Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Jevons, William Stanley
JEVONS, WILLIAM STANLEY (1835–1882), economist and logician, was born in Alfred Street, Liverpool, on 1 Sept. 1835. His father, Thomas Jevons, had been brought up to the trade of nail-making in Staffordshire, where the family had been settled for several generations, but afterwards carried on business as an iron merchant in Liverpool. The elder Jevons is believed to have constructed the first iron boat that sailed on sea water, and was a lucid writer on legal and economical topics. His wife [see Jevons, Mary Anne], a unitarian like himself, was the eldest daughter of William Roscoe [q. v.] William Stanley was the ninth of eleven children. The family was united by strong affections. His elder sister (afterwards Mrs. John Hutton), on her mother's early death, supplied her place, and preserved the memorials of Jevons's earlier years. He received his early training at the Mechanics' Institute High School and at the private school of a Mr. Beckwith in Liverpool, and at the age of fifteen was sent to London to attend University College School, whence in October 1851 he proceeded to University College. In 1848 his father had failed in business, and he felt the necessity of serious exertion. Soon afterwards he went to live with his aunt, Mrs. Henry Roscoe, and studied chemistry with her son (now Sir Henry). Towards the close of 1853 he accepted the appointment of assayer to the new mint of Sydney in Australia. He spent two months in Paris to study assaying, and reached Sydney in October 1854. Two years before this he had begun to keep a journal, and his letters are full of interest. His skill in assaying work brought him in 1858 the offer of a lucrative partnership in the same line of business. He also worked hard at meteorology, sending to the ‘Empire’ newspaper, from May 1856 to June 1858, weekly weather reports, which were subsequently utilised by government. His interesting pamphlet, ‘Some Data concerning the Climate of Australia and New Zealand,’ was published in the following year. He wrote upon other topics in the ‘Empire,’ and was already taking interest in the study of political economy, and reading Mill's ‘Logic.’ He soon made up his mind to leave his post, though the salary was considerable (630l. per annum), in order to obtain a wider sphere of influence; and in the first instance resolved to devote himself to the moral sciences, besides becoming a good mathematician. At the beginning of 1859 he accordingly resigned his appointment, in order to become a student once more. He reached Liverpool in September, and soon afterwards attended lectures at University College, London, in the company of his younger brother, with whom and his sisters he lived in lodgings at Paddington for the ensuing four years. He found the classes dull, but heartily admired De Morgan as ‘an unfathomable fund of mathematics.’ He failed to gain the prize in the political economy class, but hoped to revenge himself by publishing a theory sounder than his examiner's. In November 1859 he published his ‘Remarks on the Australian Goldfields,’ and in 1861 contributed a number of articles to H. Watts's ‘Chemical Dictionary.’ In the same year and in 1862 he published articles on the ‘Spectrum’ and on cognate subjects in the ‘London Quarterly’ and other periodicals. In June 1862 he passed the M.A. examination of the university of London, gaining the gold medal in philosophy and political economy. He had for some time been intent upon the project of a ‘Statistical Atlas’ on a novel and comprehensive plan, and as an earnest of this he put forth in this year two elaborate curve-diagrams, showing the weekly accounts of the Bank of England and the price of the funds, and various other important commercial data from month to month since 1731. At the Cambridge meeting of the British Association in 1862 his paper, illustrated by similar diagrams, ‘On the Study of Periodic Commercial Fluctuations’ (reprinted, 1884, in ‘Investigations in Currency and Finance’) was favourably received; and from cognate researches sprang his noteworthy treatise (reprinted ib.), ‘A Serious Fall in the Value of Gold ascertained, and its Social Effects set forth,’ 1863. He applied the same methods on an ampler scale in a paper ‘On the Variation of Prices and the Value of the Currency since 1782,’ read before the London Statistical Society in May 1865, and in another ‘On the Frequent Autumnal Pressure in the Money-market, and the Action of the Bank of England,’ bearing specially on the pressure of the autumn of 1865, and read before the same society on 17 April 1866 (both reprinted in ‘Investigations’).
At the Cambridge meeting of 1862 another paper of his, ‘A Notice of a General Mathematical Theory of Political Economy,’ seems to have fallen flat. Jevons about this time contributed an article or two to the ‘Spectator,’ with the view, as he confided to his ‘Journal’ (Letters and Journal, p. 170), of lightening his style by practice, having an exaggerated impression of its heaviness. Meanwhile he felt the need of some regular employment, and tried a scheme for becoming a general literary agent, undertaking to get up at the British Museum on commission any subject required. Fortunately, in the summer of 1863, the good offices of Professor Roscoe secured him a tutorship at Owens College, Manchester. Here he soon familiarised himself with the business of lecturing, to which later in his career he took a deep dislike; no kind of oral delivery was at any time much in his way.
