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. |