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Snel [Snellius or Snel van Royen], Willebrord

1. Dates
Born: Leiden, 1580
Died: Leiden, 30 Oct 1626
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 46
2. Father
Occupation: Academic
Professor of Mathematics at Leiden.
From various evidence clearly prosperous.
3. Nationality
Birth: Leiden, Netherlands
Career: Netherlands
Death: Leiden, Netherlands
4. Education
Schooling: Leiden, M.A.; Paris
He was the son of a well-to-do father who was himself a considerable scholar and professor of mathematics at the University of Leiden. In 1603 his father was connected with the court of the Landgraf Maurice of Hesse.
He studied law at the University of Leiden, but became interested in mathematics at an early age. I assume a B.A.
Already in 1600 he was allowed to offer lectures on mathematics at Leiden on special days.
1602- Feb. 03, studied law in Paris. I am assuming that this as at the university.
1608, received an M.A. from Leiden.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Calvinist by assumption
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics, Optics, Cartography
Subordinate: Astronomy, Navigation
In the first decade of the century he translated Stevin into Latin, and later translated van Ceulen.
In correspondence with Landsberg he calculated the value of pi via van Ceulen's method.
He worked at reconstructing Apollonius, dedicating part of the publication to Stevin and part of it to Prince Maurice.
Snel published extensively on pure mathematics.
His most important work, Eratosthenes batavus (1617) expounded a method of measuring the earth by triangulations and published the results of such. He had been about to abandon this work (I gather for lack of funds) when the brothers Sterrenberg (barons) took it over and completed it, with Snel's participation. This was the foundation of modern geodesy.
He published works on astronomy c. 1618, including a work on comets; he never became a Copernican.
In 1624 published Tiphys batavus, a work on navigation, a thorough investigation of the rhumb line (or loxodrom, a name Snel coined).
He composed a canon of trigonometric functions calculated in decimals.
It is well known that he devoted extensive time to optics and discovered the sine law.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Academia
1600, taught mathematics at the Univ. of Leiden. But soon after traveled to Wuertzburg, Prague, Altdorf, and Tuebingen, where he visited all the major astronomers of the day.
1602, in Paris studying law. 1604, returned home after having traveled to Switzerland with his father, who was then in Kassel at the court of Prince Maurice.
1613, suceeded his father at the University of Leiden. 1615, became professor of mathematics.
It is relevant to his means of support that in 1608 he married the dasughrer of the Burgemeister of Schoonhoven.
8. Patronage
Types: Scientist, Court Official
Snel's father was the teacher of Prince Maurice. Snel dedicated a work to Maurice. Some influence stood behind his succession to his father's chair. He received (from whom? apparently the government) gifts of 700 florins to support his triangulations (in 1622-4).
Van Ceulen, Stevin, and his father, Rudolf Snellius or Snel van Royen, were influential for Snel being allowed to teach mathematics in 1600. In 1608, Snel both translated Stevin's work into Latin to bring it before the European community and dedicated a work to Stevin; recall Stevin's relation to Maurice.
There is probably a connection which explains how Snel suceeded his father at Leiden after his death.
De re numeraria (1613) is dedicated to Grotius--i.e., he was familiar with the reigning intellectuals of the Netherlands.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Navigation, Cartography, Applied Mathematics
Tiphys batavus (1624) consists of lessons on navigation.
See also above.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Note his connections with Tycho, Kepler, Wilhelm IV, as well as the Dutch scientists.
  1. Nouvelle biographie universelle.
  2. P. van Geer, "Notice sur la vie et les travaux de Willebrord Snellius," Archives neerlandaises de sciences exactes et naturelles, 18 (1883), 453-68.
  3. Leo Beek, "Willibrord Snellius," in Beek, Dutch Pioneers of Science, (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1985), pp. 32-9.
  4. C. De Waard, Nieuw nederlands biographisch woordenboek, 7 (1927), 1155-63. [ref. CT1143.M72 v.7]
  5. Not consulted: N.D. Haasbroek, Gemma Frisius, Tycho Brahe and Snellius, and their Triangulations (Delft, 1968) [QB311.H113]
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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