Nicholas Saunderson

Nicholas Saunderson
Nicholas Saunderson

Born January 1682
Thurlstone, Yorkshire, England
Died 19 April 1739(1739-04-19) (aged 57)
Cambridge, England
Nationality United Kingdom
Fields Mathematics

Nicholas Saunderson (1682 – 19 April 1739) was an English scientist and mathematician. According to one leading historian of statistics, he may have been the earliest discoverer of Bayes theorem.[1]



Saunderson was born at Thurlstone, Yorkshire, in January 1682. When about a year old he lost his sight through smallpox; but this did not prevent him from acquiring a knowledge of Latin and Greek, and studying mathematics. As a child, he is also thought to have learnt to read by tracing the engravings on tombstones around St John the Baptist Church in Penistone with his fingers. His early education was at Penistone Grammar School.

In 1707, he arrived in Cambridge, staying with his friend Joshua Dunn, a fellow-commoner at Christ's College. During this time, he resided in Christ's but was not admitted to the University.[2] With the permission of the Lucasian professor, William Whiston, Saunderson was allowed to teach, lecturing on mathematics, astronomy and optics. Whiston was expelled from his chair on 30 October 1710; at the appeal of the heads of colleges, Queen Anne awarded Saunderson a Master of Arts degree on 19 November 1711 so that he would be eligible to succeed Whiston as Lucasian professor, and he was chosen as the fourth Lucasian professor the next day. On 6 November 1718 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He was resident at Christ's until 1723 when he married and took a house in Cambridge. He was created doctor of laws in 1728 by command of George II. He died of scurvy, on 19 April 1739 and was buried in the chancel of the parish church at Boxworth near Cambridge.

Saunderson possessed the friendship of many of the eminent mathematicians of the time, such as Sir Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley, Abraham De Moivre and Roger Cotes. His senses of hearing and touch were extraordinarily acute, and he could carry on mentally long and intricate mathematical calculations. He devised a calculating machine or abacus, by which he could perform arithmetical and algebraic operations by the sense of touch; this method is sometimes termed his palpable arithmetic, an account of which is given in his elaborate Elements of Algebra.

Of his other writings, prepared for the use of his pupils, the only one which has been published is The Method of Fluxions. At the end of this treatise there is given, in Latin, an explanation of the principal propositions of Sir Isaac Newton’s philosophy.


St Johns Gardens at St Johns Church in Penistone features a memorial spiral to Saunderson. The gardens are a joint project between St John the Baptist Church, Penistone and Penistone & District Community Partnership.[3]

Saunderson's life has been turned into a musical called No Horizon written by Andy Platt, a schoolteacher from near Thurlstone where Saunderson was born. In addition to this the Science Block of Penistone Grammar School and a local residential street are named after the local 'celebrity'

He was born in a house on Towngate which bore a "Hic Natus Est" inscribed stone. The house is long gone (1950s) but the stone is built into a wall in a small garden at Townend nearby.


  1. ^ Stephen M. Stigler, Who Discovered Bayes's Theorem?, The American Statistician, Vol. 37, No. 4, Part 1 (Nov., 1983), pp. 290-296; collected in Stephen M. Stigler (1999), Statistics on the Table: The History of Statistical Concepts and Methods, pp. 291-301, Harvard University Press ISBN 978-0-674-83601-3 (hbk) ISBN 978-0-674-00979-0 (pbk).
  2. ^ According to Venn, he was formally admitted to Christ's in 1707. Sanderson, Nicholas in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  3. ^ Penistone & District Community Partnership

External links


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

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