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GLASGOW
UNIVERSITY LIBRARY

Robert Simson was born on 18 October 1687. He
was Professor of Mathematics at the
University of Glasgow from 1711 until 1761 and made a significant
contribution to mathematical scholarship; his interest in early Greek
geometers proved particularly influential. The
Simson Collection in Glasgow University Library comprises 850 books, mainly mathematical and astronomical texts,
which he bequeathed on his death in 1768. A number of manuscript items relating
to Simson, including notebooks and letters, were received subsequently.
A selection of these books and manuscripts are featured here. 
Robert Simson was born in West Kilbride in Ayrshire,
the son of a Glasgow merchant. He was educated at the University of
Glasgow and graduated MA. It was originally intended that he train to become
a religious minister but his interest turned to mathematics. 


He went to London to pursue his studies and while there
was nominated to a vacant post at Glasgow. He returned and was examined as
to his suitability: 


Knowledge of early work by the Greeks was largely due to later
commentaries; these included writings by Pappus
of Alexandria (fl AD 320). These were published in a Latin
translation in the sixteenth century and, in turn, informed European
mathematicians including Descartes
(15961650), Pierre de Fermat
(16011665) and Isaac Newton
(16421727). 

Special Collections holds a number of copies of this translation,
Mathematicae Collectiones
by Pappus. One is of
particular interest as it belonged to Robert Simson and contains his
handwritten annotations. Although Halley and
Fermat had worked on Pappus, it was Simson who first explored the
subject matter to a point of further understanding.
His amendments to and developments
of this text provide an interesting source for his work in this area.


Simson's annotations are extensive,
ranging from comments or insertions at the side and foot of the page,
to whole pages of notes interleaved with the book's original printed
text. One page of notes is headed 'Domi Mattheus Stewart Prop. 4. Lib. 4.'. Among Simson's personal manuscripts are letters between Simson and Matthew Stewart (17171785), the mathematical content of which includes work on finding the quadrature of the hyperbola and on porisms (MS Gen 146). 'Porisms' can be described as a proposition lying somewhere between a theorem (a statement to be proved) or a problem (a construction to be effected). A copy of Stewart's Propositiones geometricae, more veterum demonstratae, published in 1763, can also be found in Simson's library (Ea8e.13). 


Conic Sections (1735) 



Euclid's Elements (1756) 


Simson's bequest 


Simson's
manuscripts James Clow, Professor of Philosophy at the university, was a friend of Simson's and an executor of his will. Simson left him his manuscripts and Clow published some of them in 1776 as Roberti Simsoni, Opera Quaedam reliqua ... (Ea5b.2 and other copies). In December 1784, "Professor James Clow informed a meeting of the Faculty that he would donate sixteen quarto volumes of the late Professor Simson's Adversaria to the library, as well as loose papers which had belonged to him." 


As well as the Adversaria, the following manuscripts are identified as having been received from Clow: Simson's annotated copy of Pappus and a transcript of his notes on Pappus (MS Gen 1232). He may also have given MS Gen 1096 which are copies of two letters written by Simson to James Jurin (16841750). They demonstrate that Simson was well acquainted with developments in algebra and calculus, employing the methods of calculus to deal with inverse tangent series and their use in calculating the value of pi. 

The letters and papers on
mathematical subjects which comprise
MS Gen 196 include two letters
from Simson to
William Trail
(17461831) who published a biography of
Simson in 1812. He made use of
Simson's books and manuscripts, which were in the university library
by 1800. He also spoke to Simson's former colleagues
and wrote of him: "His manner of teaching was uncommonly clear, and engaging to young people; ... most of his scholars retained through life an affection and reverence for the Professor." Some of them, including Matthew Stewart, became distinguished mathematicians themselves. In the twentieth century the library received further material relating to Simson. Within the Murray collection (received in 1928) there is a collection of letters to Simson written mainly by William Rouet (fl 17301767), another university colleague, from various European cities (MS Murray 660). In 1933, material relating to Simson, Stewart and Colin MacLaurin (16981746) was received via the then Professor of Mathematics, Thomas Murray MacRobert (MS Gen 146). Although Robert Simson did not discover it, the Simson Line of a triangle is named for him. So too is the Simson Chair of Mathematics which was founded at the University in 1955. 
Other items of interest:The following have been useful in creating this article:Carlyle, E I Simson, Robert (16871768), rev. Ian Tweddle, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25606, accessed 16 Sept 2008] Encyclopędia Britannica Online, articles on Pappus of Alexandria
and Apollonius of Perga. Accessed 16 Sept 2008. Return to main Special Collections
Exhibition Page
Based on an investigation by Anna
Louise Mason (on placement August 2008) 