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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:

Notata phys: et math: London ..., 1697

Identifier: Coll-33/Quarto A [78]
Scope and Contents Notes on scientific matters, many of them discussed with Newton, such as why the brachistochrone curve is a cycloid and how a musical chord can have the figure of a catenaria, and a record of curiosities, such as the toads of Surinam, who breed their young on their backs, and floors that can be secured made with dovetails instead of nails.
Dates: 1697

Notata phys: et math: London ..., 1698-1705

Identifier: Coll-33/Quarto A [80]
Scope and Contents Almost certainly a latter part of Gregory's item 80: 'Notata Phys: et Math: D.G. Lond: 25 June &c 1698'. This covers cone sections, elements of Euclid, errata in a Halley treatment of comets in his own Apollonius project, and a jotting on Scottish history bibliography.
Dates: 1698-1705

Notes on priority, 1707

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio E [038]
Scope and Contents This small slip bears what appears to be ammunition in Gregory's defence of his uncle James Gregorie against old charges of plagiarism. The confusing reference to "Actis Phil. Septemb. & Decemb. 1797" is a slip of the pen. The material appeared in the Acta of 1707.
Dates: 1707

Observ: Eclipsos Lunaris Oxon 19 Octr 1697 et [Mercury] in [the Sun] 24 Oct 1697, October 1697, with 2 apparently attached documents from 17041693

Identifier: Coll-33/Quarto A [28]
Scope and Contents Two straightforward records of planetary eclipses, but meant, on palaeographic evidence, to be kept with a draft and a fair copy of a subsequent Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society article [Vol. XXIV, No. 293, for September-October 1704, p1704] about the Cassini curve, a model of how a periodic comet probably orbits. Folding and fading of these documents suggest that they were inserted not long after David Gregory generated his index of Quarto A (which he drew up around 1700)....
Dates: October 1697, with 2 apparently attached documents from 17041693

Observata et dicta apud D. Hugenium, 06 June 1693

Identifier: Coll-33/Quarto A [4]
Scope and Contents Notes of a conversation in Holland with Christian Huygens, concerning an 'horologium' to show hours, months, years, and planetary positions. More general mention of the work of numerous other scientists: Notably, Huygens disputes the notion of John Bernoulli (James Bernoulli's younger brother) that the curve of an inflated sail is part-catenary and part-circle, and warns that Newton ought not to be 'deflected' into theology or chemistry.
Dates: 06 June 1693

Oratio de Mundi systemate contra Cartesiones, 1690

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [189]
Scope and Contents Graduation speech, in Gregory's hand, of one John Falconer. This young man may have been related to the Falconer who secured Lord Tarbat's interest for Gregory over the dreaded Visitation.
Dates: 1690

Oratio de Quadr: Lunale Hypocratis, 1690

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [190]
Scope and Contents Graduation speech, in Gregory's hand, of one Laurence Oliphant. This young man may have been Gregory's future brother-in-law.

The subject is Hyppocrates' lunula. Two documents on the same subject come before this, no doubt as supporting notes. One is the draft of a letter from Gregory to Wallis, referring to a 1687 article by Tchirnhausen in the Leipzig Acta, the other, a transcript of that article.
Dates: 1690

Ordo in Mathes. docenda..., 1697

Identifier: Coll-33/Quarto A [68]
Scope and Contents An address in Balliol College about how mathematics should be taught.
Dates: 1697

Papers of David Gregory

Identifier: Coll-33
Scope and Contents The papers of David Gregory consist of: bound manuscripts of mathematical and personal papers by both David Gregory and James Gregory bound manuscripts Lectiones Mechanicae Sive Geometria de Motu parts 1-4 (1689-1690) bound manuscripts of treatises on mathematics and astronomy (1683-1694) bound manuscripts Notae in...
Dates: 1652-1706

Pars Probl: veterum, 28 August 1680

Identifier: Coll-33/Folio C [96]
Scope and Contents Gregory's solution to a very ancient problem about parabolae and their asymtotes.
Dates: 28 August 1680