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Wallis John

1. Dates
Born: Ashford, Kent, 23 Nov. 1616
Died: Oxford, 8 Nov. 1703
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 87
2. Father
Occupation: Cleric
Also John Wallis, the father was the Rector of Ashford, who died when Wallis was six.
In view of the estate Wallis inherited, they must have been in an affluent situation. Wallis went to Oxford as a pensioner.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Cambridge, M.A., Oxford, D.D.
Grammar School at Tenterden, Kent, 1625-31.
School of Martin Holbeach at Felsted, Essex, 1631-2.
Cambridge University, Emmanuel College, 1632-40; B.A., 1637; M.A., 1640.
He took a D.D. at Oxford in 1654; there is good reason to treat it as a serious degree even though Wallis had then been a professor at Oxford for five years. He performed all the exercises; it was not granted by mandate.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Calvinist, Anglican
Wallis studied in Emmanuel, the Puritan college, and was in good favor there. He strongly supported the Puritan cause during the Civil War. He conformed without question at the Restoration, although he remained a Calvinist theologically, in conformity with the Thirty-nine Articles.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics
Subordinate: Mechanics, Physics, Music
Wallis was probably the second most important English mathematician during the 17th century, after Newton. He was the author of numerous books: Treatise of Angular Sections, composed in 1648, published finally in 1685; De sectionibus conicis, 1655, a pioneering analytic treatment of conics; Arithmetica infinitorum, 1656, a major contribution to integration and to infinite series; Commercium epistolicum, 1658, his exchange with Fermat on number theory; Treatise on Algebra, 1685, which includes a treatment of infinite series; Opera mathematica, 1693-9.
Mechanica, sive de motu tractatus geometricus, 1669-71, an important contribution to mechanics and to the treatment of percussion (though much of it is devoted to the mathematical problem of centers of gravity). A Discourse of Gravity and Gravitation (real title is in Latin), 1674. De aestu maris hypothesis nova, 1668, a theory of the tides.
He composed some papers on musical theory in Philosophical Transactions, and he editted several works on this subject.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Personal Means, Academia
Secondary: Church Life, Patronage, Schoolmastering
He inherited a substantial estate in Kent from his mother, 1643.
Ordained by the Bishop of Winchester, 1640.
Private chaplain and minister to Sir Richard Darley at Buttercrambe, Yorkshire, 1640-2.
Private chaplain and minister to the widow of Horatio Lord Vere, 1642-3.
After deciphering a coded letter for the Parliamentary authorities, Wallis was rewarded with the sequestered living of St. Gabriel, London. He exchanged this living for St. Martin in Ironmonger Lane in 1647.
Secretary to the Westminster Assembly of Divines, 1644.
Fellowship at Queen's College, Cambridge, 1644-5.
Savilian Professor of geometry at Oxford, 1649-1703.
Custos archivarum to the University, Oxford, 1658-1703.
Royal chaplain to the King, 1660.
Appointed to commission to revise the prayer-book, c.1660.
For instructing the deaf mute Alexander Popham he received 100 per year for a period.
8. Patronage
Types: Gentry, Government Official, Court Official, Eccesiastic Official
See Darley and Lady Vere above. Sir Horace Vere had been a military commander; I count him as gentry.
Wallis owed his benefices in London, the fellowship at Queen's, and the professorship and position at the university archives at Oxford to the Parliamentary authorities (categorized as governmental officials). The appointment as Custos archivorum was a matter of bitter commentary in Oxford, as a royalist, whom the university community regarded as the rightful appointment, was passed over. Although Wallis' appointment must have been due to his standing as a Puritan and Parliamentarian, it is not clear precisely whose influence stood behind it.
I list the appointment as secretary to the Westminster assembly under ecclesiastical official.
Appointed royal chaplain to Charles II, 1660.
Queen Mary II offered him the deanery of Hereford, which he declined.
Though a prolific publisher, Wallis did not generally use dedications for patronage. Rather the vast majority of dedications were to scientific and academic peers--Oughtred, Rooke, Ward, Brouncker, Boyle, Moray, Hevelius, four heads of colleges in Oxford. (These dedications might bear examination.) He did dedicate Claudii Ptolemei harmonicarum libri tres, 1682, to Charles II and Opera mathematica, 1693- 9, to William III.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: None
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Royal Society
Informal Connections: Intimate friendship with Thomas Smith, John Collins, Edmond Halley, Samuel Pepys.
Connections with Fermat, Brouncker, Frenicle, David Gregory, and Schooten.
Scriba has published a very useful index of Wallis' extensive correspondence, over 800 letters excluding those on theology and university affairs.
He quarreled with Hobbes, Henry Stubbe, Lewis Maydwell and Fermat.
He was one of the so-called Invisible College in London in the 40s and then of the Oxford Circle that succeeded it. Later he was President of the Oxford Philosophical Society, 1684-8.
Royal Society, 1660; President, 1680.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 20, 598-602. Biographia Britannica, 1st ed. (London, 1747-66), 6.2, 4115-37.
  2. J.F. Scott, The mathematical Work of John Wallis, D.D., F.R.S.
  3. (1616-1703), (London, 1938).
  4. _____, "The Reverend John Wallis, F.R.S. (1616-1703)" Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 15 (1960), 57-67.
  5. C.J. Scriba, "A Tentative Index of the Correspondence of John Wallis, F.R.S.," Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 22 (1967), 58-93.
  6. _____, "The Autobiography of John Wallis, F.R.S.," Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 25 (1970), 17-46.
  7. G. Udny Yule, "John Wallis, D.D., F.R.S. (1616-1703)," Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 2 (1939), 74-82.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. C.J. Scriba, Studien zur Mathematik des John Wallis (1616-1703).
  2. Winketeilungen, Kombinationslehre and zahlentheoretische Probleme, (Wiesbaden, 1966).
  3. _____, Introduction to Wallis, Opera mathematica, (Hildesheim, 1972).
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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