Robert Woodhouse

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Robert Woodhouse (28 April 1773 – 23 December 1827) was an English mathematician and Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He authored one of the earliest comprehensive histories in the English language for the development of the methods of calculus.



A Treatise on Isoperimetrical Problems, and the Calculus of Variations (1810)

  • On a novel plan, I have combined the historical progress with the scientific developement of the subject; and endeavoured to lay down and inculcate the principles of the Calculus, whilst I traced its gradual and successive improvements. ...there is little doubt, the student's curiosity and attention will be more excited and sustained, when he finds history blended with science, and the demonstration of formulae accompanied with the object and the causes of their invention, than by a mere analytical exposition of the principles of the subject. He will have an opportunity of observing how a calculus, from simple beginnings, by easy steps, and seemingly the slightest improvements, is advanced to perfection; his curiosity too, may be stimulated to an examination of the works of the contemporaries of Newton; works once read and celebrated: yet the writings of the Bernoullis are not antiquated from loss of beauty, nor deserve neglect...
  • The Authors who write near the beginnings of science, are, in general the most instructive: they take the reader more along with them, shew him the real difficulties, and, which is a main point, teach him the subject, the way by which they themselves learned it.
  • There is another point... and that is the method of demonstration by geometrical figures. In the first solution of Isoperimetrical problems, the Bernoullis use diagrams and their properties. Euler, in his early essays, does the same; then, as he improves the calculus he gets rid of constructions. In his Treatise [footnote: Methodus inveniendi, &c.], he introduces geometrical figures, but almost entirely, for the purpose of illustration: and finally, in the tenth volume of the Novi Comm. Petrop. as Lagrange had done in the Miscellanea Taurinensea, he expounds the calculus, in its most refined state, entirely without the aid of diagrams and their properties. A similar history will belong to every other method of calculation, that has been advanced to any degree of perfection.
  • Although I am not aware of having omitted any thing that is requisite to the full explanation of the subject, yet I cannot flatter myself that it will be thoroughly understood from this Work alone. For, in general it may be laid down as true, that no doctrine, of novelty and intricacy, can be completely taught by a single Treatise. It seems to be indispensably necessary for the student, that the subject should be put under several points of view: that if not apprehended under one, it may be under another.
  • To history we shall adhere no farther, than is sufficient to preserve an unbroken series of methods gradually becoming more exact and extensive; the series beginning with the first rude, though perfectly just, method of James Bernoulli, and ending with Lagrange's exquisite and refined Calculus of Variations.
  • The methods of the Bernoullis and of Taylor, were held, at the time of their invention, to be most complete and exact. Several imperfections, however, belong to them. They do not apply to problems involving three or more properties; nor do they extend to cases involving differentials of a higher order than the first: for instance, they will not solve the problem, in which a curve is required, that with its radius of curvature and evolute shall contain the least area. Secondly, they do not extend to cases, in which the analytical expression contains, besides x, y, and their differentials, integral expressions; for instance, they will not solve the second case proposed in James Bernoulli's Programma if the Isoperimetrical condition be excluded; for then the arc s, an integral, since it =, is not given. Thirdly, they do not extend to cases, in which the differential function, expressing the maximum should depend on a quantity, not given except under the form of a differential equation, and that not integrable; for instance, they will not solve the case of the curve of the quickest descent, in a resisting medium, the descending body being solicited by any forces whatever.
  • Taylor's method... has no recommendation from its neatness and perspicuity, but is justly censured by John Bernoulli for its obscure conciseness.

Quotes about Woodhouse

  • In 1810 a work was published in Cambridge under the following title—A Treatise on Isoperimetrical Problems and the Calculus of Variations. By Robert Woodhouse... This work details the history of the Calculus of Variations from its origin until the close of the eighteenth century, and has obtained a high reputation for accuracy and clearness. During the present century some of the most eminent mathematicians have endeavored to enlarge the boundaries of the subject, and it seemed probable that a survey of what had been accomplished would not be destitute of interest and value. Accordingly the present work has been undertaken... As the early history of the Calculus of Variations had been already so ably written, it was unnecessary to go over it again; but it seemed convenient to commence with a short account of the two works of Lagrange and a work of Lacroix...
    • I. Todhunter, A History of the Calculus of Variations during the Nineteenth Century (1861)
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