1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hamilton, Sir William Rowan
HAMILTON, SIR WILLIAM ROWAN (1805–1865), Scottish mathematician, was born in Dublin on the 4th of August 1805. His father, Archibald Hamilton, who was a solicitor, and his uncle, James Hamilton (curate of Trim), migrated from Scotland in youth. A branch of the Scottish family to which they belonged had settled in the north of Ireland in the time of James I., and this fact seems to have given rise to the common impression that Hamilton was an Irishman.
His genius first displayed itself in the form of a wonderful power of acquiring languages. At the age of seven he had already made very considerable progress in Hebrew, and before he was thirteen he had acquired, under the care of his uncle, who was an extraordinary linguist, almost as many languages as he had years of age. Among these, besides the classical and the modern European languages, were included Persian, Arabic, Hindustani, Sanskrit and even Malay. But though to the very end of his life he retained much of the singular learning of his childhood and youth, often reading Persian and Arabic in the intervals of sterner pursuits, he had long abandoned them as a study, and employed them merely as a relaxation.
His mathematical studies seem to have been undertaken and carried to their full development without any assistance whatever, and the result is that his writings belong to no particular “school,” unless indeed we consider them to form, as they are well entitled to do, a school by themselves. As an arithmetical calculator he was not only wonderfully expert, but he seems to have occasionally found a positive delight in working out to an enormous number of places of decimals the result of some irksome calculation. At the age of twelve he engaged Zerah Colburn, the American “calculating boy,” who was then being exhibited as a curiosity in Dublin, and he had not always the worst of the encounter. But, two years before, he had accidentally fallen in with a Latin copy of Euclid, which he eagerly devoured; and at twelve he attacked Newton’s Arithmetica universalis. This was his introduction to modern analysis. He soon commenced to read the Principia, and at sixteen he had mastered a great part of that work, besides some more modern works on analytical geometry and the differential calculus.
About this period he was also engaged in preparation for entrance at Trinity College, Dublin, and had therefore to devote a portion of his time to classics. In the summer of 1822, in his seventeenth year, he began a systematic study of Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste. Nothing could be better fitted to call forth such mathematical powers as those of Hamilton; for Laplace’s great work, rich to profusion in analytical processes alike novel and powerful, demands from the most gifted student careful and often laborious study. It was in the successful effort to open this treasure-house that Hamilton’s mind received its final temper, “Dès-lors il commença à marcher seul,” to use the words of the biographer of another great mathematician. From that time he appears to have devoted himself almost wholly to original investigation (so far at least as regards mathematics), though he ever kept himself well acquainted with the progress of science both in Britain and abroad.
Having detected an important defect in one of Laplace’s demonstrations, he was induced by a friend to write out his remarks, that they might be shown to Dr John Brinkley (1763-1835), afterwards bishop of Cloyne, but who was then the first royal astronomer for Ireland, and an accomplished mathematician. Brinkley seems at once to have perceived the vast talents of young Hamilton, and to have encouraged him in the kindest manner. He is said to have remarked in 1823 of this lad of eighteen: “This young man, I do not say will be, but is, the first mathematician of his age.”
Hamilton’s career at College was perhaps unexampled. Amongst a number of competitors of more than ordinary merit, he was first in every subject and at every examination. He achieved the rare distinction of obtaining an optime for both Greek and for physics. How many more such honours he might have attained it is impossible to say; but he was expected to win both the gold medals at the degree examination, had his career as a student not been cut short by an unprecedented event. This was his appointment to the Andrews professorship of astronomy in the university of Dublin, vacated by Dr Brinkley in 1827. The chair was not exactly offered to him, as has been sometimes asserted, but the electors, having met and talked over the subject, authorized one of their number, who was Hamilton’s personal friend, to urge him to become a candidate, a step which his modesty had prevented him from taking. Thus, when barely twenty-two, he was established at the Observatory, Dunsink, near Dublin. He was not specially fitted for the post, for although he had a profound acquaintance with theoretical astronomy, he had paid but little attention to the regular work of the practical astronomer. And it must be said that his time was better employed in original investigations than it would have been had he spent it in observations made even with the best of instruments,—infinitely better than if he had spent it on those of the observatory, which, however good originally, were then totally unfit for the delicate requirements of modern astronomy. Indeed there can be little doubt that Hamilton was intended by the university authorities who elected him to the professorship of astronomy to spend his time as he best could for the advancement of science, without being tied down to any particular branch. Had he devoted himself to practical astronomy they would assuredly have furnished him with modern instruments and an adequate staff of assistants.
In 1835, being secretary to the meeting of the British Association which was held that year in Dublin, he was knighted by the lord-lieutenant. But far higher honours rapidly succeeded, among which we may merely mention his election in 1837 to the president’s chair in the Royal Irish Academy, and the rare distinction of being made corresponding member of the academy of St Petersburg. These are the few salient points (other, of course, than the epochs of his more important discoveries and inventions presently to be considered) in the uneventful life of this great man. He retained his wonderful faculties unimpaired to the very last, and steadily continued till within a day or two of his death, which occurred on the 2nd of September 1865, the task (his Elements of Quaternions) which had occupied the last six years of his life.
