Gibson, William

, a remarkable instance of the strength of natural powers usefully directed, and assiduously employed, was born in 1720 at Boulton, a few miles from Appleby in Westmoreland. By the death of his father, he became an orphan, without friends, or education even of the humblest kind, and hired himself to a farmer in the neighbourhood, with whom he remained some years, and then removed to superintend a farm at Kendal. Here, when in his eighteenth year, being informed that his father had been possessed of some landed property, he spent his savings in making inquiry, and at last found that it had been mortgaged beyond its value. He therefore continued his occupation, and soon after was enabled to rent and manage a little farm of his own, at a place called Hollios in Cartmell Fell, where he began to apply himself to study, without perhaps knowing the meaning of the word. A short time previous to this, he had admired the operation of figures, but laboured under every disadvantage for want of education. His first effort therefore wad | to learn to read English and having accomplished that to a certain degree, he purchased a treatise on arithmetic. This he carefully perused, and although he could not write, soon went through common arithmetic, vulgar and decimal fractions, the extraction of the square and cube roots, &c. by his memory only, and became so expert, that he could tell, without setting down a figure, the product of any two numbers multiplied together, although the multiplier and the multiplicand, each of them, consisted of nine places of figures; and he could answer, in the same manner, questions in division, in decimal fractions, or in the extraction of the square or cube roots, where such a multiplicity of figures is often required in the operation.

Finding himself, however, still labouring under difficulties, from not being able to write, he applied to that art with such success as to be able to form a legible hand, which he of course found an acquisition of great importance. Still his knowledge went no farther than this. He did not at this time know the meaning of the word mathematics, nor had the least notion of any thing beyond the very little he had learned. Something was now proposed to him about Euclid, but he took no notice of this, until told that it meant a book, containing the elements of geometry, when he immediately purchased it, and studying it with his usual diligence, found that he could extend his knowledge beyond what he had before conceived possible. He therefore continued his geometrical studies, and as the demonstration of the different propositions in Euclid depends entirely upon a recollection of some of those preceding, his memory was of the utmost service to him, and as it required principally the management of straight lines, it became a study exactly suited to his circumstances. While attending the business of his farm, and apparently only whistling a tune, he used to be deeply engaged in some geometrical proposition, and with a piece of chalk upon the lap of his breeches-knee, or any other convenient spot, he would clear up very difficult parts of the science in a most masterly manner.

His mind being now a little accessible to impressions from the great works of nature, he paid particular attention to the theory of the earth, the moon, and the rest of the planets belonging to this system, of which the sun is thecentre and, considering the distance and magnitude of the different bodies belonging to it, and the distance of | the fixed stars,he soon conceived each to be the centre of a different system. He vv.ell considered the laws of gravity, and that of the centripetal and centrifugal farces, and the cause of the ebbing and flowing of the tides; also the projection of the sphere, and trigonometry and astronomy. He never seemed better pleased than when he found his calculations agree with observation; and being well acquainted with the projection of the sphere, he was fond of describing all astronomical questions geometrically, and of projecting the eclipses of the sun and moon that way.

By this time he became possessed of a small library, and next turning his thought to algebra, he took up Emerson’s treatise on that subject, which, though the most difficult, he went through with great success and the management of surd quantities, and the clearing equations of high powers, were amusements to him while at work in the fields, as he generally could perform them by his memory; and if he met with any thing very intricate, he had recourse to a piece of chalk. The arithmetic of infinites, and the differential method, he made himself master of, and discovered that algebra and geometry were the very soul of the mathematics. He therefore paid a particular attention to them, and used to apply the former to almost every branch of the different sciences. The art of navigation, the principles of mechanics, the doctrine of motion of falling bodies, and the elements of optics became all objects of his study; and, as a preliminary to fluxions, which had only been lately discovered by sir Isaac Newton, he went through conic sections, &c. to make a trial of this last and finishing branch. Though he expressed some difficulty at his first entrance, yet he did not rest until he made himself master of both a fluxion and a flowing quantity.

As he had paid a similar attention to all the intermediate parts, he was now become so conversant in every branch of the mathematics, that no question was ever proposed to him which he did not answer. In particular he answered all the questions in the Gentleman’s and Ladies’ Diaries, the Palladium, and other annual publications, for several years; but his answers were seldom inserted except by, or in, the name of some other persons, as he had neither vanity nor ambition, and no wish but to satisfy himself that nothing passed him which he did not understand. He frequently had questions sent from his pupils and other | gentlemen in London, the universities, and different parts of the country, as well as from the university of Gottingen in Germany, which he never failed to answer; and from the minute inquiry he made into natural philosophy, there was scarcely a phenomenon in nature, that ever came to his knowledge or observation, for which he could not in some degree reasonably account.

He went by the name of “Willy o' the Hollins” many years after he left that place and removed to Tarngreen, where he lived about fifteen years, and from thence into the neighbourhood of Cartmell, where he was familiarly known by the name of “Willy Gibson,” and continued his occupation as before. For the last forty years of his life he kept a school of about eight or ten gentlemen, who boarded and lodged at his farm-house; and having a happy art of explaining his ideas, he was very successful in teaching. He also took up the business of land-surveying, and having acquired some little knowledge of drawing, could finish his plans in a very neat manner. He was often appointed, by acts of parliament, a commissioner for the inclosing of commons, for which he was well qualified in every respect. His practice was to study incessantly, during the greatest part of the night; and in the day-time, when in the fields, his pupils frequently went to him to have their difficulties removed. He appears to have been, altogether a very extraordinary character, and in private life amply deserving the great respect in which he was held by all who knew him. His death, occasioned by a fall, took place Oct. 4, 1791. He left a numerous family by his wife, to whom he had been happily united for nearly fifty years. 1


Gent. Mag, vol. LXI.