Person: Briggs, Henry
Henry Briggs was was an English mathematician who published tables of Napier's logarithm and was the man most responsible for scientists' acceptance of logarithms.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- significant though Briggs was as a mathematician in his own right, his greatest importance was as a contact and public relations man.
- Briggs was born at Warley Wood (or Warleywood) in the parish of Halifax, Yorkshire.
- If Mede were correct then Briggs would have been born in 1556, but it seem highly unlikely that he is correct, for there seems no possible reason to think that the Halifax parish records could be wrong.
- Richard Briggs had important friends such as Ben Jonson, the dramatist, poet, and literary critic and a letter from Ben Jonson to Richard Briggs still exists.
- Henry Briggs attended a grammar school near Warley Wood where he became highly proficient at Greek and Latin.
- Admitted as a scholar on 5 November 1577, Briggs received the degree of B.A. in 1581, receiving his M.A. four years later.
- Thomas Linacre, born almost exactly 100 years before Briggs, had been so upset by the fact that medicine was practised by barbers and clergymen without proper qualifications that he founded the Royal College of Physicians of London.
- The Linacre lectureship that Briggs was appointed to was therefore a medical lectureship but, in the same year of 1592, Briggs was also appointed as an examiner and lecturer in mathematics at Cambridge.
- In 1596 Briggs became the first professor of geometry at Gresham College, London which had just been founded.
- He was to hold this position in Gresham College for 23 years, the College being famed as the birthplace of the Royal Society of London about 25 years after Briggs left.
- We know something of Briggs's work at this time since he became firm friends with James Ussher in 1609.
- Letters sent to Ussher have survived and some have been published, in particular one written by Briggs in August 1610.
- This letter shows that at this time Briggs was greatly interested in astronomy, in particular he was studying eclipses.
- This was a topic which involved many heavy calculations so Briggs was greatly struck when he read Napier's work on logarithms by the great help that they would provide to those involved in astronomy.
- It was not only the fact that logarithms were so useful for astronomical calculations which attracted Briggs to them.
- In 1602 Briggs had published A Table to find the Height of the Pole, the Magnetic Declination being given and in 1610 he had published Tables for the Improvement of Navigation.
- As soon as Briggs had read about logarithms he began thinking about improvements and was soon teaching his students about the new topic.
- Let us look at the problem which Briggs was attempting to address.
- Certainly the idea came about in discussions between Napier and Briggs.
- Briggs made the difficult journey from London to Edinburgh to see Napier in the summer of 1615.
- It was not the easy journey of 4 hours by train that we could make today, but rather for Briggs it was a journey of at least 4 days by horse and coach.
- It was not a journey one would undertake lightly but Briggs was desperately keen to meet Napier.
- It happened one day as John Marr and the Lord Napier were speaking of Mr Briggs, "Oh! John," saith Merchiston, "Mr Briggs will not come now"; at the very instant one knocks at the gate, John Marr hastened down and it proved to be Mr Briggs to his great contentment.
- He brings Mr Briggs into my Lord's chamber, where almost one quarter of an hour was spent, each beholding the other with admiration, before one word was spoken.
- Briggs had suggested to Napier in a letter sent before their meeting that logs should be (in our terminology) to base 10 and Briggs had begun to construct such tables.
- Indeed Briggs did construct such tables.
- Briggs's first work on logarithms Logarithmorum Chilias Prima was published in London in 1617.
- Briggs published an article A Description of an Instrument Table to find the Part Proportional, devised by Mr Edward Wright in Wright's English translation of Napier's Canon.
- After Wright's death, Briggs published two further editions of this work (1616 and 1618) with a preface he wrote himself.
- Briggs's mathematical treatise Arithmetica Logarithmica was published in 1624.
- In this book Briggs suggested that the logs of the missing numbers might be computed by a team of people and he even offered to supply specially designed paper for the purpose.
- The printing of the London edition took place after Briggs had died but he had asked his friend Henry Gellibrand to look after the project on his behalf.
- We have followed through Briggs involvement with logarithms but we should go back and look at his other work and the final stage of his life after he left Gresham College.
- Savile gave the first lectures himself then asked Briggs to fill the chair.
- Briggs accepted and after receiving high praise from Savile in his last lecture, took over the course continuing from the point that Savile had reached, namely the ninth proposition of Euclid's Elements.
- Briggs was made a fellow of Merton College Oxford to enable him to hold the Savilian chair but he did not resign his position in Gresham College until a few months later, ending his 23 year employment with the Gresham College on 25 July 1620.
- Briggs's first publication after his appointment at Oxford was an edition of the first six book of Euclid's Elements which he published in 1620.
- This publication was more natural than it appears for Briggs had interests outside the academic world, being a member of a company trading with Virginia.
- Again Briggs chose not to put his name on the work, the author simply appearing as H.
- In addition to his publications, Briggs wrote a number of other works which have never been published.
- Briggs was highly regarded by other mathematicians.
- Barrow, born the year the Briggs died, was appointed professor of geometry at Gresham College in 1662.
- In his inaugural lecture he referred to Briggs, who had held the same post some 50 years earlier, as the man who made logarithms a vital tool for all scientists.
- A final comment on his character is worth making, namely that in an age where astrology was an important topic for most men of learning, Briggs strongly opposed it.
- Napier was a great lover of astrology, but Briggs was the most satirical man against it that hath been known.
Born February 1561, Warleywood, Yorkshire, England. Died 26 January 1630, Oxford, England.
View full biography at MacTutor
Tags relevant for this person:
Astronomy, Origin England, Number Theory, Special Numbers And Numerals
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive