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Significant Scots
Robert Simson


SIMSON, (DR) ROBERT, a mathematician, was the eldest son of Mr John Simson of Kirton-hall, in Ayrshire, and was born on the 14th October, 1687. He was educated at the university of Glasgow, which he first entered as a student in 1701. Being intended for the church, his studies were at first directed chiefly to theological learning, in which, as well as in the classics, he made great progress. He distinguished himself also by his historical knowledge, and was accounted one of the best botanists of his years. At this time no mathematical lectures were given in the college; but, having amused himself in his leisure hours by a few exercises in Euclid, a copy of which he found in the hands of a companion, he quickly found that the bent of his taste and genius lay in that direction. The farther he advanced in the study of mathematics, the more engaging it appeared; and as a prospect opened up to him of making it his profession for life, he at last gave himself up to it entirely. While still very young, he conceived a strong predilection for the analysis of the ancient geometers; which increased as he proceeded, till it was at last carried almost to devotion. While he, therefore, comparatively neglected the works of the modern mathematicians, he exerted himself, through life, in an uncommon manner, to restore the works of the ancient geometers. The noble inventions of fluxions and logarithms, by means of which so much progress has been made in the mathematics, attracted his notice; but he was satisfied with demonstrating their truth, on the pure principles of the ancient geometry. He was, however, well acquainted with all the modern discoveries; and left, among his papers, investigations according to the Cartesian method, which show that he made himself completely master of it. While devoting himself chiefly to geometry, he also acquired a vast fund of general information, which gave a charm to his conversation throughout all the subsequent years of life. On arriving at his twenty-second year, his reputation as a mathematician was so high, as to induce the members of the college to offer him the mathematical chair, in which a vacancy was soon expected to take place. With all that natural modesty which ever accompanies true genius, he respectfully declined the high honour, feeling reluctant, at so early an age, to advance abruptly from the state of student, to that of professor in the same college; and therefore requested permission to spend one year, at least, in London. Leave being granted to him, without further delay he proceeded to the metropolis, and there diligently employed himself in extending and improving his mathematical knowledge. He now had the good fortune to be introduced to some of the most illustrious mathematicians of the day, particularly Mr Jones, Mr Caswell, Dr Jurin, and Mr Ditton. With the last, indeed, who was then mathematical master of Christ’s Hospital, and highly esteemed for his erudition, he was very intimately connected. It appears from Mr Simson’s own account, in a letter, dated London, 17th November, 1710, that he expected to have an assistant in his studies, chosen by Mr Caswell; but, from some mistake, it was omitted, and Mr Simson himself applied to Mr Ditton. "He went to him, not as a scholar (his own words); but to have general information and advice about his mathematical studies." Mr Caswell afterwards mentioned to Mr Simson, that he meant to have procured Mr Jones’s assistance, if he had not been engaged.

In the following year, the vacancy in the professorship of mathematics at Glasgow did occur, by the resignation of Dr Robert Sinclair or Sinclare; and Mr Simson, who was still in London, was appointed to the vacant chair. The minute of election, which is dated March 11, 1711, concluded with this very nice condition: "That they will admit the said Mr Robert Simson, providing always that he give satisfactory proof of his skill in mathematics previous to his admission." Before the ensuing session at college, he returned to Glasgow; and having submitted to the mere form of a trial, by solving a geometrical problem proposed to him, and also by giving "a satisfactory specimen of his skill in mathematics, and dexterity in teaching geometry and algebra;" having produced also respectable certificates of his knowledge of the science from Mr Caswell and others, he was duly admitted professor of mathematics, on the 20th of November of that year. The first occupation of Mr Simson, was to arrange a proper course of instruction for the students who attended his lectures, in two distinct classes; accordingly, he prepared elementary sketches of some branches, on which there were not suitable treatises in general use. But from an innate love for the science, and a deep sense of duty, he now devoted the whole of his attention to the study of mathematics; and though he had a decided preference for geometry, he did not confine himself to it, to the exclusion of the other branches of mathematical study, in most of which there is abundant evidence of his being well skilled. From 1711, he continued for nearly half a century to teach mathematics to two separate classes, at different hours, for five days in the week, during a continued session of seven months. His lectures were given with such perspicuity of method and language, and his demonstrations were so clear and successful, that among his scholars several rose to distinction as mathematicians; among whom may be mentioned the celebrated names of Colin Maclaurin, Dr Matthew Stewart, professor of mathematics at Edinburgh; the two reverend doctors Williamson, one of whom succeeded Dr Simson at Glasgow; the reverend Dr Trail, formerly professor of mathematics at Aberdeen; Dr James Moor, Greek professor at Glasgow; and professor Robison of Edinburgh, with many others of distinguished merit.

In 1758, Dr Simson having arrived at the advanced age of seventy-one years, found it expedient to employ an assistant in teaching; and in 1761, on his recommendation, the reverend Dr Williamson was made his assistant and successor. For the last remaining ten years of his life, he enjoyed a share of good health, and was chiefly occupied in correcting and arranging some of his mathematical papers; and sometimes, for amusement, in the solution of problems and demonstrations of theorems, which had occurred from his own studies, or from the suggestions of others. Though to those most familiar with him, his conversation on every subject seemed clear and accurate, yet he frequently complained of the decline of his memory, which no doubt protracted and eventually prevented him from undertaking the publication of many of his works, which were in an advanced state, and might with little exertion be made ready for the press. So that his only publication, after resigning his office, was a new and improved edition of Euclid’s Data, which, in 1762, was annexed to the second edition of the Elements. From that period, he firmly resisted all solicitations to bring forward any of his other works on ancient geometry, though he was well aware how much it was desired from the universal curiosity excited respecting his discovery of Euclid’s Porisms. It is a matter of regret, that out of the extensive correspondence which he carried on through life with many distinguished mathematicians, a very limited portion only is preserved. Through Dr Jurin, then secretary to the Royal Society, he had some intercourse with Dr Halley and other celebrated men; he had also frequent correspondence with Mr Maclaurin, with Mr James Stirling, Dr James Moor, Dr Matthew Stewart, Dr William Trail, and Mr Williamson of Lisbon. In the latter part of his life, his mathematical correspondence was chiefly with that eminent geometer, the earl of Stanhope, and with George Lewis Scott, esquire.

