A man of many talents.

People play a parlour game in which the participants say to which period and place in the world they would travel if they had the use of a time machine and why they would go there. My choices are all relatively dull, as they all have to do with the history of science; I would for example want to go back to Cambridge University in the first half of the 19th century. This is the Cambridge of Woodhouse and Peacock who created the concept of abstract algebra and thereby set the ball rolling for the birth of the British school of algebra and the development of the non-standard algebras such as Hamilton’s quaternions, Boole’s algebra of logic, Cayley’s matrix algebra and Clifford’s algebras. This is the Cambridge of the Analytical Society a group of young mathematicians who fought to get the moribund fluxions of Isaac Newton replaced with the continental analysis in the curriculum and who would go on to found the Cambridge Philosophical Society one of whose journals, The Cambridge Mathematical Journal, was the first English language academic journal devoted exclusively to mathematics. This is the Cambridge that played a central role in the establishment of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, set up to challenged the encrusted dominance of The Royal Society. This is the Cambridge that sent Charles Darwin off around the world on the Beagle and heaved George Boole onto the chair of mathematics at the newly created Queen’s College Cork although he was entirely self-taught and had never attended a university himself. And this is also the Cambridge of the last generation of larger than life British polymaths such as George Airy, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, Augustus De Morgan and William Whewell who were all friends and all of whom were involved in one or more of the activities listed above.

William Whewell (24th May 1794 – 6th March 1866) was the son of a master carpenter from Lancaster whose prodigious abilities in mathematics saved him from having to follow the trade of his father and earned him various grants and subsidies that made it possible for him to enter Trinity College Cambridge as a sub-sizar in October 1812. A sub-sizar is a student who is excused from paying fees in return for which he is required to work as a servant to his fellow more affluent students. Isaac Newton also entered Trinity as a sub-sizar.


William Whewell Portrait by James Lonsdale (c) Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Trinity would be his home for the next fifty-four years, a working class lad from up north who spoke funny he had a difficult start in Cambridge but it says much about his character and his abilities that he rose to become Master of Trinity and as such the most powerful man in the University. Whewell studied mathematics and graduated in 1816 as second wrangler and second Smith Prizeman. The Cambridge mathematical Tripos (bachelor’s degree) was a competitive exam with those obtaining first class honours being called wranglers; Herschel and Airy were both Senior or First Wrangler, De Morgan Fourth and Babbage did not take his degree but was awarded an honorary one without examination. During his studies Whewell also won awards for Latin declamation and writing English poetry. He won a fellowship at Trinity in 1817 and was appointed mathematics lecturer and assistant tutor in 1818 and full tutor in 1823. Within the Cambridge system maths tutors played an important role as they prepared the students for the competitive Tripos exams.

If Whewell is known today it is as the author of his two monumental works on the history and philosophy of science but he was much more than that producing academic work in a bewildering breadth of disciplines. William Whewell was the number one Victorian polymath. John Herschel, who wrote prolifically on an extraordinary wide range of subjects, said of his good friend Whewell:

… a more wonderful variety and amount of knowledge in almost every department of human inquiry was perhaps never in the same interval of time accumulated by any man.

Not all regarded this diversity so positively, Sydney Smith, Anglican divine and English author, who was famous for his biting quips, he once summed up English 18th century epistemology thus “Bishop Berkeley destroyed this world in one volume octavo; and nothing remained, after his time, but mind; which experienced a similar fate from the hand of Mr. Hume in 1737”, said of Whewell:

Science is his forte, and omniscience his foible.

Leslie Stephen, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and father of Virginia Woolf, wrote in his biographical essay on Whewell:

Whewell began as a man of science but then scarcely became a philosopher.

Michael Ruse titled his contributory essay to a collective biography of Whewell (see below), “Whewell: Omniscientist”.

So what exactly did Whewell do to garner all of these comments? As already mentioned Whewell started his career as a maths teacher and his first academic contribution was in the form of maths and physics textbooks introducing the continental analytical methods into the Cambridge curriculum. These books became standard works and enjoyed several new editions. Cambridge boasted eight professorial chairs at the beginning of Whewell’s working life and in 1832 he was elected Professor of Mineralogy. After having taught himself the basic of geology and mineralogy with the help of his friend Adam Sedgwick Whewell preceded to reform the basic principles of the subject providing in his publications a nomenclature, a taxonomy and a simple mathematical foundation for mineralogy which dominated the subject for the rest of the century. Having done his work he then resigned the professorship after only four years. During this time Whewell used his clout as a professor to introduce reforms in the university in the teaching of anatomy and chemistry.

