Mathematical Gazetteer of the British Isles

Actuarial science can be said to begin in 1741, when Edinburgh clergymen, Alexander Webster and Robert Wallace, started collecting twenty year data for the projected Scottish Ministers' Widows' Fund. This started business in 1743 after the calculations were checked by Colin Maclaurin and is still running. The Scottish professional body is the Faculty of Actuaries, founded in 1856 and presently located at 23 St Andrew Square.

A cast of Paolozzi's sculpture of Isaac Newton (cf Hong Kong, and new British Library in St Pancras), labelled "Master of the Universe", is now outside the Dean Gallery, Belford Rd, over the road from the National Gallery of Modern Art, and there is a relief in the Newton Café on the ground floor of the Dean Gallery.

The National Gallery, the Mound, has a painting from the studio of Jusepe de Ribera, labelled "A Philosopher (A Mathematician)". The caption says that this was almost certainly based on an original by Ribera, there having been many such images of philosophers in Naples from the 1620s onwards. At least eight versions of this painting exist: this being one of the best. The philosopher is certainly shown with a mathematical diagram, but given the height at which it hangs and my poor eyesight I cannot be more specific. In due course the Gallery plans to show its collection on the web. [1]

The Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, contains eleven of the Lewis chessmen

The Museum also has the best collection of carved stone balls. These balls are peculiar to northeastern Scotland and are Neolithic, perhaps from -3000 / -2000. They are about 2 inches in diameter and many are carved into rounded forms of regular polyhedra, making them the oldest examples of such shapes. On display are cubical, tetrahedral, octahedral and dodecahedral forms and one which is the form of the dual of the pentagonal prism.

Oxfords Ashmolean Museum has more examples.

There is a time ball on top of the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill, where there are also two old observatories of 1792 and 1818; the latter is still in some use and open to the public. The observatory in Edinburgh was made the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, in 1822, but didn't provide funds for new instruments for a decade. In 1888, there was a threat to close the Observatory, but in 1889, the Director of Lord Crawford's Observatory became Astronomer Royal of Scotland and the Earl donated his equipment and library (over 15,000 books) to the Royal Observatory. The Royal Observatory moved to Blackford Hill, a few miles south of the city centre, in 1894-1895. There is a superb view from it.

The Observatory includes the Crawford Library which has a superb collection of early mathematics books (including from the library of former BSHM President, the late Eric Aiton).

In 1885, Colonel H. James, Superintendent of the Ordnance Survey, carried out deflection of plumb line experiments at Arthur's Seat to determine the gravitational constant and obtained a mean density of the earth as 5.316.

In 1834, John Scott Russell (1808-1882), the engineer and shipbuilder, was riding by the Grand Union Canal near the present Heriot-Watt University when he observed the bow wave of a canal boat. When the boat stopped, the wave continued onward as a well defined elevation of the water at constant speed. (Another account says Scott Russell observed it on the Glasgow and Ardrossan Canal when a horse bolted with a light canal boat in tow. ) The phenomenon was largely forgotten until the 1960s, when Martin Kruskal rediscovered it and called it a soliton wave. On 12 July 1995, a viaduct at Hermiston was renamed the John Scott Russell viaduct, with Kruskal unveiling plaques and attempting to recreate a soliton wave.

The Royal (originally Philosophical) Society of Edinburgh was founded in 1739. The Earl of Morton was a principal founder, later becoming PRS in 1764-1768. Colin Maclaurin was also an instigator, encouraging the Medical Society of Edinburgh to expand its scope to include other sciences and become the Philosophical Society. John Playfair was another founder. It is located in George Street. There is a portrait of Tait in the entrance hall.

A new statue of James Clerk Maxwell has been erected nearby.

The Edinburgh Mathematical Society was founded in 1883.

The University of Edinburgh is an ancient one, chartered in 1582 as the first civic university in Britain, but it has moved to modern buildings and I haven't seen any monuments or other historical material there. The University established chairs in mathematics and natural philosophy in 1583, the first to commence in the UK.

James Gregory (or Gregorie) (1638-1675) was first Matheson Professor of Mathematics in 1674-1675; he fell ill while showing the satellites of Jupiter to students and died at age 37. After an interregnum, his nephew David Gregory (1661-1708) was appointed to succeed him in 1683, and was given an MA. In 1690, David Gregory was among the first to teach(?) Newtonian physics.

John Keill (1671-1721) was born here and was a student of David Gregory here. In 1691, David was elected Savilian Professor of Astronomy. He and Keill went to Oxford and David was succeeded by his brother, another James Gregory, who was succeeded by Colin Maclaurin.

A James Gregory (1753-1821), professor of medicine, and other members of his family are buried in Canongate Churchyard; this James was the great-grandson of the first James Gregorie, with his father John Gregory (1724-1773) (presumably the son of the second James) also having been professor of medicine and his son being Duncan Farquharson Gregory (1813-1844), the Cambridge mathematician, who was born and died in Edinburgh. I haven't been to see how many of these are buried here.

Students of Edinburgh University include the statistician Sir John Sinclair (1754-1835), the calculator George Parker Bidder (1806-1878), Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), David Hume (1711-1776), Sir John Leslie (1766-1832), Thomas Young (1773-1829) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). Adam Smith (1723-1790) taught here as a young man, probably in 1748-1751.

