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Gregory, David, 1659-1708 (professor of mathematics, University of Edinburgh, and Savilian Professor of Astronomy, University of Oxford)


David Gregory (1659-1708), astronomer and mathematician, was the first university professor to teach astronomy in the language of Newtonian gravitation. He is famous for his influential textbook, Astronomiae Physicae et Geometricae Elementa, (1702). Having studied a while at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and without graduating, Gregory took the Mathematics Chair at Edinburgh University in 1683, by unseating the incumbent there in a series of public debates. It helped that the chair had been occupied briefly some years before by his esteemed uncle, James Gregorie (1638-1675). David was awarded a hasty MA for decorum's sake, even though he had never studied in Edinburgh, and taught for seven years. His lecture notes show that he covered a broad range of subjects, some of them not in mathematics. He also taught a little optics, mechanics, hydrostatics, and even anatomy, from Galen. His first significant publication was in 1684, the Exercitatio geometrica de dimensione figurarum , in which he extended his uncle's work on the method of quadratures by infinite series.
In 1689 there sprang bad blood between the university masters and their paymasters, the city council, initially having to do with pay cuts and treacherous electioneering. There quickly developed a web of sleights and grudges, in the course of which Gregory was libelled before the new Hanoverian committee of visitation as it toured all the Scottish educational bodies following the recent change of government. He was said to be a violent, drunken atheist, who kept women in his chambers and once visited a prisoner in the Canongate tollbooth; worse, he was a superficial teacher and a crypto-Cartesian. Surrounded by influential friends, and not holding any demonstrably radical views in politics, science, or deportment, he was finally not dismissed from the faculty as many of his colleagues were, nor even required to swear the oath of allegiance to the Hanoverian monarchy or the religious Confession of Faith either.
Yet by 1691 he saw fit to cadge a fresh appointment comfortably far away, in Oxford. This was the Savilian Chair of Astronomy. In its pursuit he came to know personally the figures with whom he had lately been in professional correspondence, like Isaac Newton (1642-1727), Edmond Halley (1656-1742), and John Flamsteed (1646-1719), the first Astronomer Royal. He was given another MA to suit the post, and a desultory MD; he was elected to the Royal Society, and appointed a master commoner of Balliol College. He spent the rest of his life as Savilian Professor, where he became something of an evangelist for Newtonian science among the Cartesians. He even troubled to travel to the continent, to exchange views with prominent colleagues like Jan Hudde (1628-1704) and Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695). He quarrelled occasionally with Newton and Halley over various points of research, and with Flamsteed over tutoring maths in the Duke of Gloucester's household, but generally carried on very productively.
His Edinburgh lectures he retooled by 1695 into the enduringly influential optics textbook, Catoptricae et dioptricae sphaericae elementa, whose special contribution was to propose an achromatic telescope, whose combined lenses ought to counteract colour aberrations. By 1702 his principle work went to press, the remarkable Astronomiae physicae et geometricae elementa. This was the first textbook to cast astronomy completely in the alloy of Newtonian gravitational principles. Newton himself assisted with the work, which at least one publisher immodestly declared would 'last as long as the sun and the moon'. It certainly lasted most of the eighteenth century. His final big publication was a joint edition of Euclid, which appeared in 1703. All through his career he complemented his monographs with a steady flow of journal articles and published correspondence in mathematics and astronomy; his special interests included the catenary curve, eclipses, the contemporary 'parallax problem', and the very famous Cassinian orbital model for heavenly bodies.
Late in his life, in 1707, the Act of Union between Scotland and England effectively ended Gregory's studies, calling him away from his work on an edition of Apollonius (eventually finished by Halley), and setting him to work instead on rationalising the Scottish Mint, even as Newton was doing at the London Mint, and on calculating the enormously complex 'Equivalent', a payment to Scotland to offset new customs and excise duties. His health failed him during his extensive official travelling. David Gregory died in a Maidenhead inn a year later. David Gregory was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1692 and was made honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1705.

Found in 147 Collections and/or Records:

A Theoreme Concerning Dice, s.d.

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [49]
Scope and Contents A jotting on game theory.
Dates: s.d.

Ad Cartesis Specia ... sectionibus Coni, 1680

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [134]
Scope and Contents Notes on Cartesian cone sections, written out during Gregory's stay in Rotterdam.

The item going before, also labelled 134, may actually be 133 (or part of it), which was supposed to have been a treatment by James Gregory on hyperbolae, nautical spirals, and other things. It treats of a hyperbola, at least. Its hand is not David's, but neither is it the hand of item C 136, in James' familiar hand.
Dates: 1680

Ad Jo: De Witt Elem: Curvarum, 1680

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [88]
Scope and Contents A demonstratio on one of de Witt's notes on Schooten's 1659 Latin edition of Descartes' Geometria. Unrelated jottings on reverse are in a hand other than Gregory's.
Dates: 1680

Ad Pag. 23. Geom: Cartes: Notula, 1680

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [99]
Scope and Contents A difficulty in Descartes, probably written up in Rotterdam.
Dates: 1680

Ad pag: 221. Newtoni Nota, May 1694

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [46]
Scope and Contents Gregory's attempt to work out corollary 2 to Newton's proposition 91, from book 1 of the Principia, which compared the ratio of the attraction of a sphere to that of a spheroid, using the integration of the square root of a trinomial.
Dates: May 1694

Ad Philosophiam Neutoni Nota, 15 September 1693

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [181]
Scope and Contents For Gregory's Nota to Newton's Principia. One of several attempts (see C46, C60, and C63) to understand Newton's corollary 2 to proposition 91, book 1, which discovered the ratio of the attraction of a shpere to that of a spheroid, and involved the integration of the square root of a trinomial.
Dates: 15 September 1693

Adnotata et contenta quaedam in Actis Lipsicis, 1692

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [35]
Scope and Contents A record of interesting articles in the Acta between about 1681 and 1692.
Dates: 1692

Adnotata ... ex Newtone, May 1694

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [43]
Scope and Contents Notes of some of the consultations with Newton in Cambridge from the 4th to the 8th of May, 1694. The topics of those talks included astronomy, mechanics, physics and mathematics. The mathematical topics included conic radii, conjugates of curves, the polar coordinates of an orbit, and the form of the solid of least resistance.
Dates: May 1694

Adnotata Phys: et Math: de Newtono 1698..., 1698

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [62]
Scope and Contents Thoughts on Newton's theory of the moon. Gregory notes Fatio's success in deriving the inverse square law, and Flamsteed's refusal to supply orbital data.
Dates: 1698

Aenigma Florentinum. Dav: Gregorii M.S. in Trans: Philos, 1694

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [67]
Scope and Contents One of three drafts of a paper to solve the famous problem of drawing in a hemispherical dome four apposing windows, so that, when these were removed, the remaining surface of the dome could be exactly measured.
Dates: 1694