Emerson, William

(1701-1782), mathematician

by Alsager Vian, rev. Niccolò Guicciardini

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Emerson, William (1701-1782), mathematician, was the son of Dudley Emerson, a schoolmaster. He was first educated by his father and a curate who boarded in the house at Hurworth, near Darlington, co. Durham, and was afterwards sent to school in Newcastle and in York. After returning to Hurworth he opened a school of his own in 1730. Having little patience and no gift for teaching, Emerson soon lost his pupils, and his school closed in 1733. After this he determined to live on the income of between £70 and £80 left to him by his father. Though by no means studious as a boy, he devoted himself entirely to the study of mathematics, and in 1743 published the first of his textbooks, The Doctrine of Fluxions. About 1735 he married Elizabeth, a niece of the Revd Dr John Johnson, then rector of Hurworth. The couple had no children.

In 1763 Emerson arranged with the publisher John Nourse to write a series of mathematical manuals for young students, which were published in rapid succession. His books were successful, for though Emerson was not a creative mathematician he had a comprehensive grasp of existing knowledge in the various branches of his subject. With the profit from his writing he could settle some debts that burdened his heritage, and spend his life at Hurworth, living as an eccentric. He wrote textbooks on trigonometry, mechanics, arithmetic, geometry, finite differences, algebra, optics, astronomy, geography, and surveying, most of which were best-sellers. For instance, his The Principles of Mechanics, first published in 1754, ran to six editions, a revised and corrected issue of the sixth appearing in 1836. In 1770 he published A Short Comment on Sir Isaac Newton's 'Principia'. It is interesting to note that Emerson did not contribute papers to the Philosophical Transactions but rather to mathematical periodicals such as the Ladies' Diary. It seems that he declined to become a member of the Royal Society. His scientific production was addressed to a public composed of people interested in science and mathematics (amateurs, instrument makers, land surveyors, and so on) rather than academics or researchers.

In addition to writing for the Ladies' Diary, Emerson was a frequent contributor to The Palladium, the Miscellanea Curiosa Mathematica, and other periodicals. His contributions appeared under various signatures, including Merones, Nichol Dixon, and Philofluentimechanalgegeomastrolongo. In 1746-7 Robert Heath, editor of the Ladies' Diary, backed him in a controversy with Thomas Simpson. He also carried on a long controversy in the Gentleman's Magazine with an anonymous correspondent who had attacked his views on astronomy.

While staying in London Emerson lived with a watchmaker so that he might learn his trade, in which, in common with all branches of practical mechanics, he took a keen interest. He was accustomed to make for himself all instruments required for the illustration of his studies, and he constructed for his wife an elaborate spinning-wheel, a drawing of which is inserted in his Mechanics of 1754 (fig. 191). His knowledge extended to the theory of music, and though he was a poor performer, his services were much in request for the tuning of harpsichords, as also for the cleaning of clocks. It seems that he was one of the late opponents of equal temperament and he added to his virginals some half-tones so as to avoid the small imperfections in tuning required by equal temperament. His favourite amusement was fishing, and he would frequently stand up to his waist in water for hours together. The studied eccentricity of his dress produced a belief that he dealt in magic, and he professed to be much annoyed at the frequency with which his advice was sought for the discovery of secrets. His manner and address were extremely uncouth, and though he could talk well on almost any subject, he was very positive and impatient of contradiction. Towards the end of his life he suffered much from stones, from which he eventually died in May 1782, probably on the 20th. He was buried at Hurworth.


W. Bowe, 'Some account of the life and writings of the author', in W. Emerson, Tracts (1793)
R. V. Wallis and P. J. Wallis, eds., Biobibliography of British mathematics and its applications, 2 (1986)
J. M. Wheeler, A biographical dictionary of freethinkers of all ages and nations (1889)
J. Aikin and others, General biography, or, Lives, critical and historical of the most eminent persons, 10 vols. (1799-1815)
A. Chalmers, ed., The general biographical dictionary, new edn, 32 vols. (1812-17)
GM, 1st ser., 63 (1793), 610
C. Hutton, A philosophical and mathematical dictionary, new edn, 1 (1815), 471
C. Knight, ed., The English cyclopaedia: biography, 6 vols. (1856-8)

UCL, Graves MSS

C. Turner, mezzotint, pubd 1812 (after Sikes), BM, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at death  
left library to bookseller at York

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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