Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Atkinson, Henry

ATKINSON, HENRY (1781–1829), mathematician, the son of Cuthbert Atkinson, a schoolmaster, was born at Great Bavington, in Northumberland, 28 June 1781 He was educated by his father, and at an early age he began to assist in conducting Bavington school. When he reached his thirteenth year his father, considering him capable of managing that school, resigned it to his charge, and opened another at West Woodburn. These two schools were superintended by the father and son alternately. About Henry's sixteenth year his father and he quitted the school at Bavington, and opened another at West Belsay, which they continued to superintend alternately with the school at Woodburn. Henry afterwards removed to Stamfordham, where he kept a school, conjointly with his sister, for upwards of six years. Then, with his sister, he removed to the adjoining village of Hawkwell. Finally, on 14 Nov. 1808, he settled in Newcastle-on-Tyne, where he passed the remainder of his days. In that large town he speedily attained the highest rank in his profession.

Atkinson devoted his leisure to the study of scientific subjects, on which he submitted some remarkable papers to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle. His earliest contribution was entitled ‘A New Method of extracting the Roots of Equations of the Higher Orders.’ The discovery was first made by himself in 1801, and the essay was read to the society in August 1809. Many years afterwards this paper formed the basis on which its author rested his claim of priority in discovering the mode of handling equations which has been pursued by Holdred Nicholson and Horner with such marked success. In the following year Atkinson read an elaborate essay ‘On the Eclipses of Jupiter's Satellites, and on the Mode of Determining the Longitude by these Means.’ In 1811 he produced two papers—one containing ‘An Ingenious Proof of Two Curious Properties of Square Numbers,’ which Dr. Hutton spoke of in terms of high approbation, and the other ‘Demonstrating that no sensible error can arise in the theory of Falling Bodies from assuming Gravity as an uniformly accelerating Force.’ In 1813 he read an elaborate paper ‘On the Comet of 1811,’ and ‘An Essay on Proportion;’ in 1814 a paper ‘On the Difference between the Followers of Newton and Leibnitz concerning the Measure of Forces;’ and in 1815 an essay ‘On the Possibility and, if possible, on the Consequences of the Lunar Origin of Meteoric Stones.’

About this period he embraced a wider field in the course of his inquiries, and read in 1816 an essay on the ‘Nature and Con[n]ection of Cause and Effect.’ In 1818 he composed a valuable essay ‘On Truth,’ and in 1819 ‘A New Mode of investigating Equations which obtain among the Times, Distances, and Anomalies of Comets moving around the Sun, as their Centre of Attraction, in Parabolic Orbits.’ In 1821 Atkinson, who meanwhile had studied Smith's ‘Wealth of Nations’ and other treatises on political economy, read an essay ‘On the Effects produced on the different Classes of Society by an Increase or Decrease of the Price of Corn.’ In 1824 he produced a paper ‘On the Utility and probable Accuracy of the Mode of determining the Sun's Parallax by Observations on the Planet Mars near his opposition.’ This paper was subsequently presented to the Astronomical Society of London. Another paper, submitted to the Newcastle Society, was ‘On the true Principles of calculating the Refractive Powers of the Atmosphere.’ This he afterwards greatly enlarged, entitling it ‘An Essay on Astronomical and other Refraction, with a connected Enquiry into the Law of Temperature in different latitudes and at different altitudes.’ In its revised form the paper was presented to the Astronomical Society of London (1825), and it elicited very high encomiums from several of the most learned men in Europe. In 1826 Atkinson read before the society at Newcastle a long paper ‘On Suspension Bridges, and on the Possibility of the proposed Bridge between North and South Shields.’ The following year he delivered a course of lectures on astronomy. Atkinson likewise contributed solutions of many of the abstruse mathematical questions propounded in the ‘Gentlemen's Diary’ and the ‘Ladies' Diary.’

He died at Newcastle 31 Jan. 1829, and was buried in St. Andrew's churchyard.

[Memorials of his life, by Robert White, in Richardson's Local Historian's Table Book (Legendary Division), iii. 363–75; also the Historical Division of the same work, iv. 8.]

T. C.