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Whiston, William

1. Dates
Born: Norton, Leicestershire, 9 Dec. 1667
Died: Lyndon, Rutland, 22 Aug. 1752
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 85
2. Father
Occupation: Cleric
Josiah Whiston was the Rector of Norton.
No information on financial status, although there is some indication that the family was in financial straits after the death of the father in 1686, when Whiston was nineteen. He went to Cambridge that year as a sizar.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Cambridge, M.A.
School at Tamworth in Warwickshire.
Cambridge University, Clare Hall, 1686-93; B.A., 1690; M.A., 1693.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican, Heterodox
At the time he was ordained Whiston was nearly a nonjuror. During the following fifteen years he moved over into Arianism. Because he was not formally excommunicated, he nevertheless remained an Anglican until 1747, when he left the church and became a Baptist.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Astronomy, Natural Philosophy, Navigation
Subordinate: Mathematics
A New Theory of the Earth, 1696, attempted to explain the Mosaic account of creation and especially the flood by naturalistic, Newtonian principles, calling upon a comet for the deluge.
Praelectiones astronomicae, 1707, and Praelectiones physio-mathematicae, 1710; the latter expecially was a general work on Newtonian natural philosophy.
From 1713-44 Whiston was almost constantly engaged with a variety of methods to establish longitude at sea.
Whiston published a number of mathematical treatises aimed at students--an edition of Euclid, 1703, and Newton's Arithmetica universalis, 1707.
Astonomical Principles of Religion, Natural and Revealed, 1717.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Academia, Patronage, Schoolmastering
Secondary: Church Life, Personal Means, Publishing
He inherited a small farm from his father.
Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge, 1691-8.
After his M.A. he was for a time tutor to the nephew of John Tillotson.
Ordained in 1693, he became Chaplain to John Moore, Bishop of Norwich, 1694-8.
Vicar of Lowestoft and Kessingland, Suffolk, 1698-1701, with income of 120.
Newton's substitute lecturer in mathematics at Cambridge, 1701-3.
Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, 1703-10. In 1710 he was driven from the university for openly and stridently adopting Arianism.
After he was dismissed from the university, Whiston subsisted by a variety of means. He made much of his living from public lectures on science in London and elsewhere and teaching mathematics to young gentlemen. He received gifts from friends and patrons. There was an annuity of 40 from Queen Caroline, later from George II, and somewhat later in Whiston's life another of 20 from Sir Joseph Jekyll, Master of the Rolls. Mr. John Bromley gave him a major gift that Whiston acknowledged. Public subscriptions were raised to reward him: 470 in 1721, and another of indeterminate size in 1740.
Thomas Barker, a squire in Rutland whose son married Whiston's daughter, became Whiston's patron. His estate, Lyndon Hall, became a second home to the Whiston family; Whiston spent the final four years of his life there, and there he died.
Whiston published for income, in the early 18th century when this was first becoming seriously possible--e.g., a flyer on the solar eclipse of 1715, a pamphlet describing his instrument that he called the Copernicus, a pamphlet on striking atmospheric phenomena.
I could list two other minor sources of income. He sold instruments, especially the Copernicus, at his home. And in 1742 he received a grant of 500 from the Board of Longitude to conduct a survey of the coasts of England.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Gentry, Scientist, Aristrocrat, Eccesiastic Official
See above for Court and Gentry.
He owed his ecclesiastical positions to John Moore, Bishop of Norwich. To him he dedicated a theological book in 1702.
Whiston dedicated his first book, the New Theory, to Newton, and Newton was instrumental in his nomination to the Lucasian professorship. Later he dedicated Astronomical Principles of Relgion to Newton.
He received support from various Whig grandees. About 1711, 50 from Lady Caverly.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Navigation, Cartography, Instruments
The proposal of Whiston and Humphrey Ditton in 1714 led to the Longitude Act by Parliament. That proposal depended on the velocity of sound and the firing of rockets from places of established longitude that could be seen and then heard. Later he tried the dipping needle, solar eclipses, and the satellites of Jupiter.
In 1714-15 Whiston had serious plans for a survey of the whole of England, using his method to determine longitude via the velocity of sound. In connection with his last method to determine longitude he undertook a survey of the coasts of England; it resulted in an accurate chart of the English Channel published in 1742.
He invented an instrument that he called the Copernicus, a sort of elaborated armillary sphere by which he could find the conjunctions of heavenly bodies (primarily eclipses) both at times past and in the future. There was in addition his specially designed dipping needle, and a special telescope with a special platform for observing the satellites of Jupiter at sea.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Informal Connections: Friendship with Newton, at least for a time until his public espousal of religious views Newton strove to keep secret led to estrangement. (Along with all the rest, he was permitted to publish Newton's Arithmetica Universalis.)
Whiston was nominated for the Royal Society in 1720, but rejected by Newton (who was by then alienated from him).
Friendship with Richard Laughton, and Thomas Bray. Cooperation with Roger Cotes, and Humphrey Ditton. Intimate friendship with Samuel Clarke. Correspondence as well with Halley and Flamsteed.
  1. Biographia Britannica, 6.2, 4202-16.
  2. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 21, 10-14. James Force, William Whiston: Honest Newtonian, (Cambridge, 1985). This is the best source on Whiston. Maureen Farrell, The Life and Work of William Whiston, (New York, 1981). E.G.R. Taylor, The Mathematical Practitioners of Tudor & Stuart England, (Cambridge, 1954), p. 285.
  3. On Whiston's income after Cambridge, see James P. Ferguson, An Eighteenth Century Heretic, Dr. Samuel Clarke, (Kineton, 1976), p. 214. Larry Stewart, The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. E.R. Briggs, "English Socinianism around Newton and Whiston," Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 216 (1983), 48-50.
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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