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Molyneux, William

1. Dates
Born: Dublin, 17 April 1656
Died: Dublin, 11 Oct. 1698
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 42
2. Father
Occupation: Gentry, Soldier
Samuel Molyneux was a member of the Protestant establishment, stretching back to the reign of Elizabeth, which governed and dominated Ireland. He followed a military career because of the civil war; he became the master gunner of Ireland. He had property in several counties.
The only issue is how to classify him financially. Clearly he was at least prosperous. William Molyneux attended Trinity College as the Fellow Commoner. He (William M.) never had to earn a living. He was able to pass on a sufficient fortune that his son never had to earn a living. I think that wealthy is the correct classification.
3. Nationality
Birth: Irish (I list him as Irish, but he was clearly part. of the English ruling class, and he lived essentially in an English environment.)
Career: Irish
Death: Irish
4. Education
Schooling: Trinity (Dublin)
Educated initially by a tutor.
Trinity College, Dublin; 1671-5; B.A., 1675.
Studied law in the Middle Temple, London, 1675-8.
Honorary M.A., 1692. Honorary L.L.D. 1693 (I do not list either.)
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
Molyneux appears to have teetered on the edge of a heterodoxy similar to Locke's. I saw no evidence that he moved beyond the limits of orthodoxy, however.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Optics
Subordinate: Astronomy, Natural History, Natural Philosophy
Molyneux's most important and best known work was Dioptrica nova, 1692. Questions of optics occupied much of his attention.
He began to make astronomical observations no later than 1681, when he obtained a telescope from Flamsteed. He continued to observe throughout his life, but he never wrote anything on astronomy. He did publish a few papers of observations in the Philosophical Transactions, as well as papers on optics, natural philosophy, and miscellaneous topics.
He collected materials on the natural history of Ireland for a "description of Ireland" for Pitt's intended Atlas. This was never published. He read papers on natural history before the Dublin Philosophical Society.
Molyneux translated Descartes' Meditations into English. The problem of the blind man who gains sight, which he proposed to Locke, remains a topic that is discussed even in our day.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Personal Means
Secondary: Government
Inherited wealth from his distinquished and well-to-do family, one of the establishment Anglican families. Molyneux lived on his inheritance all his life.
Joint Surveyor General of the king's buildings and works in Ireland, 1684-8, 1690-8?. His share of the salary was 150.
1690, on a commission for stating the army's accounts (in Ireland). Salary: 500.
Represented the University of Dublin in Parliament, 1692, 1695.
1693, served a few months as a commissioner of forfeited estates, then resigned because of ill health. Salary: 400 per annum.
1697-8, shared the responsibility of government with Lord Chancellor John Methuen and Lord Mayor Mr. Van Homrigh. I don't know whether he received remuneration.
8. Patronage
Type: Government Official
The Duke of Ormond, who was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, secured him the position of Surveyor General in 1684.
While traveling in 1685, he received a payment of 100 from the Irish government to view and make plans of the principle fortresses around Flanders (which he apparently never did).
Dedicated Sciotherium telescopicum, 1686, to the Earl of Clarendon, then the Lord Leiutenant.
Nominated as a commissioner of forfeited estates in Ireland by the government in 1693--though he resigned shortly.
He dedicated The Case of Ireland, 1698, to William III. However, no one was willing to present the book to William, and in fact the book, which argued the sovereignty of the Irish Parliament, made William angry. I won't list this.
Molyneux was a wealthy man, and his dedications reflect this; in general they were not fishing for patronge. He dedicated Dioptrica nova to the Royal Society, and the second part of it to his friend Henry Osborne, with whom he had discussed optical problems. He received some patronage from figures in the government of Ireland, but in general he did not need patronage and did not solicit it.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Instruments, Military Engineering, Civil Engineering
Designed a telescopic sundial and a new hygroscope.
With his father he experimented on gunnery and drew up a paper (unpublished) on the subject. There is no evidence that he drew plans of the principal fortress in Flanders, despite his commission to do so.
While he was Surveyor General, he restored Dublin Castle, though it appears that the plans were not his.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Dublin Philosophical Society, Royal Society
Informal Connections: Formed a Dublin Philosophy Society in 1683 and was elected the first secretary of the Society. In 1687 the Society collapsed. It was revived, 1693-7; Molyneux was a member but not very active during the second period.
Correspondence with the Royal Society and Oxford Philosophy Society.
Friendship and correspondence with Flamsteed and later Halley. The correspondence with Flamsteed is published in the General Dictionary.
Lengthy correspondence with Locke from 1692 until Molyneux's death. Published in Some Familiar Letters (of Locke).
Joined Moses Pitt in his work on the English Atlas beginning in 1882.
Royal Society, 1685.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 13, 585-8. Biographia Britannica, 1st ed. (London, 1747-66), 5, 3123-42.
  2. K.T. Hoppen, "The Royal Society and Ireland: William Molyneux, F.R.S. (1656-1698)", Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 18 (1963), 125-35.
  3. J.G. Simms. William Molyneux of Dublin (1656-1698), (Blackrock, County Dublin, Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 1982). [JC163.M65 S55 1982] This is easily the best source on Molyneux.
  4. "Molyneux, William," in Pierre Bayle, A General Dictionary Historical and Critical, tr. John P. Bernard, Thomas Birch, and John Lockman, 10 vols. (London, 1734-41), 7, 601-14.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Autobiographical sketch in Capel Molyneux, An Account of the Family and Descendants of Sir Thomas Molyneux, Kt., (Evesham, 1820).
  2. "Introduction," in Molyneux, The Case of Ireland Stated, reprint ed. (Dublin, 1977).
  3. John W. Davis, "The Molyneux Problem," Journal of the History of Ideas, 21 (1960), 392-408.
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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