Saunderson, Nicholas

(bap. 1683, d. 1739), mathematician

by H. F. Baker, rev. James J. Tattersall

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Saunderson, Nicholas (bap. 1683, d. 1739), mathematician, baptized on 20 January 1683, was the eldest son of John Sanderson (or Saunderson), an exciseman, and his wife, Ann, of Thurlstone, near Penistone, Yorkshire. At the age of twelve months he lost by smallpox not only his sight, but his eyes. As a youth he reportedly taught himself to read by tracing out letters on gravestones with his fingers. He was taught arithmetic by his father whom he assisted in his excise work, devising an ingenious counting board at which he was extremely adept. He first learned classics at the free school of Penistone, and became competent in Latin and Greek and fluent in French. When he was eighteen he was tutored in algebra and geometry (he is said to have drawn mathematical diagrams by pricking holes in a soft sheet of paper), and in 1702 he was sent to Attercliffe Academy, near Sheffield, to be tutored in logic and metaphysics. Then, at the age of twenty-four, he went to Cambridge with Joshua Dunn (d. 1709), a fellow-commoner of Christ's College, also from Attercliffe. He resided at Christ's with his friend, and was given library privileges, but was not admitted a member of the university. He wanted to teach mathematics, and with the consent of the Lucasian professor, William Whiston, he formed a class, to which he lectured on the Newtonian philosophy and on all the usual topics of mixed mathematics, as well as on astronomy and optics. He was highly respected as a teacher, and considered skilled in imparting to students a capacity to distinguish between truth and falsehood.

On 30 October 1710 Whiston was expelled from his professorship; on 19 November the following year Saunderson was made MA by special patent upon a recommendation from Queen Anne, in order that he might be eligible to succeed Whiston, and the next day 'he was chosen [fourth Lucasian] mathematick professor' in spite of some opposition (Luard) and without Newton's support. Indeed, Edmond Halley commented that 'Whiston was dismissed for having too much religion and Saunderson preferred for having none' (Dyer, 142-3). On 21 January 1712 Saunderson delivered his inauguration speech, in a very elegant and rhetorical Latin style and concluding with a long encomium on how knowledge of mathematics leads students to reason correctly. From this time he applied himself closely to the reading of lectures and tutoring, continuing in residence at Christ's College until 1723, when he took a house in Cambridge, and married Abigail Dickons, daughter of William Dickons, rector of Boxworth, Cambridgeshire. They had a son, John, and a daughter, Anne. In 1728, when George II visited Cambridge, Saunderson attended him in the Senate House, and was created doctor of laws.

Saunderson's main significance is as an excellent and popular teacher in the years that mathematics began to emerge as the centre of a Cambridge education. He differed from his predecessors in the Lucasian chair both in his almost exclusive emphasis on the communication of mathematical ideas, and in his apparent lack of interest in theology. Philip Dormer Stanhope, later the fourth earl of Chesterfield, who was at Trinity Hall (1712-14) and attended Saunderson's lectures, described him as a professor who had not the use of his own eyes, but taught others to use theirs. Saunderson spent seven or eight hours a day in teaching. Notes taken by students from his lectures are extant in several university libraries, and in his time they also circulated outside Cambridge; John Harrison (1693-1776), the clockmaker whose chronometers eventually helped solve the problem of longitude, was apparently assisted in his mathematical self-education by a set of manuscript notes of Saunderson's lectures that he encountered as a young man.

Saunderson had a good ear for music, and could readily distinguish to the fifth part of a note; he was a good flautist. He could judge the size of a room and his distance from the wall, and recognized places by their sounds. He had a keen sense of touch; he 'distinguished in a set of Roman medals the genuine from the false, though they had ... deceived a connoisseur who had judged by the eye' ('Life' in Saunderson). He was a man of outspoken opinions in general; his reverence for Newton was extreme. As Lucasian professor he was the recipient of one of four copies of the 'Commercium epistolicum', justifying Newton's position in his dispute with Leibniz, that the Royal Society sent to Cambridge in 1713. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 6 November 1718. He corresponded with William Jones (1675-1749) and was acquainted with De Moivre, Machin, and Keill. In his capacity as Lucasian professor he sat with Newton, Halley, Cotes, Flamsteed, and Keill on the board of longitude formed by parliament to award prizes for research which would help to solve the problem of determining longitude at sea. He was also a member of the Spitalfields Mathematical Society.

Saunderson died of scurvy on 19 April 1739 and was buried in the chancel of the parish church at Boxworth (a village about 8 miles north-west from Cambridge), where there was placed a monument to his memory. He had published no books during his lifetime. His Algebra, prepared by him during the last six years of his life, was published by subscription in 1740 by his widow and children with the help of John Colson, his successor as Lucasian professor. The treatise is a model of careful exposition and it was used as a text at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Some of Saunderson's manuscripts were printed in 1751, under the title The method of fluxions applied to a select number of useful problems, together with ... an explanation of the principal propositions of Sir Isaac Newton's philosophy.


'Life', N. Saunderson, The elements of algebra in ten books (1740)
Biographia Britannica (1776)
C. Hutton, 'Dr Nicholas Saunderson', A mathematical and philosophical dictionary, 2 vols. (1795-6)
G. Dyer, The privileges of the University of Cambridge (1824); repr. (New York, 1978)
E. G. R. Taylor, The mathematical practitioners of Tudor and Stuart England (1954); repr. (1967)
H. R. Luard, The diary of Edward Rudd, 1709-1720 (1860)
S. P. Rigaud and S. J. Rigaud, eds., Correspondence of scientific men of the seventeenth century, 2 vols. (1841); repr. (1965)
Correspondence of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Cotes, ed. J. Edleston (1850)
A. De Morgan, A budget of paradoxes (1872)
E. Burke, A philosophical essay into the origins of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful (1766)
Venn, Alum. Cant.

BL, lecture notes, Add. MS 59488
Bodl. Oxf., lecture notes
CUL, lecture notes and papers
Gon. & Caius Cam.
Norfolk RO, lecture notes
Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Stanford University, California, lecture notes and papers
U. Leeds, Brotherton L.
UCL, lecture notes
Wellcome L., lecture notes |  Babson College, Babson Park, Wellesley, Massachusetts, commentary on Newton's Principia

J. Vanderbank, oils, 1718-19, Old Schools, Cambridge [see illus.]
G. Vandergucht, line engraving (after J. Vanderbank, 1718-19), BM, RS; repro. in Saunderson, Elements of algebra
oils, Christ's College, Cambridge

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