A life like Dr Simson’s, so uniform and regular, spent for the most part within the walls of a college, affords but little that is entertaining for the biographer. His mathematical researches and inventions form the important part of his history; and, with reference to these, there are abundant materials to be found in his printed works and MSS.; which latter, by the direction of his executor, are deposited in the college of Glasgow.

Dr Simson never was married; he devoted his life purely to scientific pursuits. His hours of study, of exercise, and amusement, were all regulated with the most unerring precision. "The very walks in the squares or gardens of the college were all measured by his steps; and he took his exercises by the hundred of paces, according to his time or inclination." His disposition was by no means of a saturnine cast: when in company with his friends his conversation was remarkably animated, enriched with much anecdote, and enlivened also by a certain degree of natural humour; even the slight fits of absence, to which he was sometimes liable, contributed to the amusement of those around him, without in the slightest degree diminishing their affection and reverence, which his noble qualities were calculated to inspire. At a tavern in the neighbourhood of his college, he established a club, the members of which were, for the most part, selected by himself. They met once a-week (Friday); and the first part of the evening was devoted to the game of whist, of which Dr Simson was particularly fond; but, though he took some pains in estimating chances, it was remarked that he was by no means fortunate in his play. The rest of the evening was spent in social conversation; and, as he had naturally a good taste for music, he did not scruple to amuse his company with a song: and, it is said, he was rather fond of singing some Greek odes, to which modern music had been adapted. On Saturdays, he usually dined at the village of Anderston, then about a mile distant from Glasgow, with some of the members of his regular club, and with other respectable visitors, who wished to cultivate the acquaintance, and enjoy the society of so eminent a person. In the progress of time, from his age and high character, the company respectfully wished that every thing in these meetings should be directed by him; and although his authority was somewhat absolute, yet the good humour and urbanity with which it was administered, rendered it pleasing to every body. He had his own chair and particular place at the table; he ordered the entertainment; adjusted the expense, and regulated the time for breaking up. These happy parties, in the years of his severe application to study, were useful relaxations to his mind, and they continued to amuse him till within a few months of his death. A mind so richly endowed by nature and education, and life of strict integrity and pure moral worth, gave a correspondent dignity to his character, that even in the gayest hours of social intercourse, the doctor’s presence was a sufficient guarantee for attention and decorum. He had serious and just impressions of religion; but he was uniformly reserved in expressing particular opinions about it: he never introduced that solemn subject in mixed society; and all attempts to do so in his clubs, were checked with gravity and decision. His personal appearance was highly prepossessing; tall and erect in his carriage, with a countenance decidedly handsome, and conveying a pleasing expression of the superior character of his mind. His manner was somewhat tinged with the fashion which prevailed in the early part of his life, but was exceedingly graceful. He enjoyed a uniform state of good health, and was only severely indisposed for a few weeks before his death, which took place on the 1st of October, 1768, in his eighty-first year. He bequeathed a small paternal estate in Ayrshire to the eldest son of his next brother, probably his brother Thomas, who was professor of medicine in the university of St Andrews, and who was known by some works of reputation.

"The writings and publications of Dr Robert Simson, were almost exclusively of the pure geometrical kind, after the genuine manner of the ancients; but from his liberal education, he acquired a considerable knowledge of other sciences, which he preserved through life, from occasional study, and a constant intercourse with some of the most learned men of the age. In the Latin prefaces prefixed to his works, in which there are some history and discussion, the purity of the language has been generally approved." And many scholars have regretted that he had not an opportunity, while in the full vigour of his intellect, and deeply coimversant in Greek and mathematical learning, to favour the world with an edition of Pappus in the original language. He has only two pieces printed in the volumes of the Philosophical Transactions, viz.:--l. Two General Propositions of Pappus, in which many of Euclid’s Porisms are included, vol. xxxiii., ann. 1723. These two propositions were afterwards incorporated into the author’s posthumous works, published by earl Stanhope.–-2. On the Extraction of the Approximate Roots of Numbers of Infinite Series, vol. xlviii., ann. 1753. His separate publications in his lifetime, were:--3. "Conic Sections," 1735, 4to. 4. "The Loci Plani of Apollonius Restored," 1749, 4to. 5. "Euclid’s Elements," 1756, 4to, of which there have been since many editions in 8vo, with the addition of Euclid’s Data. In 1776, earl Stanhope printed, at his own expense, several of Dr Simson’s posthumous pieces. 1. Spollonius’s Determinate Section. 2. A Treatise on Porisms. 3. A Trace on Logarithms. 4. On the Limits of Quantities and Ratios; and, 5., Some Geometrical Problems. Besides these, Dr Simson’s MSS. contained a great variety of geometrical propositions, and other interesting observatons on different parts of mathematics; but not in a state fit for publication. Among other designs, was an edition of the Works of Pappus, in a state of considerable advancement, and which, had he lived, he might perhaps have published. What he wrote is in the library of the college of Glasgow; and a transcript was obtained by the delegates of the Clarendon press. To this university he left his collection of mathematical books, supposed to be the most complete in the kingdom, and which is kept apart from the rest of the library.


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