Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Briggs, Henry (1561-1630)

BRIGGS, HENRY (1561–1630), mathematician, was born at Warley Wood, in the parish of Halifax, Yorkshire, in February 1560-1, according to the entry in the Halifax parish register. It has been stated, on the authority of Blomefield's ' Topographical History of Norfolk,' that Briggs was 'descended from the ancient family of that name at Salle in Norfolk;' but the pedigrees given by Blomefield have been described as untrustworthy (see discussion of pedigree in Notes and Queries, 5th ser. vii. 507). There is evidence, however, that Richard Briggs, the brother of Henry Briggs, became sub-master and afterwards head-master of Norfolk school. He was a personal friend of Ben Jonson; 'an original letter of Ben Jonson, written in the corner of Farnaby's edition of Martial,' and addressed 'Amico summo D. Rich. Briggesio,' is to be found in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' for 1786 (i. 378). William Briggs [q.v.], as has been conjectured, may have been the grandson of Richard. Henry Briggs was sent from a grammar school in the vicinity of Warley to St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1577. He became scholar in 1579, took the degree of B.A. in 1681, and that of M.A. in 1585. In 1588 he was made fellow of his college, examiner and lecturer in 1592, and soon after 'Reader of the Physic Lecture founded by Dr. Linacre.' When Gresham College was founded in London, he became professor of geometry there. After holding this professorship for twenty-three years (from 1596 to 1619) Briggs accepted, at the request of Sir Henry Savile, the professorship of astronomy at Oxford which he had founded and had himself held for some time. At his last lecture Savile took leave of his audience with a very high commendation of his successor. For a little time Briggs continued to hold the professorship at Gresham College, but resigned it in 1620 (25 July). Upon his appointment as Savilian professor, he was admitted a fellow-commoner of Merton College, and was incorporated M.A. He had formed a friendship with James Ussher, afterwards archbishop of Armagh, in 1609. Two letters of Briggs to Ussher are in 'Archbishop Ussher's Letters,' Nos. 4 and 16, London, 1686, folio. In the first of them (dated August 1610) he describes himself as being engaged on the subject of eclipses: and in the second (10 March 1615) as being 'wholly employed about the noble invention of logarithms, then lately discovered.' On hearing of Napier's discovery he had been struck with enthusiasm, and in 1616 he went to Scotland to visit Napier. An interesting account of the first interview between Briggs and Napier is given by William Lilly, the astrologer, in his 'History of his Life and Times.' When the two great mathematicians met, Lilly says, 'almost one quarter of an hour was spent, each beholding other almost with admiration, before one word was spoke. At last Mr. Briggs began, "My Lord, I have undertaken this journey purposely to see your person, and to know by what engine of wit or ingenuity you came first to think of this most excellent help unto astronomy, viz. the logarithms; but, my Lord, being by you found out, I wonder nobody else found it out before, when now known it is so easy."' Lilly goes on to say that Napier ' was a great lover of astrology, but Briggs the most satirical man against it that hath been known' (Lilly, History of his Life and Times, pp. 154-6). On another occasion, being asked for his opinion of judicial astrology, Briggs is said o have described it as ' a system of groundless conceits.'

Briggs died at Merton College 26 Jan. 1630-1. A Greek epitaph was written on him by Henry Jacob, one of the fellows of Merton, which ends by saying that his soul still astronomises and his body geometrises. He was buried in the college chapel, under a stone marked only by his name. From the references to him by his contemporaries it is evident that he was a man of amiable character. Several panegyrics of him are collected in the 'Biographia Britannica.'

In the various visits of Briggs to Napier the improvements afterwards made in logarithms by Briggs were agreed on between them. The idea of tables of logarithms having 10 for their base, as well as the actual calculation of the first tables of this kind, is due to Briggs. The discussions between Briggs and Napier referred to the methods of calculation that were to be adopted in carrying out Briggs's suggestion for the better adaptation of Napier's discovery to the construction of tables.

The following is a list of the published works of Briggs:

  1. 'A Table to find the Height of the Pole, the Magnetical Declination being given.' This table was for an instrument described by Dr. Gilbert, and was published by Blundeviile in his 'Theoriques of the Seven Planets,' London, 1602.
  2. 'Tables for the Improvement of Navigation,' printed in the second edition of Edward Wright's treatise entitled 'Certain Errors in Navigation, detected and corrected,' London, 1610.
  3. 'Logarithmorum Chilias Prima' (London, 1617), printed 'for the sake of his friends and hearers at Gresham College.'
  4. 'A Description of an Instrumental Table to find the Part Proportional, devised by Mr. Edward Wright, subjoined to Napier's table of logarithms, translated into English by Mr. Wright, and after his death published by Briggs with a preface of his own, London, 1616 and 1618.'
  5. 'Lucubrationes et Annotationes in Opera posthuma J. Neperi,' Edin. 1619.
  6. 'Euclidis Elementorum Sex libri priores,' £c., London, 1620 (printed without his name).
  7. 'A Tract on the North-west Passage to the South Sea through the continent of Virginia,' with only his initials prefixed, London, 1622. The reason of this publication was probably that he was then a member of a company trading to Virginia (see Ward's Graham Professors).
  8. 'Mathematica ab Antiquis minus cognita' (published by Dr. George Hakewill).
  9. 'Arithmetica Logarithmica,' London, 1624.
  10. 'Trigonometica Britannica,' London, 1633.

These two are Briggs's greatest works. The second was left unfinished by him, but was completed and published by his friend Henuy Gellibrand, professor of astronomy at Gresham College. They are both works of enormous labour. The first, for example, 'contains the logarithms of 30,000 natural numbers to fourteen places of figures, besides the index' (see Hutton's Mathematical Dictionary).

Besides these, Briggs wrote the following works, which have never been published:

  1. 'Commentaries on the Geometry of Peter Ramus.'
  2. 'Duæ Epistolæ ad celeberrimum virum Chr. Longomontanum.'
    One of these is said to contain some remarks about a treatise of Longomontanus on squaring the circle, and the other a defence of arithmetical geometry.
  3. 'Animadversiones Geometricæ.'
  4. 'De eodem Argumento.'
  5. 'A Treatise of Common Arithmetic'
  6. 'A Letter to Mr. Clarke, of Gravesend, dated from Gresham College, 25 Feb. 1606; with which he sends him the description of a ruler, called Bedwell's ruler, with directions how to draw it.'

In the catalogue of the Ashmolean MSS. time is a description of 'six mathematical and astronomical letters to Mr. Briggs' from Sir Christopher Heydon. They are said to be 'chiefly on comets.' The second is dated 1 Nov. 1603; the fourth, 14 Dec. 1609; the sixth, 21 April 1619.

[Wood's Athenæ (Bliss), ii. 491; Dr. Thomas Smith's Vitæ quorundam eruditissimorum et illustrium Virorum (1707); Ward's Gresham Professors; Benjamin Martin's Biographia Philosophica, 1764; Biog. Brit. (Kippis); Brodrick's Memorials of Merton Coll. p. 74. For Briggs's contributions to mathematics see Hutton's Mathematical and Philosophical Dictionary, under 'Briggs,' 'Napier,' and 'Logarithms.']

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