograph. Antiq. ed. Dibdin (under Reynold Wolfe); Cooper's Athenæ Cantabr.; Wood's Athenæ Oxon.; Hallam's Lit. of Europe; De Morgan's Arithm. Books; Peacock's Hist. of Arithm.; Aikin's Biogr. Memoirs of Medicine; Ritson's Bibliogr. Anglo-Poetica; Cambrian Register, ii. 209; Williams's Eminent Welshmen; Knight's Encyclop.; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Poggendorff, Biogr.-lit. Handwörterbuch zur Geschichte der exacten Wissenschaften; Archæologia, xiii. 137–9, 159–62; Edinb. Review, xxii. 89; Mag. of Pop. Science, vol. iv. (J. L. = Halliwell); Notes and Queries, 1st ser. v. 469, 497, 2nd ser. i. 79, 380, x. 162; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Cole's Athenæ Cantabr.; W. H. Black's Bibliogr. Decam.; App. to 1st Report of the Deputy-Keeper of the Public Records, pp. 79–122; Cantor, Geschichte der Mathematik; authorities cited.]

W. F. S.