Ashford’s Mathematical Genius

inifinity necklace
Infinity Pendant

Who knew that a small item in my jewellery box would link me, in no particular order, to Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, Samuel Pepys, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Gottfried Liebniz, Christopher Wren, Christiaan Huygens and Geoffrey Kneller?  And, before any of them, to a key figure in Ashford’s heritage.

John Wallis birthplace 3
The College: John Wallis’s birthplace

John Wallis was born at the College, the vicar’s home, in the heart of Ashford, next to St Mary’s church.  He was the third of five children of the Reverend John Wallis and his wife, Joanna Chapman.  Initially, he was educated at a school in Ashford but, after his father died when he was 6 and the plague came to East Kent, he was schooled in Tenterden and then at Felsted School, Essex, where four of Cromwell’s sons were also educated.

In December 1631, his brother introduced him to maths.   “Mathematics, at that time with us, were scarce looked on as academical studies, but rather mechanical – as the business of traders, merchants, seamen, carpenters, surveyors of lands and the like ... suited my humour so well that I did thenceforth prosecute it, not as a formal study, but as a pleasing diversion at spare hours …”.

John Wallis 2
John Wallis

His family wished him to become a doctor and, consequently, he was sent to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1632 (where he was a contemporary of John Harvard, of Harvard University).  He did produce an influential doctrine on the circulation of the blood, but his real interest lay in mathematics.  He gained his Master’s degree in 1640 and worked at the Westminster Assembly and then at Queen’s College Cambridge, before having to resign to marry Susanna Glyde (fellows could not be married) on 14th March 1645.  In London he was part of a group of scientists (including Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and Samuel Pepys) to form what would eventually become the Royal Society.

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell

During this period, Wallis had been a firm supporter of Cromwell’s Parliamentarian party in the English Civil War.  One evening at supper, a coded letter was brought in, which related to the capture of Chichester on 27th December 1642.  Wallis succeeded in deciphering it in two hours.  He became an expert in the cryptologic art, still then in its infancy, and used it to further the Parliamentary Party cause.  He also refused Gottfried Leibniz’s request, in 1697, to teach cryptography to Hanoverian students in case foreign powers could use it against England.


John Wallis 1
John Wallis

He was appointed to the Savilian Chair of geometry at Oxford in 1649 by Cromwell who held Wallis in high regard, not just for his political views but also for his scholarship. Wallis held the Chair for over 50 years until his death and also became Keeper of the University Archives.  Controversy surrounded these appointments because it was felt he had won them simply through his friendship with Cromwell.  Yet, he clearly had a formidable intellect and prodigious memory.  And his friendship with Cromwell didn’t prevent him from speaking out against the execution of Charles I, signing a document opposing the execution in 1648.  In 1660 when the monarchy was restored and Charles II came to the throne, Wallis had his appointment in the Savilian Chair confirmed by the King. Charles II went even further for he appointed Wallis as a royal chaplain and, in 1661, nominated him as a member of a committee set up to revise the prayer book.

Apart from his political savvy and sharp intellect, he also had a short temper, which created many enemies.

Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes

In 1655, Hobbes claimed to have discovered a method to square the circle.  Wallis’s book Arithmetica infinitorum with his methods on this subject was in press at the time and he refuted Hobbes’ claims.

Hobbes wrote: “Of those who with me have written something about these matters, either I alone am mad, or I alone am not mad.  No third option can be maintained, unless (as perchance it may seem to some) was all are mad.”

Wallis replied: “If he is mad, he is not likely to be convinced by reason; on the other hand, if we be mad, we are in no position to attempt it.”

The dispute continued for over 20 years, becoming extended to include Boyle, and ending only with Hobbes’s death.

As well as Hobbes, Wallis also had long-running disputes with Hugyens, Fermat and Descartes.

Wallis made significant contributions to trigonometry, calculus, geometry and infinitesimals: indeed, he introduced the symbol for infinity, which my pendant, above, represents.  Isaac Newton acknowledged that he had based his own discoveries upon the foundations of Wallis’s work.

Wallis also translated Latin works of Ptolemy and Bryennius, amongst others, and published his thoughts on tuning England’s church organs.  Furthermore, he published a book on English grammar in 1652.

John Wallis
Kneller’s portrait of Wallis

Samuel Pepys, friend to Wallis for over 4o years, commissioned Kneller to paint his full-length portrait to hang in the Bodleian at Oxford.

Today, the heritage of John Wallis’s contribution to education is reflected in the John Wallis Church of England Academy in Ashford … and his contribution to the life of Ashford town is represented in the eponymous pub, which is located next door to No 4 Middle Row, Ashford Town – a stone’s throw from his birthplace overlooking St Mary’s Church.


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