Saunderson, Nicolas

, an illustrious professor of the mathematics in the university of Cambridge, and fellow of the Royal Society, was born in 1682, at Thurlston in Yorkshire; where his father, besides a small estate, enjoyed a place in the Excise. When he was a year old, he was deprived, by the small-pox, not only of his sight, but of his eye-balls, which were dissolved by abscesses; so that he retained no more idea of light and colours than if he had been born blind. He was sent early to a freeschool at Penniston, and there laid the foundation of that knowledge of the Greek and Roman languages, which he afterwards improved so far, by his own application to the' classic authors, as to hear the works of Euclid, Archimedes, | and Diophantus, read in their original Greek. When he had passed some time at this school, his father, whose occupation led him to be conversant in numbers, began to instruct him in the common rules of arithmetic. Here it was that his genius first appeared: for he very soon became able to work the common questions, to make long calculations by the strength of his memory, and to form new rules to himself for the more ready solving of such problems as are often proposed to learners, as trials of skill. At eighteen, he was introduced to the acquaintance of Richard West of Underbank, esq. a gentleman of fortune and a lover of the mathematics, who, observing his uncommon capacity, took the pains to instruct him in the principles of algebra and geometry, and gave him every encouragement in the prosecution of these studies. Soon after, he became acquainted with Dr. Nettleton, who took the same pains with him; and it was to these gentlemen that he owed his first institution in the mathematical sciences. They furnished him with books, and often read and expounded them to him; but he soon surpassed his masters, and became fitter to teach than learn any thing from them. His passion for learning growing up with him, his father sent him to a private academy at Attercliff near Sheffield. But logic and metaphysics being the principal learning of this school, were neither of them agreeable to the genius of our author; and therefore he made but a short stay. He remained some time after in the country, prosecuting his studies in his own way, without any other assistant than a good author, and some person that could read it to him; being able, by the strength of his own abilities, to surmount all difficulties that might occur. His education had hitherto been at the expence of his father, who, having a numerous family, found it difficult to continue it; and his friends therefore began to think of fixing him in some way of business, by which he might support himself. His own inclination led him strongly to Cambridge; and, after much consideration, it was resolved he should make his appearance there in a way very uncommon; not as a scholar, but a master; for, his friends, observing in him a peculiar felicity in conveying his ideas to others, hoped that he might teach the mathematics with credit and advantage, even in the university; or, if this design should miscarry, they promised themselves success in opening a school for him in London. | Accordingly, in 1707, being now twenty-five, he was brought to Cambridge by Mr. Joshua Dunn, then a fellowcommoner of Christ’s college; where he resided with that friend, but was not admitted a member of the college. The society, however, much pleased with so extraordinary a guest, allotted him a chamber, the use of their library, and indulged him in every privilege that could be of advantage to him. But still many difficulties obstructed his design: he was placed here without friends, without fortune, a young man, untaught himself, to be a teacher of philosophy in an university, where it then flourished in the greatest perfection. Whiston was at this time mathematical professor, and read lectures in the manner proposed by Saunderson; so that an attempt of the same kind by the latter looked like an encroachment on the privileges of his office; but, as a good-natured man, and an encourager of learning, Whiston readily consented to the application of friends, made in behalf of so uncommon a person. Mr. Dunn had been very assiduous in making known his character his fame in a short time had filled the university men of learning and curiosity grew ambitious and fond of his acquaintance, so that his lecture, as soon as opened, was frequented by many, and in a short time very much crowded. “The Principia Mathematica, Optics, and Arithmetica Universalis, of sir Isaac Newton,” were the foundation of his lecture; and they afforded a noble field to display his genius in. It was indeed an object of the greatest curiosity that a blind youth should read lectures in optics, discourse on the nature of light and colours, explain the theory of vision, the effect of glasses, the phenomena of the rainbow, and other objects of sight: nor was the surprize of his auditors much lessened by reflecting, that as this science is altogether to be explained by lines, and is subject to the rules of geometry, he might be a master of these subjects, even under the loss of sight.

As he was instructing the academical youth in the principles of the Newtonian philosophy, it was not long before he became acquainted with the incomparable author, although he had left the university several years; and enjoyed his frequent conversation concerning the more difficult parts of his works. He lived in friendship also with the most eminent mathematicians of the age? with Halley, Cotes, De Moivre, &c. Upon the removal of Whiston from his professorship, Saunderson’s mathematical merit | was universally allowed so much superior to that of any competitor, that an extraordinary step was taken in his favour, to qualify him with a degree, which the statutes require. Upon application made by the heads of colleges to the duke of Somerset, their chancellor, a mandate was readily granted by the queen for conferring on him the degree of master of arts: upon which he was chosen Lucasian professor of the mathematics, Nov. 1711, sir Isaac Newton all the while interesting himself very much in the affair. His first performance, after he was seated in the chair, was an inauguration-speech made in very elegant Latin, and a style truly Ciceronian; for he was well versed in the writings of Tully, who was his favourite in prose, as Virgil and Horace were in verse. From this time he applied himself closely to the reading of lectures, and gave up his whole frime to his pupils*. He continued among the gentlemen of Christ’s college till 1723; when he took a house in Cambridge, and soon after married a daughter of the rev. Mr. Dickens, rector of Boxworth in Cambridgeshire, by whom he had a son and a daughter. In 1728, when George II. visited the university, he was pleased to signify his desire of seeing so remarkable a person; and accordingly the professor waited upon his majesty in the senatehouse, and was there created doctor of laws by royal favour. Saunderson was naturally of a strong healthy constitution; but being too sedentary, and constantly confining himself to the house, he became at length a valetudinarian. For some years he frequently complained of a numbness in his limbs, which, in the spring of 1739, ended in an incurable mortification of his foot. He died April 19, aged fifty-seven, and was buried, according to his request, in the chancel at Boxworth. He was a man rather to be admired than loved. He had much wit and vivacity in conversation, and many reckoned him a good companion. He had also a great regard to truth, but was one of those who think it their duty to express their sentiments on men and opinions, without reserve or restraint, or any of the courtesies of conversation, which created him many enemies; nor was he less offensive by a habit of profane swearing, and the obtrusion of infidel opinions, which last he held, notwithstanding the kindness of providence towards him throughout his extraordinary life*. He is said, however,


