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Significant Scots
William Wallace


WALLACE, LL.D., WILLIAM.—This talented mathematician was born at Dysart, Fifeshire, on the 23d of September, 1768, and was the son of a manufacturer of leather in that town. After having been taught to read at a private school, kept by an old woman, he was sent to a public seminary, where he learned to write; but the still more important branch of education in his case—that of arithmetic—he learned at home from the instructions of his father. His father having been unsuccessful in business, removed to Edinburgh, where William was bound apprentice to a bookbinder; still, however, dwelling under the paternal roof, and availing himself of his father’s course of instruction. Besides this he was wont, when opportunity offered, to read such books as were placed under his charge for binding. His mind having been thus awoke to action, his favourite bias quickly took the lead: he purchased a few mathematical books, and pored over them till they could teach him nothing further. In this way, we are told, before he had reached his twentieth year he was a considerable proficient in elementary geometry and trigonometry, algebra with fluxions, conic sections, and astronomy. During this successful pursuit of scientific knowledge, he was likewise so fortunate as to form an acquaintance with a man who assisted Dr. Robison in his class-room experiments, and who offered to introduce him to the professor. This offer Wallace, who had now finished his apprenticeship, gladly accepted. The doctor was not long in perceiving the earnest scientific zeal of the young man, and the proficiency he had made in mathematics, and therefore gave him permission to attend the course of lectures on natural philosophy gratuitously. To avail himself of such a welcome opportunity, Wallace, whose circumstances were those of a straitened journeyman, worked hard at his trade during a portion of the time that should have been devoted to sleep. Here, too, Dr. Robison’s kind patronage did not terminate, for he introduced his protege to Professor Playfair, who lent him scientific books, and gave him valuable suggestions for the study of the higher branches of mathematics. Dr. Robison also intrusted him with the tuition of one of his own pupils in geometry—a useful training to William Wallace, for the important charges as a public instructor, which he afterwards occupied.

Finding that the trade to which he had served a regular apprenticeship afforded too little time for study, and that he might advance himself to something better, Wallace became a warehouseman in a printing-office, where his opportunities of acquiring knowledge were more abundant. Here he mastered the difficulties of the Latin language by his own industry, aided by a few lessons from a college student, and afterwards studied French. He then exchanged the printing-office for the situation of shopman to one of the principal booksellers of Edinburgh--and approaching still nearer to the ultimate mark, he devoted his evenings to the teaching of mathematics as a private tutor. As this last occupation was more congenial than the other, he devoted himself to it entirely, having abandoned the shop for that purpose; and a short time afterwards he was appointed assistant teacher of mathematics in the academy of Perth. This was in 1794, when he had attained his twenty-sixth year, and acquired such a reputation that the most scientific men in Edinburgh welcomed him as a brother. Soon after he had settled in Perth he married, and for nine years after, there was a lull in his hitherto changeable course, during which he quietly discharged the duties of his somewhat obscure and humble calling. But the time thus spent was not spent in idleness, as he evinced when the fitting season arrived; and among the fruits of his studies at Perth, were three articles, which successively appeared in the respective publications for which they were intended. The first, which was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1796, was entitled "Geometrical Porisms, with Examples of their Applications to the Solution of Problems." About the same period he contributed the article "Porism" to the third edition of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica." His third article, which he presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, contained a new method of expressing the co-efficients in the development of the formula that represents the mutual perturbation of two planets; to which was added an appendix, giving a quickly converging series for the rectification of an ellipse. The scientific men who were qualified to judge of these papers bore high testimony to their accuracy and originality.

