Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers (forthcoming)

Thomas Hockey (ed.)


William Whewell  (1794-1866)

 Michael S. Reidy
Department of History and Philosophy
Montana State University
 Malcolm R. Forster
Department of Philosophy
University of Wisconsin - Madison

Whewell, William (b Lancaster, England, 24 May 1794; d Cambridge, England, 6 March 1866) Born the eldest son of a carpenter, William Whewell rose to become Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and a central figure in Victorian science.  After attending the grammar school at Heversham in Westmorland, Whewell entered Trinity College, Cambridge and graduated Second Wrangler.  He became a Fellow of the College in 1817, took his M.A. degree in 1819, and his D.D. degree in 1844.

         By the first quarter of the nineteenth century, French mathematicians, led by Pierre-Simon de Laplace and Joseph Lagrange, had established a supremacy over British mathematicians in applying analytical methods to Newtonian physics. Fourier on heat, Ampere on electromagnetism, and Fresnel on light represent only a few of the triumphs of French mathematical physics.  In 1819, the year Whewell helped form the Cambridge Philosophical Society, he also published his first textbook, An Elementary Treatise on Mechanics.  It was the first English text on applied mathematics that consistently used continental symbolism and became the standard text used by undergraduates at Cambridge.  Along with his second textbook, A Treatise on Dynamics (1823), Whewell became a leading agent for bringing the French analytical methods into British science.  He went on to hold professorships first in Mineralogy (1828), then in Moral Philosophy (1838), and ultimately he accepted the Mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge (1841), a crown appointment that he held for over twenty-five years.  He was arguably the most powerful figure in British University education in the mid-nineteenth century, advancing one of the foremost mathematical curricula in history.

     Along with his role in educational reform, Whewell also proved a zealous and prolific researcher.  He published significant works in experimental physics, crystallography, mineralogy, physical astronomy, science education, architecture, poetry, and religion, along with a bewildering number of more popular reviews, lectures, and sermons.  He is the inventor of the self-registering anemometer, and the originator of many new scientific terms, including “ion,” “cathode,” “Eocene,” “Miocene,” “physicist,” and “scientist.”  Whewell is best known for his multi-volume History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) and his equally impressive Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), both unrivaled in their day.  These works helped to define what “science” was in the early Victorian era, an important period in the professionalization of the sciences. 

     Whewell’s work on history, on philosophy, and his own researches in physical astronomy were intimately linked; in the mid-1830s, Whewell composed his History, outlined his Philosophy, and published his most extensive tidal researches.  Physical astronomy, according to Whewell, had reached a state of maturity that other sciences could attempt to emulate. He referred to it as the “queen of sciences,” the only complete science, and it was central to both his History and his Philosophy.   In these works, Whewell laid out a complete philosophy of scientific methodology. His History focused on the gradual ascension of scientific knowledge from facts, to phenomenological laws, and finally to causal laws.  Each science began with a “prelude” in which a mass of unconnected facts predominated.  The act of “colligation” by the scientist brought about an “inductive epoch” where a useful theory was formed through the creative role of the scientist.  A “sequel” followed where the successful theory was refined and applied. Whewell used the general features of this historical development, based largely on the “prelude,” “Inductive epoch,” and “sequel” in the history of physical astronomy, to form his philosophy of science. 

      Whewell was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Like Kant, Whewell emphasized the creative role of the mind and the need for bold unifying conjectures that far surpassed the empirical evidence.  Because a “boldness and license of guessing” was a necessary aspect of all progress in science, Whewell also believed the scientist must be equally prepared for testing each hypothesis. Though a correct theory should be able to account for all of the observed facts and predict new ones, the true test of a scientific hypothesis came when it explained “cases of a kind different from those which were contemplated in [its] formation.” According to Whewell, cases in which “inductions from classes of facts altogether different have thus jumped together,” a peculiar feature he termed “Consilience of Induction,” belonged only to the best-established theories in the history of science.

      His own research in physical astronomy was in what he termed “tidology.”  Between 1833 and 1850, Whewell wrote fourteen major papers on the study of the tides, along with numerous shorter essays. By following the analogy of physical astronomy, his model science, and Kepler, his model scientist, Whewell sought to have masses of observations made around the globe to determine the phenomenological laws of the tides.  He followed two major lines of research.  The first advanced the earlier work of John William Lubbock and entailed an analysis of long-term observations to determine the tidal constants at the major ports in Britain, including the establishment of each port and the effects of the parallax and declination of the sun and moon.  His second line of research was unique and entailed an analysis of short-term but simultaneous observations along the entire coast of Great Britain, and eventually Europe and America.  In July 1835, Whewell organized a “great tide experiment” where the tides were measured every fifteen minutes for a fortnight at over 650 tidal stations in nine countries, including Great Britain, France, and the United States.  He used these simultaneous measurements to draw a map of “co-tidal lines” to determine the motion of the tide wave as it progressed in the oceans.

