Person: Wren, Sir Christopher
Christopher Wren was an English architect and mathematician who became Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. He is best known for the buildings he designed after the Great Fire of London.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- Christopher Wren senior was a well educated man, having graduated from St John's College Oxford before entering the Church.
- Christopher had a private tutor during his early years, then when he was nine years old he was sent to Westminster School in London.
- This led to difficulties when, not long after Christopher began his schooling at Westminster, the English Civil War broke out between King and Parliament.
- Matthew Wren, who was by this time the Bishop of Ely, was imprisoned in the Tower of London for eighteen years.
- William Holder was a mathematician and was to have a very strong influence on Christopher who spent much time at Bletchingham.
- Holder essentially took on the role of mathematics tutor to Wren and also encouraged him to experiment with astronomy.
- In 1646 Wren left Westminster school but he did not enter university immediately.
- Wren created pasteboard models to illustrate how muscles worked which Scarburgh used for demonstrations during his course of anatomy lectures.
- Some have conjectured that Wren's health at this time may have been poor and that this may have led to him being sent to Dr Scarburgh for treatment.
- Whatever the reason, the work Wren carried out for Scarburgh was his first significant scientific contribution.
- After this, and still before entering university, Wren was recommended to Oughtred as an appropriate person to translate into Latin his work on the mathematics of sundials.
- Wren entered Wadham College, Oxford on 25 June 1649, received a B.A degree on 18 March 1651and his M.A. from Oxford in 1653.
- At Oxford Wren carried out many scientific experiments.
- Perhaps what was most remarkable about the years Wren spent in Oxford was the breadth of his interests.
- Immediately Wren recognised this as a better hypothesis than his own and De corpore saturni was never published.
- It is interesting to look at the topics that Wren covered in his inaugural lecture on taking up the chair at Gresham College.
- We should note that although Newton, about 30 years later, proved the connection between the inverse square law and elliptical orbits, Wren himself (as did Hooke) both independently suggested the inverse square law of attraction.
- Also in his lecture Wren talked of the discoveries which had recently been made concerning the sun, moon and planets using the telescope.
- Wren was part of a scientific discussion group at Gresham College London that, in 1660, initiated formal weekly meetings.
- These persons following according to the usual custom of most of them, met together at Gresham College to hear Mr Wren's lecture, viz.
- The Lord Brouncker, Mr Boyle, Mr Bruce, Sir Robert Moray, Sir Paule Neile, Dr Wilkins, Dr Goddard, Dr Petty, Mr Ball, Mr Rooke, Mr Wren, Mr Hill.
- In addition to being a founder member of the Society, Wren was president of the Royal Society from 1680 to 1682.
- Wren became Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford in 1661 and held this post until 1673.
- Newton, never one to give excessive praise to others, states in the Principia that he ranks Wren together with Wallis and Huygens as the leading mathematicians of the day.
- Wren's fame in mathematics resulted from results he obtained in 1658.
- In addition to solving Kepler's Problem, Wren independently proved Kepler's third law and, as we noted above, formulated the inverse-square law of gravitational attraction.
- Another topic to which Wren contributed was optics.
- Out of this work came another of Wren's important mathematical results, namely that the hyperboloid of revolution is a ruled surface.
- Work on the logarithmic spiral, which had been rectified by Wallis in the late 1650s, led Wren to note that it was possible to consider an area preserving transformation which would transform a cone into a solid logarithmic spiral.
- It is not quite clear where Wren's interest in architecture first arose although we have noted his contributions during his Oxford days to military devices for defending cities and means for fortifying ports.
- In 1661 he was invited to work on the fortifications of the harbour at Tangiers and, although he turned down this request, it is interesting to realise that even in 1661 Wren was considered someone who might take on a major architectural project.
- In 1663 Wren made a thorough study of the Theatre of Marcellus, examining pictures of the theatre and drawings that showed its original form.
- This was important in Wren's development as an architect and the influence of the Theatre of Marcellus is clearly evident in his early designs.
- So here in one building we have Wren working in both his capacities at once - as a neat decorative draughtsman and an experimental philosopher attempting to solve a practical problem in a new scientific way.
- Wren replanned the entire city and supervised the rebuilding of 51 churches.
- For example in 1670 he was architect for the following London buildings: The Custom House, St Christopher-le-Stocks, Threadneedle Street, St Dunstan in the East, St Benet Fink, Threadneedle Street, St Vedast, Foster Lane, St Dionis Backchurch, Fenchurch Street, St Michael, Wood Street, St Mildred, Poultry, St Olave, Old Jewry, St Mary-at-Hill, Thames Street, St Mary, Aldermanbury, and St Edmund King and Martyr, Lombard Street.
- It is worth noting that despite the remarkable number of designs Wren was working on at this time, he still held the Savilian Chair of Astronomy at Oxford.
- In 1669 Wren was appointed as Surveyor of St Paul's Cathedral.
- Wren's second marriage was, sadly, shorter than his first since Jane died of tuberculosis in 1679.
- Wren is best known today at the architect for St Paul's Cathedral.
- His first design for the new cathedral was rejected by London City Council as not sufficiently grand and Wren produced a second plan together with a model in 1674.
- Wren, despite the tragedy in his personal life at this time and his great disappointment at the reaction to his plans for St Paul's, set to work again and produced a third design based on a Latin Cross with a large dome.
- This third design would form the basis for the plans for the Cathedral that we see today, but Wren modified them as the work progressed over a period of 35 years.
- As Wren was already 43 years old when the project began, he might not have been expected to live to see its completion.
- As is so often the case the King was short of money so Wren had to design a building to be constructed 'on the cheap'.
- It is impossible in an article of this length to give even an indication of the range of architectural commissions which Wren carried out.
- We can understand a little of Wren's character when we realise that he remained friends with some of the most awkward people of his time, particularly Hooke and Flamsteed.
Born 20 October 1632, East Knoyle, Wiltshire, England. Died 25 February 1723, London, England.
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Tags relevant for this person:
Architecture, Astronomy, Geography, Origin England, Physics
Thank you to the contributors under CC BY-SA 4.0!
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive