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Significant Scots
James Ivory


IVORY, JAMES, LL.D.—This excellent mathematician was born at Dundee, in 1765. After he had attended the public schools of his native town, until the usual course of an English education was finished, his father, who was a watchmaker in Dundee, being anxious that his son should be a minister, sent him to the university of St. Andrews, to prosecute those studies which the church has appointed. He entered the college at the age of fourteen, and continued there six years; but of the various departments of study comprised within this course, mathematics attracted his chief attention; and in this he made such proficiency as to attract the notice of his fellow-students, as well as of the Rev. John West, one of the professors, who encouraged and aided him in his scientific pursuits. After these college terms had been finished, Ivory spent two years at St. Andrews in the study of theology, and a third in Edinburgh, where he had Sir John Leslie for his class-fellow. But on completing his theological course, and leaving the university in 1786, instead of becoming a licentiate of the church, as his father had proposed, he became assistant teacher in a newly-established academy in Dundee, where he continued three years, and afterwards engaged with some other persons in a factory for spinning flax, which was erected at Douglastown, Forfarshire. How this last occupation, of which he was chief superintendent, coincided either with his previous studies as a theologian, or his predilections as a mathematician, does not distinctly appear; but the result was a failure; for, after fifteen years of trial, the company was dissolved in 1804, and the factory closed. During all this period, Ivory had probably employed his leisure in the study both of English and foreign works upon his favourite science—pursuits not of a favourable nature certainly for the mechanical operations of flax-spinning. He had done enough, however, at all events, to show that his leanings were not towards the office of the ministry.

The next change that Mr. Ivory underwent was of a more congenial character, for it was to a professorship of mathematics in the Royal Military College, instituted a few years previous at Marlow, in Buckinghamshire. Here he laboured with great assiduity in his new charge, and afterwards at Sandhurst, Berkshire, when the college was removed to that quarter. The manner in which he discharged the duties of his important professorship not only met with the high approval of the governor of the institution, but also the cordial esteem of the students, whom he was never weary of instructing in a science so essential to the military profession. He endeavoured, in his lessons, to simplify those demonstrations that had hitherto been of too complex a character; and for the more effectual accomplishment of this purpose, he also published, but without his name, an edition of "Euclid’s Elements," in which the difficult problems were brought more within the reach of ordinary understandings. So earnestly and indefatigably, indeed, were these duties discharged, that in 1819 his health unfitted him for further public exertion, and he resigned his chair in Sandhurst College before the time had elapsed that entitled him to a retiring pension. But the value of his services was so justly estimated, that the full pension was allowed him, with which he retired into private life, in or near London, where he prosecuted his favourite studies till the period of his death, which occurred on the 21st September, 1842, in the seventy-seventh year of his age.

Such were the few events of a public nature that characterized the life of Professor Ivory; but his actions are chiefly to be found in his scientific writings, which were highly estimated by the mathematicians of his day. Of these we give the following brief enumeration:—In 1796, 1799, and 1802, he sent three communications to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The first of these was entitled, "A New Series for the Rectification of the Ellipse;" the second, "A New Method of Resolving Cubic Equations;" and the third, "A New and Universal Solution of Kepler’s Problem."

To these succeeded, between the years 1809 and 1839, fifteen papers, transmitted to the Royal Society of London, and published in their "Transactions." The first of these, "On the Attractions of Homogeneous Ellipsoids," possesses remarkable merit, in which he solved, in a new and simple manner, the attractions of these ellipsoids upon points situated on their exterior. Three of these were on the Attractions of Spheroids, in which he substituted a process of analysis so much superior to that of the celebrated Laplace, that the latter frankly acknowledged the superiority. Another communication, published in the Transactions for 1814, is entitled "A New Method of deducing a First Approximation to the Orbit of a Comet from three Geocentric Observations." Two of the articles contain his investigations on the subject of Astronomical Refractions; and four on the Equilibrium of Fluid Bodies. These titles will suffice to show the subjects that chiefly occupied his attention. Only one of these papers was purely mathematical, and was entitled "On the Theory of Elliptic Transcendents."

The honours that were conferred upon a silent, recluse student, such as Mr. Ivory was, showed how greatly his scientific acquirements and his writings were valued. In 1814, the Copley medal was awarded to him for his mathematical communications to the Royal Society; in 1826, he received one of the royal medals for his paper on Astronomical Refractions, published in 1823; and in 1839, another royal medal was bestowed on him for his Theory of Astronomical Refractions, which was published in the previous year. In 1815 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London; he was also an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of the Royal Irish Academy, and of the Cambridge Philosophical Society; a corresponding member of the Institute of France, of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Berlin, and of the Royal Society of Gottingen. In consequence of a recommendation of Lord Brougham to William IV., Mr Ivory, in 1831, was honoured with the Hanoverian Guelphic order of knighthood, and a pension of 300 pounds per annum; and in 1839, he received the diploma of Doctor of Laws from the university of St. Andrews.


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