Henry Pemberton

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Henry Pemberton (1694 – 9 March 1771) was an English physician and man of letters. He became Gresham Professor of Physic, and edited the third edition of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica.



Preface to View of Newton's Philosophy, (1728)


Henry Pemberton. View of Newton's Philosophy, (1728), preface.

  • When I had the honour of his conversation, I endeavoured to learn his thoughts upon mathematical subjects, and something historical concerning his inventions, that I had not been before acquainted with. I found, he had read fewer of the modern mathematicians, than one could have expected; but his own prodigious invention readily supplied him with what he might have an occasion for in the pursuit of any subject he undertook. I have often heard him censure the handling geometrical subjects by algebraic calculations; and his book of Algebra he called by the name of Universal Arithmetic, in opposition to the injudicious title of Geometry, which Des Cartes had given to the treatise, wherein he shews, how the geometer may assist his invention by such kind of computations. He frequently praised Slusius, Barrow and Huygens for not being influenced by the false taste, which then began to prevail. He used to commend the laudable attempt of Hugo de Omerique to restore the ancient analysis, and very much esteemed Apollonius's book De sectione rationis for giving us a clearer notion of that analysis than we had before.
  • The first thoughts, which gave rise to his Principia, he had, when he retired from Cambridge in 1666 on account of the plague. As he sat alone in a garden, he fell into a speculation on the power of gravity; that as this power is not found sensibly diminished at the remotest distance from the centre of the earth to which we can rise, neither at the tops of the loftiest buildings, nor even on the summits of the highest mountains, it appeared to him reasonable to conclude that this power must extend much further than was usually thought: why not as high as the moon? said he to himself.
  • If so, her motion must be influenced by it; perhaps she is retained in her orbit thereby. However, though the power of gravity is not sensibly weakened in the little change of distance, at which we can place ourselves from the centre of the earth, yet it is very possible that, so high as the moon, this power may differ much in strength from what it is here. To make an estimate what might be the degree of this diminution, he considered with himself that, if the moon be retained in her orbit by the force of gravity, no doubt the primary planets are carried round the sun by the like power. And, by comparing the periods of the several planets with their distances from the sun, he found that if any power like gravity held them in their courses, its strength must decrease in the duplicate proportion of the increase of distance. This he concluded by supposing them to move in perfect circles concentrical to the sun, from which the orbits of the greatest part of them do not much differ. Supposing therefore the power of gravity, when extended to the moon, to decrease in the same manner, he computed whether that force would be sufficient to keep the moon in her orbit. In this computation, being absent from books, he took the common estimate, in use among geographers and our seamen before Norwood had measured the earth, that 60 English miles were contained in one degree of latitude on the surface of the earth. But as this is a very faulty supposition, each degree containing about 691/2 of our miles, his computation did not answer expectation; whence he concluded, that some other cause must at least join with the action of the power of gravity on the moon. On this account he laid aside, for that time, any farther thoughts upon this matter.
  • But some years after, a letter, which he received from Dr. Hooke, put him on inquiring what was the real figure, in which a body let fall from any high place descends, taking the motion of the earth round its axis into consideration. Such a body, having the same motion, which by the revolution of the earth the place has whence it falls, is to be considered as projected forward and at the same time drawn down to the centre of the earth. This gave occasion to his resuming his former thoughts concerning the moon, and Picard in France having lately measured the earth, by using his measures the moon appeared to be kept in her orbit purely by the power of gravity; and consequently, that this power decreases, as you recede from the centre of the earth, in the manner our author had formerly conjectured. Upon this principle he found the line described by a falling body to be an ellipsis, the centie of the earth being one focus. And the primary planets moving in such orbits round the sun, he had the satisfaction to see, that this inquiry, which he had undertaken merely out of curiosity, could be applied to the greatest purposes. Hereupon he composed near a dozen propositions, relating to the motion of the primary planets about the sun. Several years after this, some discourse he had with Dr. Halley, who at Cambridge made him a visit, engaged Sir Isaac Newton to resume again the consideration of this subject; and gave occasion to his writing the treatise, which he published under the title of Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. This treatise, full of such a variety of profound inventions, was composed by him, from scarce any other materials than the few propositions before mentioned, in the space of a year and a half.

Quotes about Henry Pemberton

  • As for Newton himself, all that he had done never seems to have inspired him with any sentiment except that of a deeper sense of the narrow and insignificant range of his discoveries as compared with the whole mighty realm of nature. A little before his death, Dr Pemberton tells us, he observed : "I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."
  • Dr. Pemberton tells us a that the first thoughts, which gave rise to Newton's Principia, occurred to him when he had retired from Cambridge into Lincolnshire, in 1666, on account of the plague. Voltaire had his information from Mrs. Catharine Barton, Newton's favourite niece, who married Conduitt, a member of the Royal Society, and one of his intimate friends: from having spent a great portion of her life in his society, she was good authority for such an anecdote, and she related that some fruit, falling from a tree, was the accidental cause of this direction to Newton's speculations.
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