During the same period Whewell established himself as an expert on the history of architecture applying his mathematical skills to the analysis of the developments that led to the appearance of Gothic Architecture in Europe and championing the Gothic revival in Victorian England. As another historian disproved one of his theories Whewell displayed his true scientific spirit, “No one can rejoice more than myself to find what I have put forward superseded by the complete labours and sounder views of persons who may bring … more leisure talent, and research”.

Always seeking new fields of endeavour Whewell moved on to economics applying his mathematical talents to demonstrate that the theories of economists, such as David Ricardo, with whom he disagreed were in fact not viable and when examined mathematically led to nonsense. His economic theories were guided by his moral beliefs, which were deeply Christian. Whewell was an ordained priest and author of the first Bridgewater Treatise in which he presented his views on natural theology, a theological standpoint particularly prevalent in Britain in the 18th and 19th century in an attempt to reconcile Christian belief and modern science.*

In the 1830 Whewell together with the young mathematician John William Lubbock embarked on his largest scientific project his attempt to mathematically capture the ebb and flow of the tides. Lubbock a rich banker would later rent the land to Charles Darwin on which he constructed the Sandwalk. Whewell who coined many of the words that we use today in science named the scientific study of the tides tidology a discipline that he and Lubbock basically created. Collecting and analysing data of tidal flows from all over the world they tried to determine the cotidal lines for the whole world. That is lines connecting all points in the world that simultaneously have high or low tide. This ambitious project failed but they received the Royal Medal for their work and the data collected and the analysis proved invaluable for later researches in the field.

Parallel to his tidal studies Whewell took up the largest project of his life, his three volume History of the Inductive Sciences (1st ed. 1837) and the two volume The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences Founded upon their History (1st ed. 1840); the two works together in their finally editions run to more than 2800 pages. The History was on the whole well received, although when praised by Darwin it evoked the response from the naturalist Robert Brown, “Yes I suppose that he has read the prefaces of very many books”. The Philosophy, however, was almost universally rejected. Since the middle of the 17th century the dominant stream in English philosophy of science was empirical a tradition with which Whewell broke. Whewell replaced Locke’s tabla rasa mind which created theories from collected empirical facts for a Kantian concept by which theories are form by a union of ideas from the mind with the collected facts. This did no go down well with his contemporaries and his philosophy became buried under the juggernaut of John Stuart Mill’s philosophy of science.

In 1841 Whewell was appointed Master of Trinity a position that he held up till his death. In the role he was much occupied as an administrator and educationalist. He carried out both tasks very conscientiously reforming and modernising many aspects of the university curriculum. Earlier in 1838 he took up the last of his academic directions when he was appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy. As with all his other subjects Whewell reformed and reorganised laid new foundations and gave the discipline a new direction to carry it into the future.


William Whewell, c. 1860s Source: Wikimedia Commons

Not content to be a mathematician, physicist, geologist, mineralogist, theologian, historian of architecture, economist, educationalist, historian and philosopher of science, tidologist, and moral philosopher Whewell was an avid book reviewer, translator and annotator of Plato, poet and translator of German poetry. He also coined many terms used by scientist in their work; for the geologists he created the terms uniformitarianism and catastrophism to characterise the two sides in the debate raging in the discipline in his day, for his friend Michael Faraday he coined the terms anode and cathode and for the scientific community the terms scientist and physicist. He appears to have been a man for whom the day had much more than just 24 hours. A keen horseman he died as the result of a riding accident in 1866, 72 years old and a towering figure in Victorian intellectual circles.

For all of his reforming zeal as a scientist and as an educationalist one would be mistaken in assuming that Whewell was in anyway a radical. Deeply religious and stock conservative he rejected the theory of evolution, supporting his friend Richard Owen in his opposition to Darwin. Whewell could conceive of an evolution for brute animal but not for human beings who were the unique creation of God. For the same reason one of the books amongst his extraneous publications, of which there were many, laid down the reasons why it was impossible for any other planet in the Universe to be inhabited.

At the beginning I introduced Whewell as one of a group of Cambridge polymaths, there were also others that I did not name, all of these left their mark on the history of science and are at least for the well educated and well read well known names. In this age of the computer Babbage is honoured as one of the great pioneers, De Morgan’s name is firmly attached to the laws that form a central part of the Boolean algebra that is so essential to those computers, Herschel like his father is remembered as one of the giants of astronomy and Airy as one of the giants of physics. Although he made significant contributions to many areas of academic endeavour Whewell failed to produce the big break in any field of science and the rejection of his philosophy in his own lifetime meant that when he died, although honoured, he slipped into obscurity. However the 1950s and 1960s saw a sea change in the philosophy of science with Hanson, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and others insisting that philosophy of science must be based on its history. Slowly people began to remember a strange Victorian polymath who had made the same claim more that 100 years earlier and so William Whewell has at least in HPOS circles found the renown that was denied him in his own times.

