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Mathematics at TCD 1592-1992

years of
by T. D. Spearman


Mathematics occupied a particularly prominent place within the College through most of the nineteenth century. Election to Fellowship, the normal mode of entry to an academic career, was by means of a competitive examination based on a prescribed course of study. This examination, which was renowned for its severity, and which included mathematics, classics, natural philosophy, ethics and logic, had by the end of the eighteenth century become heavily weighted in favour of mathematics and from then until about 1860 when the system was revised, most of those elected to Fellowship were mathematicians. Some of them developed other interests after their election but many continued to practice mathematics throughout their active academic careers.

Among those who made serious contributions to mathematics were: Thomas Luby, Sir Andrew Hart, Charles Graves, J.H. Jellett, the twin brothers William and Michael Roberts and William's son W.R.W. Roberts, Richard Townsend, Benjamin Williamson, F.A. Tarleton, W.S. Burnside and A.W. Panton. Although none of these could match the achievement of Hamilton, Salmon or Mac Cullagh they were nonetheless serious scholars engaged with and contributing to their subject. They wrote books, some of which such as Townsend's Geometry and Burnside and Panton's Theory of Equations were influential and well-regarded; they published in English and continental journals as well as in the Academy Proceedings and in the Cambridge and Dublin Mathematical Journal; all were members of the Royal Irish Academy and several were Fellows of the Royal Society. They also played their part in College administration, becoming Senior Fellows and thus members of the Board. Jellett was Provost after Lloyd; Hart, Williamson, Tarleton and W.R.W. Roberts each became Vice-Provost.

Samuel Haughton, elected to Fellowship in 1844, was a remarkable man with an extraordinary breadth of interest. Initially a mathematician, he was a student of Mac Cullagh and was subsequently, with Jellett, to edit Mac Cullagh's collected works; he then turned to geology, holding the Chair of Geology and Mineralogy from 1857 to 1881, and thence to medicine. George Francis Fitzgerald, who would nowadays be classified as a physicist and was indeed the founder of the laboratory based department of physics as we know it today, belonged nevertheless to the College's mathematical tradition. Fitzgerald did major work in theoretical electro-dynamics, drawing from Maxwell's theory its revolutionary implications for the propagation of electro-magnetic waves, and extending Mac Cullagh's aether model to encompass this radiation. Sir Robert Ball, who held the Chair of Astronomy from 1874 until he went to Cambridge as Lowndean Professor in 1892, was another mathematician of considerable distinction who developed a detailed calculus, the theory of screws, which he applied to problems in dynamics. Ball also wrote very successful popular books on astronomy and was renowned for his public lectures.

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