The germ of his first great discovery was contained in one of those early papers which in 1823 he communicated to Dr Brinkley, by whom, under the title of “Caustics,” it was presented in 1824 to the Royal Irish Academy. It was referred as usual to a committee. Their report, while acknowledging the novelty and value of its
contents, and the great mathematical skill of its author, recommended that, before being published, it should be still further developed and simplified. During the next three years the paper grew to an immense bulk, principally by the additional details which had been inserted at the desire of the committee. But it also assumed a much more intelligible form, and the grand features of the new method were now easily to be seen. Hamilton himself seems not till this period to have fully understood either the nature or the importance of his discovery, for it is only now that we find him announcing his intention of applying his method to dynamics. The paper was finally entitled “Theory of Systems of Rays,” and the first part was printed in 1828 in the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy. It is understood that the more important contents of the second and third parts appeared in the three voluminous supplements (to the first part) which were published in the same Transactions, and in the two papers “On a General Method in Dynamics,” which appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1834–1835. The principle of “Varying Action” is the great feature of these papers; and it is strange, indeed, that the one particular result of this theory which, perhaps more than anything else that Hamilton has done, has rendered his name known beyond the little world of true philosophers, should have been easily within the reach of Augustin Fresnel and others for many years before, and in no way required Hamilton’s new conceptions or methods, although it was by them that he was led to its discovery. This singular result is still known by the name “conical refraction,” which he proposed for it when he first predicted its existence in the third supplement to his “Systems of Rays,” read in 1832.
The step from optics to dynamics in the application of the method of “Varying Action” was made in 1827, and communicated to the Royal Society, in whose Philosophical Transactions for 1834 and 1835 there are two papers on the subject. These display, like the “Systems of Rays,” a mastery over symbols and a flow of mathematical language almost unequalled. But they contain what is far more valuable still, the greatest addition which dynamical science had received since the grand strides made by Sir Isaac Newton and Joseph Louis Lagrange. C. G. J. Jacobi and other mathematicians have developed to a great extent, and as a question of pure mathematics only, Hamilton’s processes, and have thus made extensive additions to our knowledge of differential equations. But there can be little doubt that we have as yet obtained only a mere glimpse of the vast physical results of which they contain the germ. And though this is of course by far the more valuable aspect in which any such contribution to science can be looked at, the other must not be despised. It is characteristic of most of Hamilton’s, as of nearly all great discoveries, that even their indirect consequences are of high value.
The other great contribution made by Hamilton to mathematical science, the invention of Quaternions, is treated under that heading. The following characteristic extract from a letter shows Hamilton’s own opinion of his mathematical work, and also gives a hint of the devices which he employed to render written language as expressive as actual speech. His first great work, Lectures on Quaternions (Dublin, 1852), is almost painful to read in consequence of the frequent use of italics and capitals.
“I hope that it may not be considered as unpardonable vanity or presumption on my part, if, as my own taste has always led me to feel a greater interest in methods than in results, so it is by methods, rather than by any theorems, which can be separately quoted, that I desire and hope to be remembered. Nevertheless it is only human nature, to derive some pleasure from being cited, now and then, even about a ‘Theorem’; especially where ... the quoter can enrich the subject, by combining it with researches of his own.”
The discoveries, papers and treatises we have mentioned might well have formed the whole work of a long and laborious life. But not to speak of his enormous collection of MS. books, full to overflowing with new and original matter, which have been handed over to Trinity College, Dublin, the works we have already called attention to barely form the greater portion of what he has published. His extraordinary investigations connected with the solution of algebraic equations of the fifth degree, and his examination of the results arrived at by N. H. Abel, G. B. Jerrard, and others in their researches on this subject, form another grand contribution to science. There is next his great paper on Fluctuating Functions, a subject which, since the time of J. Fourier, has been of immense and ever increasing value in physical applications of mathematics. There is also the extremely ingenious invention of the hodograph. Of his extensive investigations into the solution (especially by numerical approximation) of certain classes of differential equations which constantly occur in the treatment of physical questions, only a few items have been published, at intervals, in the Philosophical Magazine. Besides all this, Hamilton was a voluminous correspondent. Often a single letter of his occupied from fifty to a hundred or more closely written pages, all devoted to the minute consideration of every feature of some particular problem; for it was one of the peculiar characteristics of his mind never to be satisfied with a general understanding of a question; he pursued it until he knew it in all its details. He was ever courteous and kind in answering applications for assistance in the study of his works, even when his compliance must have cost him much time. He was excessively precise and hard to please with reference to the final polish of his own works for publication; and it was probably for this reason that he published so little compared with the extent of his investigations.
Like most men of great originality, Hamilton generally matured his ideas before putting pen to paper. “He used to carry on,” says his elder son, William Edwin Hamilton, “long trains of algebraical and arithmetical calculations in his mind, during which he was unconscious of the earthly necessity of eating; we used to bring in a ’snack’ and leave it in his study, but a brief nod of recognition of the intrusion of the chop or cutlet was often the only result, and his thoughts went on soaring upwards.”
For further details about Hamilton (his poetry and his association with poets, for instance) the reader is referred to the Dublin University Magazine (Jan. 1842), the Gentleman’s Magazine (Jan. 1866), and the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (Feb. 1866); and also to an article by the present writer in the North British Review (Sept. 1866), from which much of the above sketch has been taken. His works have been collected and published by R. P. Graves, Life of Sir W. R. Hamilton (3 vols., 1882, 1885, 1889).