Early in 1864 was published his ‘Pure Logic, or the Logic of Quality apart from Quantity.’ The system developed in this little volume was largely founded on the mathematical analysis of logic in Boole's ‘Investigation of the Laws of Thought,’ but was here divested of the garb of mathematical language. Among the various papers which during this year he contributed to periodicals was an article on ‘Statistics of Shakesperean Literature’ (Athenæum, 12 March 1864). In April 1865 appeared a work written by him in 1864 upon a subject which had already been for some time in his mind, ‘The Coal Question: an Enquiry concerning the Progress of the Nation and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines’ (2nd edition, revised, 1866). He argued that within a century the want of coal would seriously check our material progress, and commended to the study of all intelligent persons the problem ‘of almost religious importance.’ The lucidity, width of economical information, and the manly and patriotic tone of the essay failed to secure it immediate attention; but in the following year (17 April 1866) J. S. Mill, in the course of an argument for a systematic reduction of the national debt, referred to Jevons's book as being almost exhaustive of its subject, and as having, hitherto at least, proved unanswerable in its conclusions (Hansard, Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. clxxxii. 1526). On 3 May following Mr. Gladstone, in proposing a scheme, which came to nothing, for extinguishing within thirty-nine years nearly fifty millions of the national debt, cited the opinions of Jevons, and virtually appropriated his argument as to the prospective decline of the material prosperity of the country (ib. clxxxiii. 402). On 13 March 1868 Jevons repeated some of the arguments of his book in a lecture ‘On the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines,’ delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain.
In 1865 Jevons, who also held a small appointment at Queen's College, Liverpool, was appointed lecturer in logic and political economy at Owens College, and in May 1866 the trustees of the college were at last enabled to create him professor of these subjects and of mental and moral philosophy. The salary, with his own small private income, only made up a total of 400l. a year, but ‘what can I not do with it?’ he wrote buoyantly in his journal (Letters and Journal, p. 226). His spirits were much elated at this time, but most of all, it seems, by a call which he made on Mr. Gladstone (ib.) In the following month he wrote upon Mr. Gladstone's financial policy in ‘Macmillan's Magazine,’ but he never thought of a political career. He was no party man, and was not qualified for debate. Even at Owens College, though for a time member of the council, he took no very active part in business. He was popular both with his colleagues and with his students, though his lovable nature only revealed itself upon a close intimacy. He was passionately fond of music, devoted to the practice of the organ, and fascinated by Wagner. In London he had been an enthusiastic volunteer, in Manchester he became known as an accomplished skater. On 19 Dec. 1867 he married Miss Harriet Ann Taylor, daughter of the founder and first proprietor of the ‘Manchester Guardian,’ and the family life in his house and cherished garden in Parsonage Road, Withington, was unfailingly happy.
During the thirteen years of his residence at Manchester Jevons was, above all, engaged in researches and speculations connected with the science of logic. He had become discontented with Mill, and resented Mill's indifference to Boole's speculations. In his ‘Pure Logic’ (1864) he had already put forward a system based on the conclusions of Boole, and in the following year he completed the construction of his ‘reasoning machine, or logical abacus, adapted to show the working of Boole's logic in a half mechanical manner,’ which in March and April 1866 he exhibited to the Liverpool and Manchester Literary and Philosophical Societies (described in his paper ‘On the Mechanical Contrivance of Logical Inference,’ read before the Royal Society in January 1870, and printed in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ clx. 497 sqq.) When staying in the Isle of Wight with his wife in the autumn of 1868 he read to her three articles directed against Mill's logical system, which were, however, refused by a leading magazine (Letters and Journal, pp. 244–5). Their spirit may have been condensed into certain trenchant passages of his little treatise on ‘The Substitution of Similars,’ which he published in the following year (1869), with a frontispiece representing the logical abacus, and which, while conveying his theory of reasoning in outline, was designed as an uncompromising step towards the liberation of logic from the ban of metaphysics, and its establishment as an exact science. He returned to the subject in a paper read in January 1870 before the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society ‘On a General System of Numerically Definite Reasoning;’ and in his ‘Elementary Lessons in Logic’ (also 1870) he sought to give a clear notion of the results to which the ‘discoveries’ of Boole and his predecessors necessarily led. The ‘Studies in Deductive Logic,’ which followed several years later (1880), consist of a series of logical problems intended to carry on and exemplify the chief purpose of the ‘Elementary Lessons.’ Jevons's ‘Primer of Logic’ was published in 1876.
