Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Extraordinary William Emerson (NZ308102)

One of the North-East’s greatest eccentrics, William Emerson, was born in Hurworth-on-Tees in 1701. He was also a brilliant mathematician, and can perhaps rightly be called a savant – a genius in his chosen field, yet a social misfit extraordinaire. His writings reached far and wide, including into the substantial mind and intellect of the great Thomas Jefferson.

He followed his schoolmaster father, Dudley, into the sphere of mathematics. As a young student, though, his offensive manner caused him to be sent to Newcastle and York during the course of his studies. In 1730 he returned to Hurworth to take over the running of his late father’s school, but his social shortcomings led to the institution’s closure in 1733. He resolved instead to live off his inherited estate near Eastgate, Weardale.

In 1735 he managed to get himself married to Elizabeth Johnson, the daughter of the Hurworth rector. However, his father-in-law, disapproving of his unkempt and uncouth new relative, refused to pay the £500 dowry, so Emerson piled all his wife’s clothes into a barrow and wheeled it round to the parsonage, saying he refused “to be beholden to such a fellow for a single rag”. In time, though, Emerson would make all those who thought him a wastrel eat their words.

Though he never really broke any new ground in his work, it was the interpretation and application of existing theories which would prove to be his greatest strength. His first work, The Doctrine of Fluxions [i.e. calculus], wasn’t published until he was into his 40s, but it became an instant bestseller. And, thereafter, as the man himself modestly pointed out, “I stepped forth, like a giant in all his might.”

And so he did. More than a dozen more critically acclaimed mathematical treatises followed on subjects such as trigonometry, astronomy, mechanics, navigation, algebra, optics, motion, music and more – all of them known for their error-free nature. The Principles of Mechanics (1754) really made his name, and was used by students into the Victorian era. Practical experimentation lay at the centre of his mathematical world, as he set his students to work splashing about in the Tees for his work on navigation, for example. He was, of course, consulted widely, yet when the Royal Society wished to make him a Fellow he refused, saying: “When a man becomes eminent, he has to pay quarterly for it. This is the way ingenuity is rewarded in England. Damn them and their FRS too.”

This outspokenness marked Emerson’s character all his life. He was often vulgar, ungrateful, bad-tempered, and had an infamously scruffy dress code. He would only tie the top and bottom buttons of his waistcoat, and wear his shirt back-to-front to keep himself warm. Then there were his bulging shin-covers, worn to stop his legs burning in front of the fire – to say nothing of his ill-fitting wigs! He walked everywhere, drank to excess and would stand fishing in the Tees for hours in the hope that the water would wash out his gout.

This mad genius died in 1782, aged 81, and was buried in Hurworth churchyard. And so finally, in the words of his epitaph, death, “as it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me.”

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