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Oughtred [Owtred], William

1. Dates
Born: Eton, Buckinghamshire, 5 March 1575
Died: Albury, near Guildford, Surrey, 30 June 1660
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 85
2. Father
Occupation: Cleric, Schoolmaster
The Rev. Benjamin Oughtred is said to have been a scribe\amanuensis who taught writing. In the accounts the teaching of writing seems to dominate, rather than employment as a scribe. That is, clear handwriting figures in Oughtred's life, and is traced back to his father's influence; I don't think the accounts were trying to describe the father's source of income. No one even talks about the fact he was "the Rev." Mr. Oughtred; I am assuming that this had meaning. His son did follow that calling.
No information on financial status.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Cambridge, M.A.
King's Scholar at Eton.
Cambridge University, King's College, 1592-1600; B.A., 1596; M.A., 1600.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
Oughtred was ordained in 1603 and spent his life as an Anglican clergyman. During the Civil War he was thoroughly royalist in outlook, and would have been sequestered except for influence brought to bear on his behalf.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics
Subordinate: Alchemy
Clavis mathematicae, 1631, on arithmetic and algebra, composed for instruction of his pupil, the son of the Earl of Arundel.
Circles of Proportion and the Horizontal Instrument, 1632, describing the first slide rules and also sundials.
Easy Way of Delineating Dials by Geometry, composed c. 1598, published only in the English Clavis in 1647.
Trigonometrie, 1657.
Josten is explicit in naming Oughtred an alchemist.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Church Life
Secondary: Academia, Patronage
Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, 1595-1603.
Vicar of Shalford, Surrey, 1604.
Rector of Albury, Surrey, 1610-60. Income of 100.
Oughtred was a very active tutor of mathematics: 1620s-60. He himself asserts, and considerable other testimony confirms, that he refused to accept any money in return. Oughtred was a clergyman who was adequately supported in his own view. He does not appear to have aspired for more.
Resided in the London house of the Earl of Arundel for some years in 1620s as tutor to the Earl's son.
8. Patronage
Types: Aristrocrat, Gentry
The Earl of Arundel strongly supported his study, and encouraged him to publish his work. Oughtred dedicated Clavis, composed for the Earl's son, to the Earl. Charles Cavendish is said to have requested the publication urgently; just what his relationship to Oughtred was otherwise is not mentioned.
In 1646 Oughtred, a royalist, was about to be sequestered by the Puritan government. Sir Bulstrode Whitelocke and others exerted influence that allowed him to be spared.
The Grand Duke of Florence invited him to Florence and offered him 500 per annum in 1640s. I will not list this offer, which Oughtred declined; it is probably a myth in any case.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Applied Mathematics, Instruments, Cartography
He is generally regarded as the inventor of both the circular and the rectilinear slide rule.
He invented a method of calculating logs, and he wrote a short tract on the solution of spherical triangles by the planisphere without the tedious labor of trigonometric calculations.
Composed An Easy Way of Delineating Dials by Geometry about 1598. Shortly thereafter he composed a tract on drawing a dial on any plane surface however inclined (published with Circles of Proportion, 1632); in the tract he described an instrument, which he later called the horizontal instrument, a time-showing device and a limited model (on a plane) of the heavens, which allowed the position of the sun to be determined graphically and also made possible the delineation of a dial on any plane surface.
He also wrote a small piece on watchmaking.
Oughtred is said also to have practiced as a surveyor.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Informal Connections: Pupils: Seth Ward, Jonas More, Charles Scarborough, John Wallis, Christopher Wren, Mr. Smethwyck, Mr. Austin, Thomas Henshawe, William Forster, Arthur Haughton, Robert Wood, William Gascoigne, and many others.
Correspondence with Henry Briggs, Edmund Gunter, Robert Keylway, Dr. Lloyd, and some his (Oughtred's) pupils.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 14, 1250-2. O.L. Dick, ed., Aubrey's Brief Lives, (Ann Arbor, 1957), pp.222- 5.
  2. Florian Cajori, William Oughtred, a Great Seventeenth-Century Teacher of Mathemetics, (Chicago, 1916).
  3. A.J. Turner, "William Oughtred, Richard Delamain and the Horizontral Instrument in Seventeenth Century England," Annali dell'Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienze, Firenze, 6.2 (1981), 99-125.
  4. Elias Ashmole, 5 vols. ed. with a biographical introduction by C.H.
  5. Josten, (Oxford, 1966), 1, 109.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

1995 Al Van Helden
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