Jones, William

(c.1675-1749), mathematician

by Ruth Wallis

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Jones, William (c.1675-1749), mathematician, was born about 1675 on the small farm of Y Merddyn, Llanfihangel Tre'r-beirdd, Anglesey. He was the elder son of Siôn Siôr and Elizabeth Rowland; his mother came from Bodwigan, Llanddeusant. The family moved into the parish of Llanbabo, to Tyddyn Bach, and, after his father's death, to Clymwr. Jones (an Anglicized form from Siôn) showed his calculating skill while at the charity school at Llanfechell, leading the local landowner, Lord Bulkeley, to send him to London, to work in a merchant's counting-house. In this employment he went to the West Indies, probably thereby acquiring a taste for the sea and an interest in navigation, for he next became mathematics master on a man-of-war. Leaving the navy after participating in the capture of Vigo in 1702, he published his New Compendium of the Whole Art of Navigation in the same year; a second edition in 1706 was entitled A New Epitomy.

As a peripatetic teacher in London, within a year or two Jones was engaged as tutor to Philip Yorke, the future lord chancellor Hardwicke. Lodging with John Harris FRS, author of the Lexicon technicum (1704), Jones probably contributed the navigational articles in the volume. In 1706 his teaching notes were printed under the title Synopsis palmariorum matheseos, or, A New Introduction to the Mathematics. It used the work of John Wallis, Isaac Newton, and others to establish the current state of mathematical analysis and mechanics, demonstrating his grasp of the significance of Newton's discoveries. In it he introduced the symbol π, earlier used slightly differently by Oughtred. Maybe the book, with possibly a recommendation from Harris, brought Jones to the attention of Newton. At this point, aged about thirty, Jones had delineated the two themes of his life--tutor to prominent figures and disseminator of Newton's writings.

Responsibility for Yorke's mathematical education probably lasted no more than two or three years. Early in 1709 Jones unsuccessfully applied for the mastership of Christ's Hospital Mathematical School, with a testimonial from Halley, and one from Newton, who wrote as if he knew Jones only by repute. In 1706 Yorke had embarked on a legal career and presently developed a close relationship with Thomas Parker, later first earl of Macclesfield. Through this connection Jones entered the Parker household as tutor to the son, George.

In 1708 Jones acquired the mathematical papers of John Collins. At that time, the priority dispute between Newton and Leibniz, publicly ignited by Fatio in 1699, was still smouldering. While unequal to evaluating Newton's work critically, Jones had a good command and appreciation of it; he was already contemplating an extensive edition when he found a Collins transcript of a Newton manuscript, 'De analysi' (1669). Using this and other transcripts, together with guidance from Newton and borrowed autographs, he published Analysis per quantitatum series, fluxiones ac differentias (1711). This bore neither Jones's name nor Newton's, but the preface to a second edition from Amsterdam in 1723 has Jones's signature. Jones had been sufficiently confident to fill gaps and to make minor amendments to Newton's texts. Included was a 1676 Newton letter to Collins, used by Keill as the kernel of his attack on Leibniz. In his preface Jones presented 'powerful evidence of Newton's mathematical originality as far back as 1665' (Correspondence of Isaac Newton, 5.95). It was a key element in the escalating dispute.

Jones was admitted FRS on 30 November 1711, and was included on a committee appointed on 6 March 1712 by the Royal Society to inspect the letters and papers relating to the dispute. The documents came largely from the Collins papers. Selection, annotation, and editing were performed by Newton himself, with Jones helping to take care of the impression. The resulting publication, ostensibly from an impartial standpoint, was the anonymous Commercium epistolicum (1712). Jones deposited the bulk of the Collins papers with the Royal Society, retrieved them in the 1730s, and in 1741 returned them bound, but with some missing.

Jones had married the widow of the merchant, his former employer; in 1711 he was using the accommodation address of Child's Coffee House, St Paul's Churchyard. He became acquainted with other prominent fellows, and acted as intermediary with Newton for some, specifically Brook Taylor and Roger Cotes, whose relationship with Newton had cooled. His letters to Cotes are in Trinity College, Cambridge. Jones transcribed many tracts or extracts that he had from Newton and circulated them among his contacts, although James Wilson MD, presumably one of his pupils, later wrote of the 'transpositions and interpolations, as Mr Jones was wont to make' so that 'none might make a perfect book out of them' (Mathematical Papers of Isaac Newton, 1.400). In the early 1720s 'Will Jones, the mathematician, & others of the heathen stamp' participated weekly in 'an infidel Club' hosted by Martin Folkes (Family Memoirs, 100). About 1725 Jones became a member of the freemasons' lodge at the Queen's Head, Hollis Street; George Parker, too, was a freemason.

