Mathematical Gazetteer of the British Isles

Alcuin (734?-804), the leading scholar of his time, was born and educated in York, York (now a separate county from the four Yorkshires). He is said to have compiled one of the earliest collections of recreational problems: Propositiones ad acuendos juvenes. [1] He became Master of the Cathedral School. St Peter's School, in the York street of Clifton, claims a continuous history from this foundation by Alcuin, though the school buildings are not that old! [2] says the school is often said to have been founded by Alcuin's earliest mentor, Ecgbert, the first Archbishop of York (and the last person to have known Bede), but that the school really goes back to the time of Bishop Wilfrid, c670. In any case, by the late eighth century, the schools at York were considered the best north of the Alps, leading to Alcuin being invited to become master of Charlemagne's Palace School and effectively Minister of Education for Charlemagne's Empire. A college at the University of York is named for him (plaque). The Minster Library has a new Alcuin Wing. It was planned to erect a life size statue of him in the Cathedral Library after the current (or recent) works - I don't know if this has been done yet.

All Saints, North Street, has some early fifteenth-century stained glass, including, on the north side, a representation of a man wearing eyeglasses [3].

The Yorkshire Philosophical Society was founded in 1822 and presently occupies Museum Gardens Lodge just north of the east side of Lendal Bridge. In the same gardens is the Yorkshire Museum designed by William Wilkins (cf under Cambridge) in 1827-1829.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) held its inaugural meeting in York in 1831. As a result, the Philosophical Society built, in Museum Gardens, an octagonal observatory in 1832-1833 (thought to have been) designed by the famous engineer John Smeaton (plaque). For many years, it housed the largest refracting telescope in the world, built by Thomas Cooke, the York instrument maker. It was restored to commemorate the 150th meeting of the BAAS in York in 1981. [4]

Above the clock in front of St Martin-le-Grand, Coney Street, is the figure of a naval officer ("The Little Admiral") taking a sighting of the sun, using a cross-staff [5]; [6].

There were several early watchmakers in York. A local museum (probably the Castle Museum, which has a display of scientific instruments) has an example of a watch by William Kittson dated 1614, the second oldest known example in Europe (because of the lack of labels at the York Castle Museum, I couldn't tell if this item was on display). Henry Hindley ( -1771) was a later watchmaker whose shop was at the corner of Blake Street and St Helen's Square and has been reconstructed in the York Castle Museum; he invented a method of dividing a circle into any number of parts [7].

The Minster has two astronomical clocks in the North Transept. One has two striking figures from 1528, but the works were replaced by Hindley in 1749 (the clock was then over the south door).

The other clock is a 1955 version as part of a memorial to airmen lost in WW2. It has a zodiacal side showing solar time and the position of the sun. The other side is an astral dial showing showing sidereal time and star positions. It was designed by R.D'E. Atkinson of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and constructed in their workshop. [8]

The York Castle Museum has several reconstructions of period rooms and shops. The Georgian Dining Room has a 1714 longcase clock by Tompion and Graham. The Farmhouse Kitchen and Dairy has a number of standard measures including a set of egg weights! In Kirkgate is the shop of a Toyman, but it has only a few rather dull toys in the window. There is also a clock maker's. In Princess Mary Court is Thomas Cooke's Optical Shop with a variety of scientific instruments, including a 1751 telescope and a late seventeenth-century orrery, in the window. There is also Henry Hindley's eighteenth-century watch and clock shop, with a late eighteenth-century brass sundial by him. The Children's Gallery has a set of Richter Anchor Stone blocks, a dissected puzzle, an 1830 board game, etc. Incredibly, almost all of the exhibits are unlabelled! - the dates and details given are generally from the guide book which only mentions about one item in each shop. The curators have lists of the items, but these are not accessible at weekends.

Fairfax House, Castlegate, includes a collection of early English clocks (mostly seventeenth- or eighteenth-century) [9].

John Goodricke (1764-1786) was a deaf and dumb astronomer. FRS at age 21. He made observations of Algol from the Treasurer's House in Minster yard (plaque). He discovered the periodicity of Algol and Cephei, which led to the basic technique of determining distances in the universe. [10]

Thomas Cooke was a noted optical instrument maker. His shop is reconstructed in the Castle Museum. Cooke made the telescope for the Observatory (see above), the transit instrument for Greenwich and a telescope for Prince Albert. His firm amalgamated into Cooke, Troughton & Simms (see London - other institutions) in 1922 and this later became part of Vickers.

The astronomer Earl of Rosse (1800-1867) is recorded as having been born in York, but there is no local memory of him [11].

Lewis Fry Richardson (1881-1953) attended Bootham, a Quaker boarding school, in 1893 1898. It is very adjacent to St Peter's School.

References (show)

  1. Hadley, John & Singmaster, David. Problems to sharpen the young. An annotated translation of Propositiones ad acuendos juvenes, attributed to Alcuin of York. Translated by John Hadley. With comments by David Singmaster and John Hadley. Math. Gaz. 76 (No. 475) (Mar 1992) 102-126.
  2. Allen, J.R.C. A Guided Tour of York Minster, The Dean and Chapter of York, (1983), 3rd ed, revised by Charles McCarter, John Toy et al., 1999, p.52
  3. Shannon, John. The Minor Pleasures of York, York Civic Trust, 1993, pp.30-31
  4. Whitworth, Alan. The Bronze Plaque Guide to York, Culva House Publications, Whitby, 1998, p.21
  5. Timpson, John. Timpson's Towns of England and Wales. Oddities & Curiosities. Jarrold, Norwich, (1989), PB ed, (1994), 2nd ptg, 1995. pp.42-43
  6. Shannon, John. The Minor Pleasures of York, York Civic Trust, 1993, p.27
  7. Broadhead, Ivan E. Walkabout York: A guided tour through a historic city, Tetradon Publications, Warley, West Midlands, (1980), 2nd ptg, 1981, p.8
  8. The Astronomical Clock, booklet available at the Minster
  9. John Shannon, The Minor Pleasures of York, York Civic Trust, 1993, p.27
  10. Whitworth, Alan. The Bronze Plaque Guide to York, Culva House Publications, Whitby, 1998, p.19
  11. Letter from Richard Crossley, 21 Nov 1995

The Mathematical Gazetteer of the British Isles was created by David Singmaster.
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