John Playfair (1748-1819) was professor of mathematics in 1785-1805, then translated to Natural Philosophy. Leslie (1766-1832) succeeded Playfair as Professor of Mathematics in 1805-1819 and, upon Playfair's death, succeeded him as Professor of Natural Philosophy in 1819. Charles Darwin was a student in 1825-1827, lodging at 11 Lothian Street. Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), first biographer of Newton, was Principal of the University in 1859-1868. Carlyle was Lord Rector (but not for his mathematics) in 1865-1866. P G Tait (1831-1901) was Professor of Natural Philosophy from 1860 (elected in preference to Maxwell and Routh). C. G. Knott was here as a student of Tait, then a teacher from 1892. George Chrystal was Professor from 1879 until his death in 1911. Edmund T. Whittaker (1873-1956) succeeded Chrystal as professor from 1912 to 1944. The New Zealand mathematician A. C. Aitken (1895-1967) came here as a graduate student under Whittaker in 1923, receiving a DSc in 1925, and remained here, becoming Reader in 1936, then Whittaker's successor as Professor in 1944-1965. Edward T. Copson (1901-1980) was a lecturer here in 1922-1930 and married Whittaker's daughter. C. G. Darwin was Tait Professor of Natural Philosophy, 1924-1936. Max Born (1882-1970) was at the University when he received the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1954.

Alexander Bain, inventor of the electric clock, c1841, lived in Edinburgh and there is a plaque on his house/workshop [2].

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) was born in South Charlotte Street at the corner of Rose Street (plaque).

Joseph Black (1728-1799) was in Edinburgh when he discovered carbonic acid (or carbon dioxide), then taught in Glasgow where he discovered latent heat, and then was professor in Edinburgh from 1766. He is also buried in Greyfriars churchyard with a large monument, but in the section called 'The Covenanters' Prison' which is not usually open. James Stirling died in Edinburgh (or perhaps at Leadhills??) and is buried in Greyfriars churchyard. Unfortunately the church has no record of the burial site.

The Carlyles lived at 21 Comely Bank in 1826-1828 (tablet) [3].

David Hume (1711-1776) is buried in Old Calton Cemetery, as is John Playfair. John Sinclair (1754-1835) is buried in Holyrood Abbey.

In 1778-1790, Adam Smith lived at Panmure House, in the second close to the east of Canongate churchyard where he is buried.

Colin MacLaurin (1698-1746) is buried in Greyfriars Kirk, a bit south of Edinburgh Castle. There is a wall epitaph by his son John (Lord Dreghorn), allegedly assisted by his friend Dr. Johnson. The wall epitaph is on the outside south wall of the church, in the westernmost bay. A table tomb, simply labelled:

C. M.  Nat. MDCXCVIII. Ob. MDCCXLVI., is below it. [4]

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) was born at 14 India Street. The house, purchased by the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation about 1992 and converted into the International Centre for Mathematical Sciences from 1993, contains a small museum with Maxwelliana and a portrait of Tait. Maxwell (in 1840-1847) and Tait were students at Edinburgh Academy, both being taught by a Mr Gloag, though being in different classes. During his nine years in Edinburgh, Maxwell lived with an aunt, Mrs Wedderburn, in Heriot Row.

John Napier (1550-1617), Laird of Merchiston, was born in Merchiston Tower (or Castle), now handsomely restored and incorporated into Napier University, Colinton Road. The ruins of Merchiston Castle in Colinton, a few miles further out, take their name from Merchiston Castle School nearby, which had previously been at the earlier Merchiston Castle. After his father's death, Napier lived in the Tower until his death. The celebrated meeting of Napier with Henry Briggs, resulting in base 10 logarithms, took place here in 1615. Napiers resided in the tower until 1647 and then from 1818 to 1914. Napier was buried in the churchyard of St Cuthbert's Church in West Princes Street Gardens. Due to later rebuilding, he was moved into the vestibule, where his monument is on the wall.

A Merchiston Hall in Stirlingshire belonged to the family (see Gartness).

Charles Piazzi Smyth was Professor of Practical Astronomy and Director of the Edinburgh Observatory, and Astronomer Royal for Scotland from 1845. Though best known for his mad excursion into pyramidology, he was a noted astronomer. He installed the Time Ball on Calton Hill in 1855. In 1856, he led an expedition to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Spain to see if high altitude astronomy was significantly better than at low levels.

[5] At the back entrance to the David Hume Tower there is an interesting mirror effect which I noticed while on my way to visit my friend Emma Julieta Barreiro in her office in Buccleugh Place. If one walks down the stairs from George Square at the back of the DHT towards Buccleugh Place, in the right lighting conditions one sees a compound reflection in the glass doors so that one walks past oneself in a slightly disturbing way.

References (show)

  1. added by Tony Mann. 10/2/03
  2. Tremayne, Arthur. Everybody's Clocks. N. A. G. Press, London, nd [1950s?]. pp. 34-35
  3. Eastman, John. Who Lived Where in Europe: A Biographical Guide to Homes and Museums. Facts on File, NY, 1985. p. 295
  4. BSHM Newsletter 32 (Autumn 1996) 15. for photo
  5. added by Tony Mann.

The Mathematical Gazetteer of the British Isles was created by David Singmaster.
The original site is at THIS LINK.