The time at length arrived when Mr. Wallace was to be elevated to a more fitting sphere of action. From the obscurity of such a town as Perth, his reputation had so widely diffused itself, that in 1803 he was invited to stand as candidate for the office of mathematical master in the Royal Military College, lately established at Great Marlow, in Buckinghamshire. He consented, moved to this by the advice of his venerated friend, Professor Playfair; and in the examination of candidates, his qualifications were found so much superior, that he was immediately elected to the office. It is interesting to notice that, in the following year, his countryman, Mr. Ivory, who, like himself; had been the subject of struggle and change, and who had also fought his way to scientific reputation, was elected to the professorship of mathematics in the same college. On the removal of the institution to Sandhurst, in Berkshire, Mr. Wallace accompanied it, and continued to teach in a manner that secured the approbation of the directors. In 1818 his sphere of educational duty was extended, in consequence of a resolution of the directors of the college, that a half yearly course of lectures on practical astronomy should be given to the students, and that Mr Wallace should be the lecturer. As this course also was to be combined with instructions on the manner of making celestial observations, a small observatory was erected for the purpose, and furnished with the necessary instruments. This addition to the routine of a military education, has done much to remove the objections often brought against our bravest officers of the army, on account of their deficiency in the science of their profession.

Another movement was now to occur in the changeful career of Mr. Wallace. In 1819 Professor Playfair died, Mr (afterwards Sir John) Leslie was appointed to succeed him and by this transference the chair of mathematics in the university of Edinburgh became vacant, and open to competition. The height of Wallace’s ambition was to obtain a Scottish professorship, and accordingly he threw himself into the contest with his whole heart and energy. In the trial of candidates, which was a keen one, he was successful, and he brought the maturity of his experience as a teacher, as well as his rich scientific acquirements as a mathematician, to a chair but too often filled with men un-practised in the common ways of life, and whose whole occupation is to muse and dream over a problem. Many of the scientific men of the present day can still remember, with gratitude, the efficiency with which Mr. Wallace discharged the duties of his professorship, and the impulse which his teaching imparted to their studies. He thus continued to labour till 1838, when he was obliged to retire from office in consequence of ill health; and on his retirement, government expressed its sense of the value of his services, both at Sandhurst and Edinburgh, by conferring on him a pension; and the university of Edinburgh, by making him a doctor of laws. Five years of private life succeeded, during which, however, his mind was not idle in his favourite pursuits, as was attested by his productions during this period, while he was unfitted by sickness for the usual intercourse of society. Having reached the age of seventy-five, he died at Edinburgh, on the 28th of April, 1843.

Besides those scientific articles which we have already mentioned, Professor Wallace, in the earlier part of his life, was a contributor to Leybourne’s "Mathematical Repository," and the "Gentleman’s Mathematical Companion:" he was also author of the principal mathematical articles in the "Edinburgh Encyclopedia," and the fourth edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica." To these productions the following may be added:—

In 1808, he presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh an article entitled "New Series for the Quadrature of the Conic Sections, and the Computation of Logarithms."

In 1823, he presented another, entitled, "Investigation of Formuha for finding the Logarithms of Trigonometrical Quantities from one another."

In 1831, he presented another, entitled, "Account of the Invention of the Pantograph, and a Description of the Eidograph." Of this instrument, called the eidograph, he was himself the inventor; and, like the pantograph, it is used for the purpose of copying plans or other drawings, on the same or on different scales. Professor Wallace was also the inventor of the chorograph, an instrument for describing on paper any triangle having one side and all its angles given, and also for constructing two similar triangles on two given straight lines, having the angles given.

In 1836 he contributed a paper to the "Transactions" of the Royal Astronomical Society, entitled, "Two Elementary Solutions of Kepler’s Problem by the Angular Calculus." He also contributed another, under the title of "Geometrical Theorems and Formulae, particularly applicable to some Geodetical Problems," to the Cambridge Philosophical Society, which was published in the sixth volume of their "Transactions."

In 1838, when laid aside by sickness, he also composed a work upon the same subject, which he dedicated to his friend, Colonel Colby.

In 1839 Professor Wallace gave his last contribution to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, under the title of "Solution of a Functional Equation, with its Application to the Parallelogram of Forces, and the Curve of Equilibrium," which was published in the fourteenth volume of their "Transactions."


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