The most important, however, of this group of his works was his ‘Principles of Science,’ 2 vols., 1874; 2nd edit., 1 vol., 1877. In this book, with illustrations derived from almost every branch of scientific research, he developed his theory of logic and scientific method, and of its applicability beyond and, so to speak, above the sphere of physical science alone. This work, which proved more stimulative to mathematicians than to metaphysicians (see the Pref. to 2nd edit.), was to have been followed by an ‘Analysis of Mill's “Analysis of Knowledge,”’ of which the substance is probably to be found in a series of papers in the ‘Contemporary Review’ (December 1877, January and April 1878). These papers are reprinted, together with some of the author's earliest contributions to the science of logic, in ‘Pure Logic and other Minor Works. By W. S. Jevons. Edited by R. Adamson and H. A. Jevons, 1890.’ In the preface Professor Adamson examines the essential difference between Mill's and Jevons's points of view in logical theory, and with the aid of Jevons's unpublished manuscripts exhibits the general plan of attack which he proposed to himself, but was only partially able to carry out.
Jevons was a frequent attendant at the meetings of the Manchester and London Statistical societies; to the latter he had been elected in 1864. On 17 Nov. 1868 he read there a paper ‘On the Condition of the Metallic Currency of the United Kingdom,’ in which he urged a recoinage and the introduction of an international money. In order to estimate the age of the gold circulation in England, and the loss on light gold coins, he had previously, by means of returns with which he was furnished by bankers, made a census of over 165,000 gold sovereigns and half-sovereigns. He followed up the subject by two letters to the ‘Times’ (27 Aug. and 7 Sept. 1869). The paper, with other cognate studies belonging to this period, is reprinted in the posthumous ‘Investigations in Currency and Finance,’ 1884, which also include a previously unpublished paper written in 1875, and entitled ‘An Ideally Perfect System of Currency.’ In April 1870 he delivered a lecture on ‘Industrial Partnerships,’ ‘under the auspices of the Social Science Association.’ In March 1869 he had been consulted by Mr. Lowe, the chancellor of the exchequer, upon questions of taxation; and his advice for abolishing the duty of a shilling a quarter upon corn had been actually followed in the budget. In 1871 his masterly pamphlet on the ‘Match Tax: a Problem in Finance,’ vindicated the policy of the same financier, though after the battle had been lost.
In the same year Jevons opened a fresh view of research in his ‘Theory of Political Economy.’ Regarding political economy as a mathematical science, ‘in matter if not in language,’ he attempted to put its main definitions in the shape of quantitative formulæ, and in the process, though not highly accomplished as a mathematician, or altogether at his ease when using mathematical language, he threw much light upon the nature and the mutual relations of economic quantities themselves (cf. Professor A. Marshall ap. Harley, p. ix). In his paper ‘On the Mathematical Theory of Political Economy,’ read before the Manchester Statistical Society 11 Nov. 1874, he showed that the French economist, Professor Léon Walras, and he had arrived independently at the same fundamental theorem, and delivered his soul with regrettable vehemence against the ‘ingenious fallacies’ abounding in writings which he had ‘studied for more than twenty years, and been unfortunately obliged to teach for more than ten.’ His ‘Primer of Political Economy,’ published in 1878, was translated into both French and Italian.
In 1873 Owens College was housed in new buildings. Jevons contributed a paper on the ‘Railways and the State’ to the volume of ‘Essays and Addresses,’ by the publication of which in 1874 the professors of the college commemorated the event. But though he conscientiously performed his college duties, to which in 1868 a London examinership in political economy had been added, he found the strain of work rather heavy. By the spring of 1872 he had suffered so much that he was for a time relieved of his college work. A retirement to Ludlow and a trip to Norway refreshed him, and in the following sessions he was able to accomplish reduced tasks of work. In 1872 he had been made a F.R.S.; in 1874–5 he examined for the moral science tripos at Cambridge; in 1875 he received an honorary doctorate at Edinburgh; and in 1876 he was appointed examiner in logic and mental and moral philosophy in the university of London. In November 1874 he writes that his books are beginning to pay at last, and that he is much oppressed by the too abundant exercises of his logic class (Letters and Journal, p. 324). Early in the year he had taken another holiday abroad, and there was every disposition during these years at Owens College to do what was possible to retain him. But his heart had been for some time set on London, and as the professorship of political economy at University College was in 1875 virtually placed at his disposal, he in October 1876 quitted Manchester, and settled on Branch Hill, Hampstead.
