Blink and you’ll miss it: Penistone memorial to Nicholas Saunderson, the acclaimed blind mathematician

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Nicholas Saunderson memorial obelisk, St John’s Gardens, Penistone

Penistone may not be the best place to go for a pint, but a trip to its graveyard reveals the story of an astonishing local man.

The colourful mosaic obelisk is not hard to miss amongst rows of modest gravestones in St John’s Gardens, Penistone.

Created by artist Sarah Jones-Morris and local school children, it is a proud monument to the area’s most renowned export-the blind scientist, Nicholas Saunderson.

Born in 1682 in the small village of nearby Thurlston, Nicholas lost his sight aged one, after a vicious bout of small pox. Yet despite receiving injuries so severe his eyes had to be fully removed he went on to hold one of the most prestigious academic posts in the world.

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Nicholas Saunderson

Fortunate enough to have a supportive family who read to him during his early years, helped him gain a place at Penistone Grammar School, where he quickly developed a strong interest in Latin, Greek, French and Mathematics. Able to absorb information at an impressive rate, he mastered Eucid’s Elements and became a talented flutist.

However, being blind during the late 17th century rendered the option of attending university for further studies remote. Yet an encounter with mathematician William West at the age of 18 changed all that. Under West’s guidance, and again with reading help from friends, Nicholas was taught higher mathematics. By the time he was 25, his peers were so impressed by his intellect that they convinced him to apply to Cambridge.

He moved into Christ College with his friend Joshua Dunn, where, despite not having the money to be formally admitted to the college or the university, he was soon offered a teaching post by the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, William Whitson.

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Memorial spiral to Nicholas in the gardens

His lectures on highly advanced subjects such as Newtonian philosophy, hydrostatics, mechanics, optics, sound, and astronomy, made him popular with large groups of students.

Later, he met astronomy and experimental philosophy lecturer, Roger Cotes, who he worked with to try produce a more accessible version of Newton’s Principa for students. He even met Newton himself, who helped him understand some of the more complex theorems.

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An image of Nicholas Saunderson’s calculator

Within three years, Nicholas had built up an impressive reputation that made him an ideal candidate for the  Lucasian Chair, which had been made vacant after Whitson was removed due to his religious views. Although the honour was generally reserved for those with a formal qualification, Nicholas convinced Queen Anne to award him the degree of Master of the Arts.

Once in the role he focused his work on algebra and calculus and devoted his time to teaching rather than publicising his work.

Whilst carrying out such complex studies may seem impossible without the aid of sight, Nicholas got around this problem by inventing a personal calculator, which consisted of a cribbage-like board with holes into which pegs could be placed.

During this time some also allege that he discovered Bayes Theorem, a formula that calculates conditional probabilities, and was conferred a Doctor of Law (LLD) by King George II and fellow of the Royal Society.

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An abacus and brail pay homage to Nicholas in the gardens

It was only posthumously that his comprehensive book, The Elements of Algebra, was fully formed, using lecture notes he had begun to write up shortly before his death from scurvy at the age of 57 in 1739.

An astonishing man, he proved that having a disability should not be a barrier to being able to achieve one’s dreams. 

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