Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burrow, Reuben

BURROW, REUBEN (1747–1792), mathematician, was born 30 Dec. 1747, at Hoberley, near Shadwell, Leeds. His father, a small farmer, gave him some schooling, occasionally interrupted by labour on the farm. He showed a taste for mathematics, and after some instruction from a schoolmaster at Leeds, named Crooks, obtained a clerkship in the office of a London merchant. He went thither on foot in 1765, spending 1s. 10d. by the way. A year later he became usher in a school of B. Webb, the ‘celebrated writing-master.’ He next set up as schoolmaster on his own account at Portsmouth, and, after giving up this place in 1770 to become engineer to a projected expedition to Borneo, was appointed assistant to Maskelyne, then astronomer-royal, at Greenwich. Two years afterwards he married Anne Purvis, daughter of a poulterer in Leadenhall Street, and started a school at Greenwich. In 1774 he helped Maskelyne in his observations upon Schehallion, for the determination of the earth's attraction. He complained that his services were insufficiently recognised. Soon afterwards, however, he was appointed ‘mathematical teacher in the drawing-room at the Tower,’ where there was then a training school for artillery officers, afterwards merged in the Woolwich academy. His salary was 100l. a year. Here he became editor of the 'Ladies and Gentlemen's Diary, or Royal Almanack.' It was started by one Thomas Carnan, in opposition to the 'Ladies' Diary,' published by the Stationers' Company and edited by Charles Hutton [q. v.] The company claimed a monopoly of almanacks, but their claim was disallowed by the court of common pleas, on their bringing an action against Carnan, who published the first number of his diary in December 1776. It continued till 1786, the word 'Gentlemen' being dropped after 1780. Part of it was devoted to mathematical problems by Burrow and various contributors, including a 'Samuel Rogers' (who may possibly, though very improbably, have been the poet, b. 1763). Burrow quarrelled with his rival, Hutton. He eked out his living by taking private pupils, and did a little work for publishers; but his family was increasing, and in 1782 he accepted an appointment in India, procured by his patron, Colonel Henry Watson, for many years chief engineer in Bengal. He claimed indignantly but fruitlessly to be paid for extra work in a survey of the coast from Essex to Sussex with a party of pupils in 1777, and sailed (October 1782) in a fleet commanded by Admiral Howe. Soon after reaching India he wrote an interesting letter to Warren Hastings (Add. MS. 29159, f. 376). He says that he wishes to make money in order to have leisure for further research. He has been interested in the ancient geometry, as he has proved by his book on Apollonius (see below), and is curious to investigate the mathematical treatises in the ancient Hindoo and other oriental literature. He asks for Hastings's encouragement; and other letters and papers show that he pursued these inquiries, having learnt Sanskrit for the purpose, and collected many Sanskrit and Persian manuscripts (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. x. 309). He was appointed mathematical teacher of the engineers' corps, and afterwards had some employment in connection with a proposed trigonometrical survey of Bengal. A 'Short Account of the late Mr. Burrow's Measurement of a Degree of Longitude and another of Latitude near the tropic in Bengal' was published by his friend Mr. Dalby in 1796. He was one of the first members of the Asiatic Society, and contributed to their 'Researches.' He died at Buxor 7 June 1792. His wife, with his son and his three daughters, joined him in India in 1790, and returned after his death. The son died as an officer in the service of the East India Company.

Some journals of Burrow were published by Mr. T. T. Wilkinson in the 'Philosophical Magazine' for 1863. Burrow is said to have been a rough but kindly man, who sometimes drank too much and would then indulge in pugilism. The poet Crabbe used to meet him at a coffee-house about 1780 (Crabbe, Life, ch. iii.) His diaries report a good deal of scandal, especially about rival mathematicians. He was clearly jealous and resentful, though liberal to friends in distress. He amused himself by pouring out coarse abuse in the fly-leaves of his books. Some quaint specimens are given by De Morgan in 'Notes and Queries' (1st series, i. 43). He describes the 'Miscellanea Scientifica Curiosa,' edited by Green and Wales, as a 'balderdash miscellany of damned stupid, ragamuffin, methodistical nonsense and spuability.' Wales was his successful competitor for a mastership at Christ's Hospital. His journals are now in the library of the Astronomical Society. He collected some curious books, which he sent to Woolwich and which are now in the library of the royal artillery.

The ability and elegance of Burrow's geometrical investigations are admitted by his critics. His only separate publication was 'A Restitution of the Geometrical Treatise of Apollonius Pergæus on Inclinations; also the Theory of Gunnery, or the doctrine of projectiles in a non-resisting medium,' London 1779. A 'restitutio' of this treatise had been published by Samuel Horsley (afterwards bishop) in 1770. Burrow in his preface speaks severely of Horsley's work as clumsy and employing quasi-algebraical methods; and claims with justice much greater simplicity and directness for his own work. Burrow's contributions to the Asiatic 'Researches' (vols. i. and ii.) include an essay upon 'Friction in Mechanics' (reprinted in Leybourne's 'Repository,' ii. 204-20, and the 'Gentleman's Mathematical Companion' for 1800), and one on the 'Hindoo knowledge of the Binomial Theorem.' The others are upon astronomical methods.

[Philosophical Magazine for 1863; Mechanics' Magazine, li. 244, 293. 350, lii. 267 (life by J. H. Swale). lv. 324 (art. 'Board of Ordnance in other days'); Addit. MSS. 29169 f. 376, 29163 f. 113, 29233 f. 239; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. xii. 142, 2nd ser. x. 409, 3rd ser. v. 107, 216, 261, 303, 361; New Monthly Mag. i. 636-8; Gent. Mag. lxiii. 774.]

L. S.