Online Encyclopedia

JAMES SYLVESTER

Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V26, Page 284 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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JAMES SYLVESTER JOSEPH (1814–1897), English mathe- m4tician, was born in London on the 3rd of September 1814. He went to school first at Highgate and then at Liverpool, and in 1831 entered St John's College, Cambridge. In his Tripos examination, which through illness he was prevented from taking till 1839, he was placed as second wrangler, but being a Jew and unwilling to sign the Thirty-nine Articles, he could not compete for one of the Smith's prizes and was ineligible for a fellowship, nor could he even take a degree: this last, however, he obtained at Trinity College, Dublin, where religious restrictions were no longer in force. After leaving Cambridge he was appointed to the chair of natural philosophy at University College, London, where his friend A. De Morgan was one of his colleagues, but he resigned in 184o in order to become professor of mathematics in the university of Virginia. There, however, he remained only six months, for certain views on slavery, strongly held and injudiciously expressed, entailed unpleasant consequences, and necessitated his return to England, where he obtained in 1844 the post of actuary to the Legal and Equitable Life Assurance Company. In the course of the ensuing ten years he published a large amount of original work, much of it dealing with the theory of invariants, which marked him as one of the foremost mathematicians of the time. But he failed to obtain either of two posts—the professorships of mathematics at the Royal Military Academy and of geometry in Gresham College—for which he applied in 1854, though he was elected to the former in the following year on the death of his successful competitor. At Woolwich he remained until 187o, and although he was not a great success as an elementary teacher, that period of his life was very rich in mathematical work, which included remarkable advances in the theory of the partition of numbers and further contributions to that of invariants, together with an important research which yielded a proof, hitherto lacking, of Newton's rule for the discovery of imaginary roots for algebraical equations up to and including the fifth degree. In 1874 he produced several papers suggested by A. Peaucellier's discovery of the straight line link motion associated with his name, and he also invented the skew pentagraph. Three years later he was appointed professor of mathematics in the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, stipulating for an annual salary of $5000, to be paid in gold. At Baltimore he gave an enormous impetus to the study of the higher mathematics in America, and during the time he was there he contributed to the American Journal of Mathematics, of which he was the first editor, no less than thirty papers, some of great length, dealing mainly with modern algebra, the theory of numbers, theory of partitions and universal algebra. In 1883 he was chosen to succeed Henry Smith in the Savilian chair of geometry at Oxford, and there he produced his theory of reciprocants, largely by the aid of his " method of infinitesimal variation." In 1893 loss of health and failing eyesight obliged him to give up the active duties of his chair, and a deputy professor being appointed, he went to live in London, where he died on the 15th of March 1899. Sylvester's work suffered from a certain lack of steadiness and method in his character. For long periods he was mathematically unproductive, but then sudden inspiration would come upon him and his ideas and theories poured forth far more quickly than he could record them. All the same his output of work was as large as it was valuable. The scope of his researches was described by Arthur Cayley, his friend and fellow worker, in the following words: " They relate chiefly to finite analysis, and cover by their subjects a large part of it—algebra, determinants, elimination, the theory of equations, partitions, tactic, the theory of forms, matrices, reciprocants, the Hamiltonian numbers, &c.; analytical and pure geometry occupy a less prominent position; and mechanics, optics and astronomy are not absent." Sylvester was a good linguist, and a diligent composer of verse, both in English and Latin, but the opinion he cherished that his poems were on a level with his mathematical achievements has not met with general acceptance. The first volume of his Collected Mathematical Papers, edited by H. F. Baker, appeared in 1904.
End of Article: JAMES SYLVESTER
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