* A good short introduction to natural theology is Jonathan R. Topham, Natural Theology and the Sciences, in The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion ed. Peter Harrison, CUP, Cambridge 2010, pp 59 – 79.

For those that wish to learn more about Whewell there are articles online at Wikipedia, MacTutor and The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. For those who prefer there reading matter printed on paper there are William Whewell articles by:

Robert Blanché in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy ed. Paul Edwards Vol. 8 pp 288 – 289

Robert E. Butts in The Dictionary of Scientific Biography ed. Charles Gillispie Vol. 14 pp 292 – 295.

Richard Yeo in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Vol.?(somewhere I’ve lost the effing title page!) pp 463 – 470

A longer modern biography is Menachem Fisch and Simon Schaffer eds. William Whewell: A Composite Portrait, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991. (Including thaz essay by Michael Ruse)

A 19th century biography with lots of Whewell’s letters (he was also a prolific letter writer) is Mrs Stair Douglas, The Life and Correspondence of William Whewell, D.D., C. Kegan Paul & Co., London 1881, reprinted Thomes, Bristol, 1991.

His philosophy of science is discussed in Menachem Fisch, William Whewell, Philosopher of Science, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991.

1991 was a good year for our Whilly!

If you really want to get the feel of the man then read his big history and philosophy of science volumes they’re actually very readable!

If any of my co-contributors or any readers have any objections, corrections or additions to the above please write them in the comments they are more than welcome.

About thonyc

Aging freak who fell in love with the history of science and now resides mostly in the 16th century.
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18 Responses to A man of many talents.

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  4. John S. Wilkins says:

    One should note that Brown’s derogatory comment was not so derogatory. Prefaces were where what we would now call the “Methodology” section of a book was published at the time, and in reading those prefaces he connected directly to the stated (if not necessarily practiced) philosophy of the scientists in question. While he did not manage to invent also the sociology of science (sociology had not even really been invented itself by that time: Spencer’s Social Statics was a decade later), he did start out by taking the scientists seriously, and getting it quite right.

    Also, Whewell studied mineralogy under Mohr, so he was no stranger to practice, either.

    • Thony C. says:

      Judging by the depths of his knowledge I personally think Whewell read considerably more than a lot of prefaces.

      On the other point I should probably have added a paragraph somewhere along the lines of:
      In whatever field of inquiry Whewell chose to operate he always read and digested the best books, sought out and learned from the best exponents and corresponded with the leading experts in that field ensuring that his knowledge of the area in question was always first class and his own contribution firmly founded.

  5. Brandon says:

    Whewell also assisted Airy in a number of his experiments. I remember one instance, which always seems to me to sum the man up, in which he was helping Airy with an experiment that involved taking measurements deep in a mine (Dolcoath, if I remember correctly). And in between measurement-taking, Whewell sat down and wrote a letter to an acquaintance, stating with obvious relish that he was writing it to them from two hundred feet below the ground in the middle of an interesting scientific experiement.

  6. thonyc says:

    Letter from William Whewell to Lady Malcolm

    Underground chamber,
    Dolcath Mine, Cambourne, Cornwall:
    June 10, 1826.

    I venture to suppose that you never had a correspondent who at the time of writing was situated as your present one is. I am at this moment sitting in a small cavern deep in the recesses of the earth, separated by 1.200 feet of rock from the surface on which you mortals tread. I am close to a wooden partition which has fixed here by human hands, through which I ever and anon look, by means of two telescopes, into a larger cavern. That larger den has got various strange-longer machines, illuminated here and there by unseen lamps, among which is visible a clock with a face most unlike common clocks, and a brass bar which swings to and fro with a small but never-ceasing motion. I am clad in the garb of a miner, which is probably more dirty and scanty than anything you may have happened to see in the way of dress…

    This was George Airy’s first attempt to determine the mean density of the earth by measuring the swing of a pendulum first on the surface then 1,200 feet underground. This attempt failed as did the second one in 1828, however Airy did succeed in his third attempt in 1854 although the figure he obtained was twenty percent higher than the currently accepted value.

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  11. I don’t see anything dull about time-travelling to important events in the history of science, but I guess it depends on what you do when you get there. Would you — cautious of creating a paradox — simply stay out of trouble and observe, or would you seek to converse with the historical figure of your choice? Perhaps you would have questions; perhaps you’d pay them back by satisfying, in some small way, their curiosity about the future. What would you say?

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