        Whewell’s work on the tides was moderately and modestly successful. He combined his method of analyzing long-term observations with simultaneous short-term measurements in a unique fashion to determine the course of the tide around the coast of Great Britain.  He determined the empirical laws for the parallax and declination of the moon and sun, and quite correctly noted the importance of the diurnal inequality – his prize analysis – for any future theory.  Along with John Herschel, Whewell pioneered the graphical representation of data and its use in theoretical investigations.  He used his unique “graphical method of curves” throughout his tidal studies, and, in turn, used his tidal researches as an explanation of the process of data reduction and analysis in his Philosophy.  Thus, though Herschel had laid out the graphical method in 1833, it was Whewell who explained it for the first time in combination with other methods of data analysis, such as the method of residues, and popularized its use through the pages of his Philosophy. As G. B. Airy, the Astronomer Royal acknowledged, “viewing the two independent methods introduced by Mr. Whewell, of reducing the tabular numbers to law by a process of mathematical calculation, and of exhibiting the law to the eye without any mathematical operation by the use of curves, we must characterize them as the best specimens of reduction of new observations that we have ever seen." He received the Royal Society’s Royal Medal for his efforts in 1838. 

      John Herschel wrote of Whewell, “a more wonderful variety and amount of knowledge in almost every department of human inquiry was perhaps never in the same interval of time accumulated by any man.” Whewell may well be considered the last great natural philosopher, not only owing to the breadth and depth of his own interests, but because through his efforts in science education, and in his role as critic, reviewer, and adjudicator of science he helped usher in the professionalization of the modern “scientist.”  He both coined the term and helped to define what it meant.  He held many titles, including Fellow of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Astronomical Society, and honorary membership in numerous foreign societies. He died in Trinity College, Cambridge, where he had spent his entire intellectual career. 


Primary Source

Whewell’s papers are kept at the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge.  Location of documents is given in A Catalogue of the Whewell Manuscripts at Trinity College Cambridge (The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts: London, 1973). Isaac Todhunter has published a two-volume account that examines Whewell’s writings (vol. I) and gives selections of his scientific correspondence (vol. II).  Mrs. Stair-Douglas has written a biography that covers Whewell’s more personal life, and includes a large selection of Whewell’s letters to his family and friends.  Both are informative but dated. Isaac Todhunter, William Whewell, D. D., Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.  An Account of his Writings with Selections from his Literary and Scientific Correspondence, 2 vols. (New York: Johnson Reprint, 1970);  Mrs. Stair-Douglas, The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell, 2nd ed. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co.: 1882).  Robert E. Butts has produced a more specialized selection of Whewell’s works in the philosophy of science. Robert E. Butts (ed.), William Whewell’s Theory of Scientific Method (Pittsburgh, 1968) [reprinted by Hacket, 1989]. 

    Whewell’s major works include History of the Inductive Sciences, from the Earliest to the Present Time. 3 vols. (London, 1837) and The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, founded upon their History. 2 vols. (London, 1840).  His works pertaining specifically to astronomy include An Elementary Treatise on Mechanics (London, 1819); A Treatise on Dynamics (London, 1823); “Essay Towards a First Approximation to a Map of Cotidal Lines,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 123 (1833), pp. 147-236; “On the Results of an Extensive System of Tide Observations Made on the Coasts of Europe and America in June 1835,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 126 (1836), pp. 289-341; “On the Diurnal Inequality Wave Along the Coasts of Europe,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 127 (1837), pp. 227-244.


Secondary Sources

Studies of Whewell were slow in coming, but steadily grew, and reached a crescendo in the early 1990s.  A short list of the most important include Robert E. Butts, "Whewell, William," in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, ed. Charles Gillispie, vol. XIV (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976), pp. 292-295;  Walter F. Cannon, "William Whewell, F. R. S. (1794-1866), II. Contributions to Science and Learning," Royal Society, Notes and Records 19 (1964); Harvey W. Becher, "William Whewell and Cambridge Mathematics," Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, 11 (1980-81), pp. 1-48; Menachem Fisch, William Whewell, Philosopher of Science (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991);  Menachem Fisch and Simon Schaffer (eds.), William Whewell: A Composite Portrait (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991); Richard Yeo, Defining Science: William Whewell, Natural Knowledge, and Public Debate in Early Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge U. P, 1993); and Richard Yeo (ed.), Collected Works of William Whewell, 16 vols. (Thoemmes Press, 2001).