Jones may have been editor of Newton's Lectiones opticae (1729). Briefed by James Logan, between 1732 and 1734 he was championing before the Royal Society the claim of Thomas Godfrey to be independent inventor of the double-reflecting quadrant. The introduction to Gardiner's Logarithms (1742) was compiled from Jones's papers, and it is reported that the 'Account of logarithms' prefixed to Dodson's Anti-Logarithmic Canon (1742) was also by him (Wilkinson, 189). Jones also had three articles in the Philosophical Transactions, two of them transmitted, long after his death, by John Robertson, (1712-1776), former pupil, later Royal Society librarian, who inherited some of Jones's papers. Charles Hutton, author of an influential mathematical dictionary, praised the neatness, brevity, and accuracy of Jones's mathematical writings; while not a great mathematician, Jones left a considerable mark on the mathematical world.

Although early in life Jones's manners were said to be 'agreeable and inviting' (Jones, 4), John Robertson, describing him as a little short-faced Welshman, spoke of his harsh manner in the late 1730s (Wilkinson, 518).

During Jones's long association with the Parkers he spent much time at their castle at Shirburn. The epigram 'Macclesfield was the making of Jones, and Jones the making of Macclesfield' testifies to Jones's services in resolving the family's 'disturbance' over an 'Italian marriage' (Hutton) of George Parker, although there is another interpretation. Jones lost heavily when his banker failed, but was supported by sinecures of secretary of the peace, procured by Hardwicke, and deputy teller to the Exchequer, by George Parker. Jones's first wife apparently having died some years previously, he married, on 17 April 1731, Mary (c.1705-1780), daughter of George Nix, a prominent London cabinet-maker and friend of Thomas Parker; he was fifty-six, she, twenty-five. Of their three children two survived, Mary (1736-1802) and William Jones (1746-1794). Their London address was 11 Beaufort Buildings, Strand.

Jones served as council member of the Royal Society, and in 1743 on the committee to compare its new standard yard and weights with exchequer standards and others, witnessing the proceedings. He died at his London home on 1 July 1749, attended by Richard Mead for a 'polypus in the heart' (Jones, 6). He was buried on 7 July at St Paul's, Covent Garden. His collection of some 15,000 books was considered to be the most valuable mathematical library in England and was bequeathed to George Parker, the second earl of Macclesfield. His papers were not in the bequest; nevertheless many are at Shirburn, where they have remained (1995) with access extremely restricted. Almost the only permitted publication has been those papers contained in the two-volume Rigaud Correspondence. Among Jones's manuscripts was another projected mathematical book, which his son, Sir William, had intended, but failed, to publish.


A. Llwyd, A history of the island of Mona (1833)
Memoirs of the life, writings and correspondence of Sir William Jones, ed. J. Shore, 1 (1806)
C. Hutton, A mathematical and philosophical dictionary, 2 vols. (1795-6)
The mathematical papers of Isaac Newton, ed. D. T. Whiteside, 8 vols. (1967-80), vols. 1, 3, 8
The correspondence of Isaac Newton, ed. H. W. Turnbull and others, 1 (1959); 5 (1975); 7 (1977)
Ll. G. Chambers, Mathemategwyr Cymru (1994)
private information (2004)
T. T. Wilkinson, 'Mathematics and mathematicians, the journals of the late Reuben Burrow [pt 1]', London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine, 4th ser., 5 (1853), 185-93, esp. 189
T. T. Wilkinson, 'Mathematics and mathematicians, the journals of the late Reuben Burrow [pt 2]', London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine, 4th ser., 5 (1853), 514-22, esp. 518
The family memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley, ed. W. C. Lukis, 1, SurtS, 73 (1882), 100
S. P. Rigaud and S. J. Rigaud, eds., Correspondence of scientific men of the seventeenth century, 1 (1841)
R. V. Wallis and P. J. Wallis, eds., Biobibliography of British mathematics and its applications, 2 (1986)
J. R. Clarke, 'The Royal Society and early grand lodge freemasonry', Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, 80 (1967), 110-19
R. T. Jenkins and H. M. Ramage, A history of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1951), 45
G. Cannon, The life and mind of Oriental Jones (1990)
G. Harris, The life of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, 1 (1847)
General Advertiser (3 July 1749)
GEC, Peerage, new edn

RS, commonplace book
Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire
Trinity Cam.

Wealth at death  
approx. £3000; books left to the earl of Macclesfield; £1000 to each of the two children on reaching age of twenty: will, PRO, PROB 11/772, sig. 252; Wilkinson, 'Mathematics and mathematicians'

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