Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wright, Edward (1558?-1615)

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916133Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 63 — Wright, Edward (1558?-1615)1900John Knox Laughton

WRIGHT, EDWARD (1558?–1615), mathematician and hydrographer, younger son of Henry Wright of Garveston, Norfolk, ‘mediocris fortunæ,’ was born at Garveston about 1558. His elder brother, Thomas, was entered at Caius College, Cambridge, in April 1574, then aged 18. Edward was entered, also at Caius College, as a sizar in December 1576, being presumably about two years younger than Thomas. He graduated B.A. in 1580–1, was a scholar of the college 1581–4, graduated M.A. in 1584, and was a fellow 1587–96. When and in what circumstances Wright turned his attention to nautical matters is doubtful. It is certain that he accompanied the Earl of Cumberland [see Clifford, George, third Earl of Cumberland] in his voyage to the Azores in 1589, and that he wrote an account of the voyage; but in that he mentions as one of the gentlemen with Cumberland, ‘Captain Edward Carelesse, alias Wright, who in Sir Francis Drake's West Indian voyage to St. Domingo and Cartagena was captain of the Hope,’ that is in 1585–6. The natural conclusion is that the Wright who commanded the Hope in 1585 was the Wright who was with Cumberland as a mathematician in 1589, though it seems to be contradicted by a statement of Wright's in 1599 that his ‘first employment at sea was now more than ten years since.’ Again, it is doubtful whether he had any later service at sea; for though in the manuscript annals of Caius College it is stated that he ‘made a voyage to the Azores with the Earl of Cumberland, for which, by royal mandate, leave of absence was granted him by the college, 11 May 1593’ (Venn), it seems possible that the annalist wrote the date in error; the more so as there is no mention of his having leave from the college in 1589, when he was equally a fellow. We have, too, his own reference to himself as a landsman, with an apology for his seeming presumption in writing of nautical matters. But, in fact, with the exception of his account of the voyage of 1589 (published separately in 1599, and also in Hakluyt's ‘Principal Navigations,’ II. ii. 143), all his nautical writings relate to navigation considered as a branch of mathematics. It is on these that his fame rests. He did, in fact, effect a complete revolution in the science, bringing to it for the first time a sound mathematical training.

From a very early date navigators had used a plane chart, in which the meridians, represented by parallel straight lines, were crossed at equal distances by parallels of latitude, the degrees of latitude and longitude being thus shown of equal length. Such a chart had not only the great fault of grossly distorting the ratio of length to breadth, but, from the navigator's point of view, the still greater one of not permitting the course from one place to another to be laid off at sight. What was wanted was a chart which would show as a straight line the curve drawn on a globe cutting each meridian at a constant angle. Such a curve, it may be said, is called by navigators a rhumb, or rhumb line. Now, a year or two before Wright was born, Mercator in Holland had attempted to draw such a chart (1556) by lengthening the degrees of latitude in some rough proportion to the lengthening of the degrees of longitude, apparently by noting on the sphere where the rhumbs cut the meridians; but these charts were not thought much of by navigators, and when Wright first went to sea he found the old plane chart still in common use. The problem, as it appeared to him, was to devise a chart in which the degrees of latitude should be lengthened in the same proportion as the degrees of longitude were when the meridians were represented by parallel straight lines.

The solution of this problem is now easy by the use of the integral calculus, but in 1589 very little was known of the doctrine of limits, even in its most elementary form. What little was known Wright applied; he arrived at a correct and practical answer to the question, and constructed a table for lengthening the degrees of latitude such as is now commonly printed as a ‘table of meridional parts.’ Wright's first table was very rough, and he himself was doubtful of its practical value; but when Hondius in Germany without acknowledgment, and Thomas Blundeville [q. v.] in England with acknowledgment (Exercises, 1594, p. 326 b), adopted it, and others were preparing to put the method forward as their own, he conceived the time had come to claim it publicly, and in 1599 published ‘Certaine Errors in Navigation, arising either of the ordinarie erroneous making or using of the sea chart, compasse, crosse staffe, and tables of declination of the sunne and fixed starres, detected and corrected’ (sm. 4to, London, printed for Valentine Simms; 2nd edit. 1610, with additions; 3rd edit. [see Moxon, Joseph], 1657; there is a beautiful copy of the rare first edition in the Grenville Library, British Museum. In this the question of the chart was fully and clearly discussed, once for all, as a mathematical problem. Practically speaking, the so-called Mercator's charts in use at the present time are drawn on the projection laid down by Wright.

Wright is said to have been tutor to Prince Henry, a report which seems corroborated by the dedication to the prince of the second edition of the ‘Certaine Errors.’ It is also said that he conceived the plan of bringing water to London by a canal, which was known as the New River, ‘but by the tricks of others he was hindered from completing the work he had begun.’ He was appointed by Sir Thomas Smith (Smythe) [q. v.] and (Sir) John Wolstenholme [q. v.] to lecture on navigation, which he did in Smythe's house, till in 1614 the matter was taken up by the court of the East India Company, and Wright was appointed by them at a salary of 50l. a year to lecture on navigation, to examine their journals and mariners, and to prepare their plots. He died in London in 1615, ‘vir morum simplicitate et candore omnibus gratus.’ He was married and left one son, Samuel, who entered at Caius College in 1612, and died apparently in 1616.

Besides the ‘Certaine Errors’ and the ‘Voyage to the Azores,’ Wright published: 1. ‘The Haven finding Art, or the way to find any Haven or place at Sea by the latitude and variation’ (1599, sm. 4to); an adaptation and extension of Simon Stevin's ‘De Havenvinding,’ which was translated into Latin by the elder Groot under the title of ‘Λιμενευρετική sive portuum investigandorum ratio.’ Bearing in mind that there was then absolutely no way of determining the longitude at sea, the proposal was to determine a position by the latitude and variation of the compass, assumed as constant in the same place, which is only approximately true for a few years. 2. ‘The Description and Use of the Sphære’ (1613, sm. 4to). 3. ‘A Short Treatise of Dialling’ (1614, sm. 4to). 4. ‘A Description of Napier's Table of Logarithms,’ translated by E. W. (1616, 12mo, posthumous, edited by Samuel Wright).

[Venn's Biogr. Hist. of Gonville and Caius College; C. Hutton's Philosophical and Mathematical Dict.; James Wilson's Dissertation on the Hist. of Navigation, prefixed to J. Robertson's Navigation (4th ed. 1780); Penny Cyclopædia; Rees's Cyclopædia. See also H. W. Jeans's Problems in Astronomy and Navigation, pp. 127–30.]

J. K. L.