Warner, Walter

(c.1558-1643), mathematician and natural philosopher

by Stephen Clucas, rev.

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Warner, Walter (c.1558-1643), mathematician and natural philosopher, was born in Leicestershire. He had at least one brother. He was educated at Oxford, where he graduated BA in 1579. Originally a protégé of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, Warner entered the household of Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland, as a gentleman servitor in 1590, and became a pensioner in 1617. Although he was a servant, Warner dined with the earl and his friends, and was a constant companion. While at Syon House, Warner's duties largely concerned the purchase and care of the earl's books and scientific instruments. He accompanied the earl on his military mission to the Low Countries in 1600-01, travelling back and forth across the channel as his confidential messenger.

While Northumberland was imprisoned in the Tower of London (1605-21), Warner brought his books from Syon, and joined in with the learned discussions of the earl and his other mathematical and scientific clients--Thomas Harriot, Robert Hues, and Nathaniel Torporley. Warner's unpublished natural philosophical writings date mainly from this period, and deal with such diverse topics as logic, psychology, animal locomotion, atomism, time and space, the nature of heat and light, bullion and exchange, hydrostatics, chemistry, and the circulation of the blood (which Warner claimed to have discovered before William Harvey). Warner was best known for his work on optics and mathematics. His tract on the sine law was published posthumously as part of Marin Mersenne's Universae geometriae synopsis (1644), and his unpublished logarithmical tables were widely held to be a great advance on those of Henry Briggs.

After 1620 Warner lived at the Woolstable in Charing Cross, London, and at Cranborne Lodge, near Windsor, with Sir Thomas Aylesbury, who sponsored his continued work on optics and mathematics. In 1631 Aylesbury encouraged Warner to edit and publish Harriot's treatise on algebra, the Artis analyticae praxis, and wrote on his behalf to Northumberland for a reimbursal of expenses. The earl died shortly afterwards, and the tenth earl, his son Algernon Percy (1602-1668), discontinued Warner's pension. From 1632 until his death, Warner continued to work over Harriot's papers, and collaborated with the young mathematician John Pell, on his logarithmical calculations.

In 1635 Warner sought the patronage of William Cavendish, first duke of Newcastle, and his brother Sir Charles Cavendish, to whom he sent tracts on telescope construction and concave and convex glasses, for which he received a reward of £20. Warner corresponded with other members of the Welbeck circle, including Robert Payne and Thomas Hobbes, whom Seth Ward accused of plagiarizing Warner's ideas. Hobbes ousted Warner as a Cavendish client by writing to the earl of Northumberland and belittling his abilities. Despite the assistance of Aylesbury, Warner was impoverished when he died, unmarried, on 28 March 1643. Some of his papers fell into the hands of Seth Ward, Sir Justinian Isham, John Collins, and Herbert Thorndike, but in 1646 Pell lamented that most of his papers had been 'unmathematically divided between sequestrators and creditors'.


Wood, Ath. Oxon.
Brief lives, chiefly of contemporaries, set down by John Aubrey, between the years 1669 and 1696, ed. A. Clark, 2 vols. (1898)
J. P. Schobinger, ed., Die Philosophie des 17. Jahrhunderts, 3 (Basel, 1988)
J. W. Shirley, ed., Thomas Harriot: Renaissance scientist (1974)
J. W. Shirley, Thomas Harriot: a biography (1983)

BL, mathematical and philosophical papers, Add. MSS 4391, 4394-4396

Wealth at death  
in poverty

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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