Nieuwland, Peter

, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Leyden, was born at Diemermeer, a village near Amsterdam, Nov. 5, 1764. His father, by trade a carpenter, having a great fondness for books, and being tolerably well versed in the mathematics, instructed his son himself till he attained his eleventh year, who appears to have exhibited very extraordinary proofs of genius long before that time. When only three years old, his mother put into his hand some prints, which had fifty verses at the bottom of them by way of explanation. These verses she read aloud, without any intention that her son should learn them, but was much surprized some time after to hear him repeat the whole from memory, with the utmost correctness, on being only shown the prints. Before he was seven years old he had read more than fifty different books, and in such a manner that he could frequently repeat passages from them both in prose and in verse. When about the age of eight, Mr. Aenese of Amsterdam, one of the greatest calculators of the age, asked him if he could tell the solid contents of a wooden statue of Mercury which stood upon a piece of clock-work. “Yes,” replied young Nieuwland, “provided you give me a bit of the same wood of which the statue was made for I will cut a cubic inch out of it, and then compare it with the statue.” Poems which (says his eulogist) display the utmost liveliness of imagination, and which he composed in his tenth year, while walking or amusing himself near his father’s house, were received with admiration, and inserted in different poetical collections. | Such an uncommon genius must soon burst through those obstacles which confine it. Bernardus and Jeronirao de Bosch, two opulent gentlemen of Amsterdam, became young Nieuwland’s patrons, and he was taken into the house of the former in his eleventh year, and received daily instruction from the latter for the space of four years. While in this situation he made considerable progress in the Latin and Greek languages, and studied philosophy and the mathematics under Wyttenbach. In 1733 he translated the two dissertations of his celebrated instructors Wyttenbach and de Bosch, on the opinions which the ancients entertained of the state of the soul after death, which had gained the prize of the Teylerian theological society. From September 1784 to 1785 he studied at Leyden, and afterwards applied with great diligence at Amsterdam to natural philosophy, and every branch of the mathematics, under the direction of professor Van Swinden. He had scarcely begun to turn his attention to chemistry, when he made himself master of Lavoisier’s theory, and could apply it to every phenomenon.

One of his great objects was to bring the pure mathematics nearer to perfection, and having turned his thoughts to the improvement of the methods of determining the latitude of a place at sea, he wrote, in 1789, a paper on the subject, and transmitted it to Lalande at Paris, who greatly approved of it, and after Major von Zach and Nieuwland had reconsidered the method, this paper was published by von Zach, with Nieuwland’s name, in the first supplement to Bode’s “Astronomical Almanack,Berlin, 1793. This, however, was not the only service which Nieuwland endeavoured to render to astronomy. It had been observed by Newton, Euler, De la Place, and others, that the axes of the planets do not stand perpendicular, but inclined, to the plane of their orbits. Nieuwland attempted to account for this phenomenon, and his paper on the subject was printed, for the opinion of the learned, in the supplement to Bode’s “Almanack,” for the same year. His success in this, however, according to the biographer we follow, seems doubtful.

Nieuwland’s talents and diligence recommended him to the notice of his country. In 1786, he was appointed a member of the commission chosen by the college of admiralty at Amsterdam, for determining the longitude, and improving marine charts. On this labour he was employed | eight years, and had also a considerable share in preparing a nautical almanack. While at Amsterdam, where he had been invited to give lectures on mathematics, he wrote his useful and excellent treatise on navigation, the first part of which was published there in 1793. In 1789 he was chosen member of a learned society, distinguished by the motto of Felix Mentis, whose object was chemical experiments; and contributed many very valuable papers to it. In July 1793 he was invited to the university of Leyden, to be professor of philosophy, astronomy, and the higher mathematics, in the room of the celebrated Damen; and the admiralty of Amsterdam requested him to continue his nautical researches, which he did with great assiduity till the period of his death. The only variation which he now made in his studies related to natural philosophy, for with the mathematics he was already sufficiently acquainted. He applied himself, therefore, to the experimental part, and spared no pains or labour to become perfect in it; which would certainly have been the case, had he not been snatched from science and his friends at the early age of thirty. He died of an inflammation in his throat, accompanied with a fever, Nov. 13, 1794.

In his external appearance, Nieuwland was not what might be called handsome, nor had he ever been at pains to acquire that ease of deportment which distinguishes those who have frequented polite company. His behaviour and conversation were, however, agreeable, because he could discourse with facility on so many subjects, and never wished to appear but under his real character. On the first view one might have discerned that he was a man of great modesty and the strictest morality. His father was a Lutheran, and his mother a Baptist; but he himself was a member of what is called the reformed church, i. e. a Calvinist, and always shewed the utmost respect to the Supreme Being, both by his words and actions. His attention appears to have been directed to three principal pursuits, which are seldom united; poetry, the pure mathematics, and natural philosophy. In the latter part of his life he added to these also astronomy. Among the poems which he published, his “Orion” alone has rendered his name immortal in Holland. Of the small essays which he published in his youth, the two following are particularly deserving of notice, 1. “A comparative view of the value of the different branches of science” and, 2. “The best | means to render general, not learning, but soundness of judgment and good taste.1


Dr. Gleig’s Supplement to the Encycl. Britannica.—Dict. Hist.