Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Saunderson, Nicholas

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603673Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 50 — Saunderson, Nicholas1897Henry Frederick Baker

SAUNDERSON or SANDERSON, NICHOLAS (1682–1739), mathematician, the eldest son of an exciseman, was born in January 1682 at Thurlston, near Penniston in Yorkshire. At the age of twelve months he lost by smallpox not only his sight, but his eyes. He first learnt classics at the free school of Penniston, and became a competent Latin and Greek and French scholar. After leaving school he studied mathematics at home until 1707. Then, at the age of twenty-five, he was brought to Cambridge by Joshua Dunn, a fellow-commoner of Christ's College, with whom he resided there, but he was not admitted a member of the college or of the university, owing to want of means. He hoped to make a position as a teacher, and, with the consent of the Lucasian professor, William Whiston, formed a class, to which he lectured on the Newtonian philosophy, hydrostatics, mechanics, sounds, astronomy, the tides, and optics. On 30 Oct. 1710 Whiston was expelled from his professorship; on 19 Nov. 1711 Saunderson was made M.A. by special patent upon a recommendation from Queen Anne, in order that he might be eligible to succeed Whiston. On Tuesday, 20 Nov., ‘he was chosen [fourth Lucasian] mathematick professor’ in spite of some opposition (Rud, Diary, 1709–1720, ed. Luard, 1860). On 21 Jan. (1712) Saunderson delivered his inauguration speech, ‘made in very elegant Latin and a style truly Ciceronian.’ From this time he applied himself closely to the reading of lectures, continuing in residence at Christ's College till 1723, when he took a house in Cambridge, and soon after married. In 1728, when George II visited Cambridge, Saunderson attended him in the senate-house, and was created doctor of laws. Lord Chesterfield, who was at Trinity Hall, 1712–14, and attended Saunderson's lectures, described him as a professor who had not the use of his own eyes, but taught others to use theirs. He spent seven or eight hours a day in teaching. Some of his lectures are extant in manuscript in the University Library at Cambridge (without date, but contains a letter signed J. Bate of date 3 Jan. 1725).

Saunderson had a good ear for music, and could readily distinguish to the fifth part of a note; he was a good performer with a flute. He could judge of the size of a room and of his distance from the wall, and recognised places by their sounds. He had a keen sense of touch; he ‘distinguished in a set of Roman medals the genuine from the false, though they had … deceived a connoisseur who had judged by the eye’ (Life prefixed to his ‘Algebra’). He was a man of outspoken opinions in general; his reverence for Newton was extreme. He was the recipient of one of four copies of the ‘Commercium Epistolicum’ ordered by the Royal Society to be sent to Cambridge in 1713 (Edleston, Correspondence of Newton and Cotes, 1850, p. 221; see also pp. 3, 55, 214, 222), and was admitted a fellow of the Royal Society on 21 May 1719. He corresponded with William Jones (1675–1749) [q. v.], and was acquainted with De Moivre, Machin, and Keill (cf. Rigaud, Correspondence of Scientific Men of the Seventeenth Century, Oxford, 1841, i. 261–4). He was also a member of the Spitalfields Mathematical Society, which flourished from 1717 to 1845 (De Morgan, Budget of Paradoxes, p. 232; see also pp. 80, 451). He invented a computing board, which was described by his successor in the professorship, John Colson. He died of scurvy on 19 April 1739, and was buried in the chancel at Boxworth (a village about eight miles north-west from Cambridge), where there is a monument to his memory. By his wife, a daughter of William Dickons, rector of Boxworth, he had a son and a daughter. There is a painting of him holding an armillary sphere, by I. Vanderbanck, in the University Library at Cambridge. The painting was bequeathed by the Rev. Thomas Kerrich in 1823; it appears to have been originally painted for Martin Folkes in 1718.

Saunderson published no books during his lifetime. His ‘Algebra,’ prepared by him during the last six years of his life, in two volumes 4to (Cambr. Univ. Press), was published by subscription in 1740 by his widow and son and daughter (John and Anne Saunderson). The frontispiece is an engraving by D. Vandergucht from the portrait by Vanderbanck. The treatise is a model of careful exposition, and reminds one of the ‘Algebra’ which Euler dictated after having been overtaken by blindness. It contains an account of Euclid's doctrine of proportion, a good deal of what we now call mensuration, a consideration of Diophantine problems, and of magic squares, and it finishes with the solution of biquadratic equations. Some of Saunderson's manuscripts were printed in 1751, under the title ‘The Method of Fluxions applied to a Select Number of Useful Problems, together with the Demonstration of Mr. Cotes's forms of Fluents in the second part of his Logometria, the Analysis of the Problems in his Scholium Generale, and an Explanation of the Principal Propositions of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy,’ London, 8vo. This is an interesting manual of elementary mathematical physics. In 1761 ‘Select Parts of Professor Saunderson's Elements of Algebra for Students at the Universities’ was published anonymously, London, 8vo.

[A memoir of Saunderson, stated to be derived from his friends, Dr. Thomas Nettleton, Dr. Richard Wilkes, Rev. J. Boldero (fellow of Christ's College), Rev. Gervas Holmes (fellow of Emmanuel), Rev. Granville Wheeler, Dr. Richard Davies (Queens' College), is prefixed to Saunderson's Algebra, 1740; see also Burke's Sublime and Beautiful, pt. v. sect. 5.]

H. F. B.