1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Maclaurin, Colin

MACLAURIN, COLIN (1698–1746), Scottish mathematician, was the son of a clergyman, and born at Kilmodan, Argyllshire. In 1709 he entered the university of Glasgow, where he exhibited a decided genius for mathematics, more especially for geometry; it is said that before the end of his sixteenth year he had discovered many of the theorems afterwards published in his Geometria organica. In 1717 he was elected professor of mathematics in Marischal College, Aberdeen, as the result of a competitive examination. Two years later he was admitted F.R.S. and made the acquaintance of Sir Isaac Newton. In 1719 he published his Geometria organica, sive descriptio linearum curvarum universalis. In it Maclaurin developed several theorems due to Newton, and introduced the method of generating conics which bears his name, and showed that many curves of the third and fourth degrees can be described by the intersection of two movable angles. In 1721 he wrote a supplement to the Geometria organica, which he afterwards published, with extensions, in the Philosophical Transactions for 1735. This paper is principally based on the following general theorem, which is a remarkable extension of Pascal’s hexagram: “If a polygon move so that each of its sides passes through a fixed point, and if all its summits except one describe curves of the degrees m, n, p, &c., respectively, then the free summit moves on a curve of the degree 2mnp . . . . which reduces to mnp . . . . when the fixed points all lie on a right line.” In 1722 Maclaurin travelled as tutor and companion to the eldest son of Lord Polwarth, and after a short stay in Paris resided for some time in Lorraine, where he wrote an essay on the percussion of bodies, which obtained the prize of the French Academy of Sciences for the year 1724. The following year he was elected professor of mathematics in the university of Edinburgh on the urgent recommendation of Newton. After the death of Newton, in 1728, his nephew, John Conduitt, applied to Maclaurin for his assistance in publishing an account of Newton’s life and discoveries. This Maclaurin gladly undertook, but the death of Conduitt put a stop to the project.

In 1740 Maclaurin divided with Leonhard Euler and Daniel Bernoulli the prize offered by the French Academy of Sciences for an essay on tides. His Treatise on Fluxions was published at Edinburgh in 1742, in two volumes. In the preface he states that the work was undertaken in consequence of the attack on the method of fluxions made by George Berkeley in 1734. Maclaurin’s object was to found the doctrine of fluxions on geometrical demonstration, and thus to answer all objections to its method as being founded on false reasoning and full of mystery. The most valuable part of the work is that devoted to physical applications, in which he embodied his essay on the tides. In this he showed that a homogeneous fluid mass revolving uniformly round an axis under the action of gravity ought to assume the form of an ellipsoid of revolution. The importance of this investigation in connexion with the theory of the tides, the figure of the earth, and other kindred questions, has always caused it to be regarded as one of the great problems of mathematical physics. Maclaurin was the first to introduce into mechanics, in this discussion, the important conception of surfaces of level; namely, surfaces at each of whose points the total force acts in the normal direction. He also gave in his Fluxions, for the first time, the correct theory for distinguishing between maxima and minima in general, and pointed out the importance of the distinction in the theory of the multiple points of curves. In 1745, when the rebels were marching on Edinburgh, Maclaurin took a most prominent part in preparing trenches and barricades for its defence. The anxiety, fatigue and cold to which he was thus exposed, affecting a constitution naturally weak, laid the foundation of the disease to which he afterwards succumbed. As soon as the rebel army got possession of Edinburgh Maclaurin fled to England, to avoid making submission to the Pretender. He accepted the invitation of T. Herring, then archbishop of York, with whom he remained until it was safe to return to Edinburgh. He died of dropsy on the 14th of June 1746, at Edinburgh. Maclaurin was married in 1733 to Anne, daughter of Walter Stewart, solicitor-general for Scotland. His eldest son John, born in 1734, was distinguished as an advocate, and appointed one of the judges of the Scottish court of session, with the title of Lord Dreghorn. He inherited an attachment to scientific discovery, and was one of the founders of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in 1782.

After Maclaurin’s death his account of Newton’s philosophical discoveries was published by Patrick Murdoch, and also his algebra in 1748. As an appendix to the latter appeared his De linearum geometricarum proprietatibus generalibus tractatus, a treatise of remarkable elegance. Of the more immediate successors of Newton in Great Britain Maclaurin is probably the only one who can be placed in competition with the great mathematicians of the continent of Europe at the time.  (B. W.)