The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VIII. The Literature of Science

§ 1. Cambridge mathematicians

THE BRILLIANT achievements of British mathematicians, astronomers and physicists under the influence of Isaac Newton were followed by a long period of comparative inactivity. This was largely due to the fact that, during a considerable part of the eighteenth century, members of the British school were, more or less, out of touch with their continental contemporaries. A free exchange of views is essential to vigour and, the more varied the outlook and training of those concerned, the more fruitful is the intercourse. The effect of this isolation, moreover, was intensified by the manner in which English writers strove in their demonstrations to follow Newtonian forms. If Newton, in his Principia, confined himself to geometrical proofs, it was because their validity was unimpeachable; and, since his results were novel, he did not wish the discussion as to their truth to turn on the methods used to demonstrate them. But his followers, long after the principles of the calculus had been accepted, continued to employ geometrical proofs, whenever it was possible, even when these did not offer the simplest and most direct way of arriving at the result.

In short, we may say that, in the course of English mathematical science, the last seventy years of the eighteenth century form a sort of isolated backwater; for this reason, it is unnecessary here to describe in detail the work of the writers of this period. We must not, however, fall into the error of thinking that, among them, there were no men ability. The investigations of Colin Maclaurin, of Edinburgh, on attractions, are excellent, and his treatise on fluxions is, perhaps, the best exposition of that method of analysis. We may also refer to the work of Thomas Simpson, of London, on the figure of the earth, tides and various astronomical problems; of John Michell, of Cambridge, who determined the law of force between magnetic poles, invented the torsion balance and devised the plan of determining the density of the earth carried out by Cavendish in 1798; of Henry Cavendish, who discovered the law of attraction in static electricity, introduced the ideas of electrostatic capacity and specific inductive capacity and determined the density of the earth by his well-known experiments; and of Joseph Priestley, who also discovered, independently of others, the law of attraction in electrostatics and the existence of oxygen; while, in observational astronomy, we need only refer to the great achievements of James Bradley and (Sir) William Herschel. In applications of science, this period and the early years of the nineteenth century were notable for the development of the steam-engine. Somewhat earlier, Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen had done much to bring it into practical use; but modern forms may be said to date from the improvements introduced by James Watt, Richard Trevithick and Henry Bell.

With the nineteenth century, a new era in the history of mathematics and theoretical physics in Great Britain opened. We shall deal here only with its main features, and, so far as possible, shall avoid technical details. Unfortunately, limits of space forbid the introduction of those biographical touches which would have added to the human interest of the story we have to tell.

The first thirty or thirty-five years of this period were largely occupied with work preparatory to the outburst of activity that characterised the Victorian renascence. Early in the nineteenth century, the use of analytical methods was introduced in the Cambridge mathematical curriculum. The advocacy of this change, originated by Robert Woodhouse, was warmly taken up by George Peacock, Charles Babbage, (Sir) John Herschel, William Whewell and (Sir) George Airy. These men worked under the influence of the great French school, of which Lagrange and Laplace are the most prominent members, and were hardly affected by their contemporaries, such as Gauss, Abel and Jacobi, who were then creating new branches of pure mathematics. In England, at the beginning of the century, Cambridge was recognised as the principal mathematical school: all the reformers were residents there, and they directed their efforts mainly to the introduction of a free use of analysis in the university course of study. They were successful; and, by 1830, the fluxional and geometrical methods of the eighteenth century had fallen into disuse. The leadership of Cambridge in this change was undisputed, and the employment of analytical methods became usual throughout Great Britain.

In these years, a good deal of interesting work in physics and chemistry was done in London, where the Royal Institution in its laboratories offered far better opportunities for research than any similar body in Britain. In connection with this society, we may mention the work of Thomas Young, whose investigations on wave motion prepared the way for the acceptance of the undulatory theory of light, and we may associate with him the names of (Count) Rumford and (Sir) David Brewster; optics and heat being the subjects to which their special attention was directed. At the same time, John Dalton, in Manchester, was studying the expansion of gases under varying changes of pressure and temperature, and the tension of vapours.