With respect to the ioGdel part of Saunderson’s character,” says the Monthly Rftvkwer, " we are here naturally remiuded of the joke that was

| to have received the notice of his approaching death with great calmness and serenity; and after a short silence, resuming life and spirit, talked with as much composure as usual, and at length, we are told, appointed to receive the sacrament the evening before his death, which a delirium that never went off prevented him from doing.

A blind man moving in the sphere of a mathematician, seems a phenomenon difficult to be accounted for, and has excited the admiration of every age in which it has appeared. Tuliy mentions it as a thing scarce credible in his own master in philosophy, Diodotus, that “he exercised himself in that science with more assiduity after he became blind; and, what he thought almost impossible to be done without sight, that he described his geometrical diagrams so expressly to his scholars, that they could draw every line in its proper direction.Jerome relates a more remarkable instance in Didymus of Alexandria, who, “though blind from his infancy, and therefore ignorant of the very letters, appeared so great a miracle to the world, as not only to learn logic, but geometry also, to perfection, which seems the most of any thing to require the help of sight.” But, if we consider that the ideas of extended quantity, which are the chief objects of mathematics, may as well be acquired from the sense of feeling, as that of sight; that a fixed and steady attention is the principal qualification for this study; and that the blind are by necessity more abstracted than others, for which reason Democritus is said to have put out his eyes, that he might think more intensely; we shall perhaps be of opinion, that there is no other branch of science better adapted to their circumstances.

It was by the sense of feeling, that Saunderson acquired most of his ideas at first; and this he enjoyed in great acuteness and perfection, as it commonly happens to the blind, whether by the gift of nature, or, as is more probable, by the necessity of application. Yet he could not, as some have imagined, and as Mr. Boyle was made to believe of a blind man at Maestricht, distinguish colours by that sense; and, having’made repeated trials, he used to say, it was pretending to impossibilities. But he could | with great nicety and exactness discern the least difference of rough and smooth in a surface, or the least defect of polish. Thus he distinguished in a set of Roman medals the genuine from the false, though they had been counterfeited with such exactness as to deceive a connoisseur who had iudged by the eye. His sense of feeling was very accurate also in distinguishing the least variation in the atmosphere; and he has been seen in a garden, when observations have been making on the sun, to take notice of every cloud, that interrupted the observation, almost as justly as they who could see it. He could tell when any object was held near his face, or when he passed by a tree at no great distance, provided there was a calm air, and little or no wind: these he did by the different pulse of the air upon his face.

An exact and refined ear is what such are commonly blessed with who are deprived of their eyes; and our professor was perhaps inferior to none in the excellence of his. He could readily distinguish to the fifth part of a note; and, by his performance on the flute, which he had learned as an amusement in his younger years, discovered such a genius for music, as, if he had cultivated the art, would have probably appeared as wonderful as his skill in the mathematics. By his quickness in this sense he not only distinguished persons with whom he had ever once conversed so long as to fix in his memory the sound of their voice, but in some measure places also. He could judge of the size of a room, into which he was introduced, of the distance he was from the wall; and if ever he had walked over a pavement in courts, piazzas, &c. which reflected a sound, and was afterwards conducted thither again, he could exactly tell whereabouts in the walk he was placed, merely by the note it sounded.

There was scarcely any part of the mathematics on which he had not written something for the use of his pupils: but he discovered no intention of publishing any of his works till 1733. Then his friends, alarmed by a violent fever that had threatened his life, and unwilling that his labours should be lost to the world, importuned him to spare some tim from his lectures, and to employ it in finishing some of his works; which he might leave behind him, as a valuable legacy both to his family and the public. He yielded so tar to these entreaties as to compose in a short time his “Elements of Algebra” which he left perfect, and transcribed fair for the press. It was published by subscription | at Cambridge, 1740, in 2 vols. 4to, with a good mezzotinto print of the author, and an account of his life and character prefixed.

Saunderson entertained the most profound veneration for sir Isaac Newton. If he ever differed in sentiment from any thing in sir Isaac’s mathematical and philosophical writings, upon more mature consideration, he said, he always found the mistake to be his own. The more he read his works, and observed upon nature, the more reason he found to admire the justness and care as well as happiness of expression, of that incomparable philosopher. Saunderson left many other writings, though none perhaps prepared for the press. Among these were some valuable comments on the “Principia,” which not only explain the more difficult parts, but often improve upon the doctrines; these are published, in Latin, at the end of his posthumous “Treatise on Fluxions,” a valuable work, which appeared in 1756, 8vo. His manuscript lectures too on most parts of natural philosophy, might, in the opinion of Dr. Button, who has perused them, form a considerable volume, and prove an acceptable present to the public. 1


Life prefixed to his Algebra. Mariin’s Biog. Pbilos. Bio-. Brit. Supplement, vol. VII. —Hutton’s Dictionary.