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Briggs, Henry

1. Dates
Born: Worley Wood, Yorkshire, Feb. 1561 Baptized on 23 Feb. 1561.
Died: Oxford, 26 Jan. 1630.
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 69
2. Father
Occupation: Unknown
Thomas Smith, writing early in the 18th century, said that Briggs' parents were "humble of class and rather slender of means." Humble of class could mean too many things to guess, but I take the slender means to state unmistakably that they were poor. Smith indicates that Briggs could not have attended Cambridge without financial assistance from his college.
3. Nationality
Birth: England
Career: England
Death: England
4. Education
Schooling: Cambridge, M.A.
Local grammar school.
St. John's College, Cambridge, 1577-85; B.A., 1581; M.A., 1585.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Calvinist
He is described in one fairly contemporary source as a severe Presbyterian, and he was active in the Puritan cause while he was at Cambridge.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics
Subordinate: Astronomy, Navigation, Geography
Briggs is especially known for his publication of tables of logarithms to the base 10, first Logarithmorum chilias prima, 1617, and later Arithmetica logarithmetica, 1624.
He also composed a work on trigonometry (basically tables, both of the functions and of the logs of sines and tangents) that was left unfinished at his death; Gellibrand completed and published it. And he left quite a few mathematical manuscripts that remained unpublished.
Briggs also devoted some attention to astronomy and saw logarithms initially primarily as a device to aid in astronomical calculations.
He published Tables for the Improvement of Navigation, 1610, and North-west Passage to the South Sea, 1622.
Briggs was consulted by the Virginia Company about the northwest passage, and from information about tides and currents he deduced the existence of such a passage. From the flow of rivers in Virginia and in the Hudson Bay area, he also deduced the existence of the mid-continental range of mountains. He produced a map of North America that Purchas published.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Academia
Fellow of St. John's College, 1589. I find no information about what he did between 1585 (his M.A.) and 1589.
Appointed Dr. Linacre's Reader of the Physic Lecture, 1592-6. (I am pretty sure that this was internal to St. John's College.)
Professor of Geometry, Gresham College, 1596-1620. Briggs was the first Gresham Professor of Geometry.
Savilian Professor of Geometry, Oxford, 1620-30. Also Fellow of Merton.
8. Patronage
Types: Gentry, Court Official
He was appointed Professor of Geometry at Oxford at Henry Saville's invitation. He held the position in the last decade of his life. [Source on patronage: J. Ward, The Lifes of the Professors of Gresham College, pp. 124-6, LF795.G8A2]
In his early life of Briggs, Dr. Smith says that he condemned riches and preferred a life of retirement to one of splendor.
Nevertheless he did dedicate Arithmetica logarithmetica to Prince Charles.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Applied Mathematics, Navigation, Cartography, Instruments
See above. Virtually the whole of his work in mathematics was devoted to making computation more easy.
Briggs' first publication, Concerning the Construction, Description and Use of Two Instruments Invented by Mr. Gilbert, was devoted to the concept of determining latitude from magnetic declination. The work included tables for this purpose. He also constructed several tables of astronomical phenemena useful to navigation, which were published in Wright's book.
See above about the map of North America.
Note also that he considered (I do not know how deeply or how long) the problem of constructing a canal from the Isis to the Avon. Without more information I am unwilling to list this.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Informal Connections: Friendship with Sir Henry Bourchier, Dr. Ussher and Henry Gellibrand. Two of his (apparently many) letters to Ussher, a correspondence about astronomy and chronology, survive.
He journeyed to Scotland twice to meet and discuss with Napier.
He exchanged a couple of letters with Longomontanus.
  1. J. Ward, The Lives of the Professors of Gresham College, pp. 120, 124-6. LF795 G8A2 Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-1950), 2, 1234-5. Biographia Britannica, 2nd ed. (London, 1778-93), 2, 586-9.
  2. D.M. Hallowes, "Henry Briggs, Mathematician," Transactions of the Halifax Antequarian Society (1962), pp. 79-92.
  3. Thomas Smith, a biography of Briggs published originally in Smith's Vitae quorundam eruditissimorum et illustrium virorum, (1707), republished in Alexander J. Thompson, Logarithmetica britannica, 9 vols. (Cambridge, 1924-52), 1, lxvii-lxxvii.
  4. H.W. Turnbull, James Gregory Tercentenary Memorial Volume, (London, 1939), p. 17.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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1995 Al Van Helden
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