He resigned the University College professorship in 1880, and resolved henceforth never to ‘lecture, speechify, or do anything of that sort again if he could possibly help it’ (Harley, p. xi). Though he found time both for congenial society and for a good deal of travel, he worked hard, and probably to excess. In 1875 he had published a most readable volume in the ‘International Scientific Series,’ entitled ‘Money and the Mechanism of Exchange;’ but on the whole he was turning with increasing interest to social problems. For many years he had with unwearied diligence collected the most diverse statistical materials. The arrangement of his study at Hampstead showed him to be an inquirer to whom nothing came amiss in the way of facts, and from whom nothing went astray. ‘The State in Relation to Labour’ (1882), a mature and discriminating, though not an inspiriting treatise, formed part of Macmillan's ‘English Citizen Series;’ but most of his writings of this description originally appeared in periodical journals, and were after his death collected by his widow in a volume entitled ‘Methods of Social Reform and other Papers,’ 1883. He had himself intended to collect for republication his ‘Investigations in Currency and Finance;’ but this too was done by his widow, aided by Professor Foxwell. In his ‘Introduction’ to the volume, published in 1884, Mr. Foxwell notes that Jevons had occupied himself with historical research and bibliography, as shown by the ‘List of Selected Books in Political Economy’ (first printed in the ‘Monthly Notes of the Library Association,’ July 1882), his article on ‘Cantillon and the Nationality of Political Economy’ (originally published in the ‘Contemporary Review,’ January 1881), and his unfinished paper on ‘Sir Isaac Newton and Bimetallism.’ Other papers on the subject are given in the ‘Investigations.’ He also retained an interest in the physical sciences. The theory of sunspots, with which his economic studies brought him into contact, gave rise to several notes contributed by him to ‘Nature’ in 1879, and again in 1882. In 1878 he investigated the so-called Brownian movement of microscopic particles in liquids and analogous phenomena; and the last paper from his hand which saw the light during his lifetime was an article on ‘Reflected Rainbows’ in the ‘Field Naturalist,’ August 1882.
On 13 Aug. 1882 Jevons was drowned while bathing alone when on a visit to Galley Hill, Bulverhythe, near Hastings. Up to the day of his death he was working at a paper on the disadvantages of the employment of married women in factories for the next meeting of the Social Science Association. The widespread regard entertained for him was shortly after his death attested by the establishment, through public subscription, of a fund for the encouragement of economic research, to be administered by the university colleges of Manchester, London, and Liverpool.
The treatise on economics which Jevons had planned and partly written, and which he intended to make his magnum opus, will remain lost to the world. But he left behind him more than enough to warrant his European reputation as a statistician of vast industry and rare gifts of combination, and as an economist of high original power. In the opinion of Professor Alfred Marshall, the great body of Jevons's economic work ‘will probably be found to have more constructive force than any save that of Ricardo that has been done during the last hundred years.’ As a logician, he sought with considerable success to advance, as well as defend, the position taken up by Boole, and to establish the applicability of his theory of reasoning to all branches of scientific inquiry.
Jevons was distinguished by a noble simplicity of disposition. In accordance with this, the keynote to his character, he was pious in the broadest sense of the word, tender-hearted, readily interested in whatever had a real human significance, and, notwithstanding a constitutional tendency to depression, very easily pleased and amused. Both intellectually and morally self-centred, he was entirely free from sordid ambition, and from the mere love of applause. No more honest man ever achieved fame while living laborious days, and striving from his boyhood upward (Letters and Journal, p. 95) to become ‘a powerful good in the world.’
[Letters and Journal of W. Stanley Jevons, edited by his wife, London, 1886, with portrait; W. S. Jevons, an Obituary Notice, by the Rev. Robert Harley, F.R.S. (Obituary Notices of the Royal Society, No. 226, September 1883); personal knowledge. With the bibliography of Jevons's writings, appended to the Letters and Journal, may be compared that contributed by Mr. W. E. A. Axon to the Monthly Notes of the Library Association, iv. 155 sqq., 1883.]