Born in 1616, John Wallis is deemed one of the most influential mathematicians that have ever walked the planet. An ordained clergyman of the Church of England, he worked on more than math, as he specialized in English grammar, theology, and music theory as well. Learn more about his multi-faceted life by immersing yourself in these fantastic facts about John Wallis.
John Wallis Facts
1. He wrote the book “Arithmetica Infinitorum” that paved the way for Isaac Newton’s binomial theorem.
The book is also known as the Arithmetic of Infinitesimals, or a New Method of Inquiring into the Quadrature of Curves and other More Difficult Mathematical Problems. This featured Wallis’ popular formula for 4/π.
While the book was an important contribution to math itself, it is more fondly remembered as the driving force behind Isaac Newton’s general binomial theorem, an interesting fact about John Wallis. His ability to explore and recognize patterns led to Newton’s voracious study of the book during the 1660s.
2. He popularized two mathematical symbols.
A true trailblazer, John Wallis introduced two symbols that the math world continues to use until today: ∞ to denote infinity, and ≥ to denote ‘greater than or equal to.’ These symbols were published in the book De Sectionibus Conicis, or the Treatise of Conic Sections. In this manuscript, he delved with plane curves, whose properties he obtained with the help of Rene Descartes’ algebraic analytic process.
3. He published the “Treatise of Algebra” at age 70.
An interesting fact about John Wallis is that this book is considered as the first English textbook that dealt with more than just the math – it talked about the history of mathematics as well. This ‘novel’ feature made Wallis a mathematical historian. Expectedly, the book became an instant favorite, with readers enjoying the content for centuries after its publication.
4. Under his helm, the Oxford University became a center for mathematical excellence.
John Wallis was chosen as Savilian Professor of Geometry in 1969, mainly because he was a Parliamentary supporter. Historians thought of this as a wrong choice as he was not a popular mathematician during his time of appointment.
Although it was his ties that brought him the professorial seat, he held the post rather successfully for 54 years. His tenure saw the strengthening of the University’s works, that of which made Oxford the arithmetic institution that it is known today.
5. He is one of Europe’s greatest codebreakers.
Apart from solving equations, Wallis found pleasure in deciphering codes. His fascination for codebreaking started with a cipher relating to the capture of Chichester, which he successfully decoded in 2 hours.
As he mastered codebreaking, what once was a hobby turned into real work. During the civil war, he decoded Royalist messages for the Parliamentarians, a favor that vastly improved his career.
Wallis enjoyed solving French numerical substitution ciphers; eventually, such activity became a past time. He loved interpreting codes so much that he continued to decode cryptographs for days before his death in 1703.
6. Wallis was actually a clergyman.
After earning his Master’s degree in 1640, Wallis was appointed chaplain for Butterworth by the bishop of Winchester. He transferred Hedingham in Essex before taking the top post of London’s Church of St. Gabriel in 1643 (again, a favor he gained by siding with the Parliamentarians.)
An interesting John Wallis fact is that in 1644, he was assigned as secretary to the Westminster Clergy. With this position, he was granted a fellowship at Queen’s College in Cambridge. He was not able to continue his studies though, as he married Susanna Glyde in 1645 (the post forbade the fellow from marrying.)
7. He was part of a group that eventually became the Royal Society of London.
Formally known as the “Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge,” this national academy is touted as the oldest scientific institution in the world. It was established in November 1660 out of an intellectual group that John Wallis met with frequently.
Although it was not yet a formal body during Wallis’ time, the group had stringent rules, similar to that of what the current Royal Society of London follows today. Wallis explained that they had guidelines: they met at a certain hour, paid a certain penalty, and gave weekly contributions for experiments.
8. He had always loved math, but never got the chance to formally study it.
When Wallis was a young child, math was not considered an important subject in his school. His first brush with math was courtesy of his brother, who taught him some pointers.
Without a strong directive towards mathematical study, Wallis ended up graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Here, he studied several topics, such as metaphysics, astronomy, ethics, anatomy, and medicine.
He was able to rekindle his love for numbers one fateful day in 1647. As he met with the group (that would turn out to be the future Royal Society of London,) he stumbled upon the book Clavis Mathematicae by Oughtred. He finished his copy in just a few weeks and began developing his formulas right thereafter.
9. He has published non-math books as well.
Although Wallis is known for his mathematical manuscripts, he has published works in other disciplines as well. He authored the book Grammatica linguae Anglicanae in 1653, which remained in print until the 18th century. In 1687 he published the book Instituto logicae, which was said to be a popular read during its heydays.
10. Wallis believed that one’s memory works better at night.
If you find yourself learning more as a night owl, know that you are probably just like John Wallis. He cemented this fact by publishing his findings in the book “Philosophical Transactions.” According to the mathematician, he calculated the square root of 3 to up to 20 decimal places one sleepless night. To his surprise, he was able to remember it and write it down the following morning, an interesting John Wallis fact.
Even without formal knowledge of arithmetic, Wallis has taught himself to become one of the most celebrated figures in mathematics. These facts about John Wallis’ life are indeed very impressive, as it goes to show that everything is possible with passion, dedication, and perseverance.
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