The day that Jonas died

Even fairly ardent scholars of 17th century mathematics are unlikely to have heard of Jonas Moore who died on 25th August 1679. There is no Moore’s theorem or algorithm no branch of mathematics that counts him amongst its founders or greatest developers, in fact in normal books on the general history of mathematics you’ll be lucky if you find him mentioned at all. He sole contribution to mainstream mathematics seems to have been the coining of the trigonometrical abbreviations cos for cosine, sin for sine, cot for cotangent etc not exactly something to excite those interested in the evolution of mathematics. However Moore did play an important role in the history of the mathematical sciences as a facilitator and as such should be better known than he is.

NPG D29110; Sir Jonas Moore after Unknown artist

Unknown artist, line engraving, published 1660 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Science in general is not the product of individuals, no matter how genial, but of communities. The evolution or development of science depends on the efforts of large groups of people working together to further their particular area of study and our concentration on the contributions of a handful of brilliant stars, the Galileos, Newtons, Darwins and Einsteins produces a very warped picture of how science actually progresses. As well as the major figure there are large numbers of minor researchers, technicians, instrument makers, publishers, teachers, textbook authors, financiers, patrons and facilitators who contribute substantially to the evolution of the sciences. Jonas Moore was a facilitator.

Before we take a look at what this means I will just briefly sketch Moore’s mathematical biography. Born in Lancashire in 1617 the son of a yeoman he appears to have been largely self taught as a mathematician although he appears to have been part of the group of mathematical practitioners gathered round the Towneley brothers Christopher and Charles, which included Jeremiah Horrocks, William Crabtree and William Gascoigne as well as Charles’ son Richard. Moore acknowledges getting some sort of tuition from Gascoigne. In the 1640s he established himself as a maths teacher with the help of William Oughtred, who was the leading private maths teacher of the period and numbered John Wallis and Christopher Wren amongst his pupils. Amongst Moore’s own well connected pupils was James Duke of York later to become James II.

In the 1650s Moore became surveyor to the Duke of Bedford’s scheme to drain the fens and modern research indicates that he deserves more credit for this impressive engineering scheme than the Dutch engineer who usually gets the credit. It was through this work that Moore rose to fame. Returning to London he again took up teaching and during the restoration used his earlier connections to James to claim Royalist loyalty. In 1663 he was dispatched to the British port of Tangiers to supervise the construction of a fortified harbour wall. Upon his return to England he was appointed temporary surveyor to the Royal Ordnance in the Second Dutch War. This led to him becoming Surveyor General to the Royal Ordnance in 1669, a post he held until his death and which led to his being knighted in 1673.

It was in this top government post that Moore became a mathematical facilitator. He had never lost his interest in mathematics and maintained contact with other leading figures in the London mathematical community. Through John Collins another facilitator and maths groupie Moore made the acquaintance of the young curate and amateur astronomer John Flamsteed and very impressed by his obvious abilities made plans to set Flamsteed up in a private observatory in Chelsea. However fate intervened in the form of a Frenchman who wished to sell Charles II his scheme for determining longitude. Regular readers need no reminding that this was to become the practical mathematical problem of the next hundred years. Charles called in a committee of advisors that included Samuel Pepys (he of the diary) and Moore who brought along his young protégée Flamsteed. Flamsteed made short shrift of the pretentious foreigner and Moore seized the opportunity to convince Charles to set up a national institution to solve the longitude problem with Flamsteed as its director and so the Royal Observatory in Greenwich was born and Flamsteed became the first Astronomer Royal. Moore oversaw the construction of the building, designed by his friend Christopher Wren, and the King in typical fashion providing no money for the new institution Moore paid for the first instruments out of his own pocket. Moore’s biographer Frances Willmoth goes so far as to describe Moore, “…as the sole driving force behind the scheme.”

Moore’s role in establishing the Royal Observatory would be enough to ensure him a place in the history of science books but he was also involved in another less well-known scheme to further mathematical navigation in England. As I sketched in my recent post on John Hadley the use of mathematics and astronomy in navigation had been slowly on the increase in Europe since the beginning of the 15th century. The Portuguese followed by the Spanish set up schools to train their seamen in astronomy, navigation and cartography and in the 16th century, as I outlined in my post about Jan de Witt, the Dutch followed suit with their vernacular lectureships in practical mathematics at the universities of Franeker and Leiden. England lagged behind the other European maritime nations. In the last quarter of the 16th century the Muscovy Company employed John Dee as a private tutor in practical mathematics and Walter Raleigh employed Thomas Harriot in a similar capacity, making him the first North American scientist when he took him on his second voyage to Virginia. However from the official side of English government no steps were taken to further mathematical navigation. The City of London appointed Thomas Hood for a time at the end of the 16th century as public lecturer to fulfil this need but his lectures found few listeners and soon petered out. The chairs of geometry and astronomy at Gresham College, again a private initiative, were also partially founded to fulfil this function with mixed results. Moore who was a governor of the Christ’s Hospital charitable school was instrumental in persuading Charles to set up within the school the Royal Mathematical School, which originally had the function of training mathematicians and navigators who would serve as naval officers or merchant seafarers, the first English state institution for this purpose. Moore wrote a textbook for the school incorporating material from Flamsteed, Halley (another of his protégés) and Peter Perkins the schools master. The book A New Systeme of the Mathematicks was published posthumously in 1681.

Both the Royal Observatory and the Christ’s Hospital School still flourish and stand as monuments to Jonas Moore a mathematician of little significance but a mathematical facilitator of great influence.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation

4 responses to “The day that Jonas died

  1. Pingback: The day that Jonas died | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: Sliding to mathematical fame. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  3. Pingback: Who Was Jonas Moore? | nebusresearch

  4. Pingback: He died fighting for his King | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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