The first English professor of mathematics

From its origins the word professor refers to someone who professes to know something about a given subject. In the medieval universities undergraduates started their studies in the arts faculty, where they nominally learnt the seven liberal arts (the trivium consisting of grammar, logic and rhetoric and the quadrivium consisting of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music) and philosophy. This course of studies closed with the Bachelor of Arts or BA. Most students left the university at this point, those that stayed continued on the arts faculty working towards the Master of Arts of MA, the basic teaching qualification for the university. These masters would then teach the undergraduate courses on the arts faculty whilst simultaneously studying for a doctorate on one of the higher faculties, medicine, law or theology. The normal practice was to distribute the undergraduate teaching duties by drawing lots, the mathematics courses being regarded as having drawn the short straw. The professors were scholars who were specifically designated to teach a particular course of studies, principally in the higher faculties but with time for some courses in the arts faculty. Such dedicated teaching positions were often funded by special endowments from rulers or high-ranking church officials. All the way down to the Renaissance there were no professorships for the mathematical disciplines; first with the rise of astrological medicine or iatromathematics in the fifteenth century were professorships created for the mathematical disciplines, which were effectively chairs for astrology. This process began on the humanist Renaissance universities of Northern Italy with the other European countries slowly following their lead. In these developments the two English universities, Oxford and Cambridge, lagged behind their continental rivals. There were no dedicated professorships for mathematics before the 1590s. Those English scholars who wanted advanced instruction in mathematics, such as John Dee or Henry Savile, had to find this at continental universities.

When he died Thomas Gresham (1519–1579), he of Gresham’s law in economics, merchant, founder of the Royal Exchange and financial manager for the English crown, left the bulk of his fortune for the foundation of a college in London where seven professors should read lectures in both Latin and English, on each day of the week, in astronomy, geometry, physic, law, divinity, rhetoric and music. Gresham College was established in 1597 and Henry Briggs was appointed in 1596 as the first Gresham professor of geometry and as such the first English professor of mathematics.


Sir Thomas Gresham by Anthonis Mor Rijksmuseum


Gresham College 1740 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Henry Briggs was born in Warley near Halifax in Yorkshire the son of the farmer Thomas Briggs and baptised 23 February 1561. He matriculated at St John’s College Cambridge in 1578, graduating BA in 1581 and MA 1585 becoming a fellow of the college in 1588. He was appointed mathematicus examinator in 1592 and in the same year become Linacre lecturer in physic. Although he was Gresham Professor of geometry Brigg’s principle interests were astronomy, geography and navigation and he maintained close contact with the mathematical practitioners of London, in particular the cartographer, navigator Edward Wright. In 1602 he published A Table to Find the Height of the Pole and in 1610 Tables for the Improvement of Navigation. Briggs also corresponded on mathematical topics with James Ussher.

In 1614 John Napier published the first logarithm tables his Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descripto. In 1616 Briggs wrote to Ussher:


Napper [Napier], Lord of Markinston, hath set my Head and Hands a Work, with his new and admirable Logarithms. I hope to see him this Summer if it pleases God, for I never saw Book which pleased me better, or made me more wonder.

Logarithms vastly simplified the complex calculations needed in both astronomy and navigation and Briggs would make their improvement his life’s work. Briggs took up contact with Napier and in 1616 he undertook the arduous four-day journey from London to Edinburgh to meet with Napier; a journey that he repeated in the following year.


Napier’s logarithms were based on approximately 1/e. Briggs convinced Napier that logarithms base ten with log 10 = 1 would be more useful and set about calculating a new set of log tables his Logarithmorum Chillias Prima, which was published in 1617.


In 1616 and 1618 Briggs published, A description of an Instrumental Table to find the part proportional, devised by Mr Edward Wright, which is the mathematics required to produce a Mercator projection map or sea chart.

In 1619 Henry Savile set up the first university chairs for geometry and astronomy at Oxford University and after having delivered the first geometry lecture himself handed over the chair for geometry to Henry Briggs.


Henry Savile Source: Wikimedia Commons

Briggs produced an extended set of log tables base ten calculated to fourteen places of decimals in 1624 his, Arithmetica Logarithmica. He also calculated tables of logarithmic sines and tangents to ten places of decimals, which were published posthumously.


In his rooms at Gresham college it was Briggs who started the habit of holding meetings of all those interested in the mathematical sciences. These meetings were continued by both his successors as professor for geometry as well as the holders of the Gresham professorship for astronomy. These meetings would go on to found the core of what became the Royal Society, which for most of its first four decades was also at home in Gresham College.

Briggs died in 1630 and now that the ubiquitous school log tables, mine were always in my school satchel, have been made obsolete by the electronic pocket calculator Briggs’ great contribution to the mathematical sciences is slowly slipping into the fog of forgetfulness but in his time his calculatory contributions were of immense importance and he is a central figure in the history of English mathematics in the first half of the seventeenth century and deserves to be honoured as such, not just for the log tables but also for his active and intense support of the small but active mathematical community and not least as the first English professor of mathematics.




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11 responses to “The first English professor of mathematics

  1. Pingback: 1 – The first English professor of mathematics

  2. Lovely piece. The “first” something or others are usually not, in my experience, because it largely depends on a tight definition of the thing they are first to do. Except for the very clear firsts like first human on the moon, of course. I research the history of women engineers and am often asked who was the first woman to do whatever it is. In the case of, let us say, the first woman to graduate in engineering – almost impossible to pin down as what is considered to be an ‘engineering degree’ is highly variable by time and place. I was particularly interested in your intro about what a professor is, for exactly this reason!

    • I tend to avoid the term first because those or that which is normally claimed to be first almost always isn’t, plus as you note defining things is always a very slippery process.

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  6. whywhy

    >”he is a central figure in the history of English mathematics in the first half of the seventeenth century and deserves to be honoured as such, not just for the log tables but also for his active and intense support of the small but active mathematical community” //

    I think it worthy of mention that he was a central figure in _British_ mathematics. Ussher being Irish, Neper Scottish.

    FWIW Ussher spent time in St.Donats which is now considered part of Wales (but would then have been called England).

    Mathematics thankfully doesn’t care for geographical restrictions.

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  8. Don’t forget Carl Gauss… it all adds up.

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