John Aubrey (1626 - 1695) made a collection of notes, anecdotes and gossip about his contemporaries which are gathered together under the title Brief Lives. He was friendly with many of the English scientists of the day including many of the earliest members of the Royal Society.

William Oughtred

Mr Oughtred: Mr Sloper tells me that his father was butler of Eton College: he remembers him, a very old man.

William Oughtred: see Henry Coley's Astrologie. -- A note from my honoured and learned friend Thomas Fludd esquire, who had been High Sheriff of Kent, to the effect that he was Mr Oughtred's acquaintance. He told me that Mr Oughtred confessed to him that he was not satisfied how it came about that one might foretell by the stars, but so it was that it fell out true as he did often by his experience find.

Mr William Oughtred, BD, Cambridge, was born at Eton in Buckinghamshire near Windsor, 5 March 1574.

His father taught to write at Eton, and was a scrivener, and understood common arithmetic, and 'twas no small help and furtherance to his son to be instructed in it when a schoolboy. His grandfather came from the north for killing a man. The last knight of the family was one Sir Jeffrey Oughtred. I think a Northumberland family (enquire).

He was chosen to be one of the King's Scholars at Eton College. He went to King's College in Cambridge at the age of 23, he wrote there his Horologiographia Geometrica, as appears by the title page.

He was instituted and inducted into the rectory or parsonage of Albury in Surrey, worth pounds100 per annum; he was pastor of this place fifty years.

He married Miss Caryl (an ancient family in those parts) by whom he had nine sons (most lived to be men) and four daughters. None of his sons he could make scholars.

He was a little man, had black hair, and black eyes (with a great deal of spirit). His head was always working: he would draw lines and diagrams in the dust.

His oldest son Benjamin (who lives in the house with my cousin Boothby (who gives him his board and now an old man) he bound apprentice to a watchmaker; who did work pretty well, but his sight now fails for that fine work. He told me that his father did use to lie abed till eleven or twelve o'clock, with his doublet on, ever since he can remember. Studied late at night, went not to bed till eleven o'clock, had his tinder box by him, and on the top of his bedpost he had his inkhorn fixed. He slept but little. Sometimes he went not to bed in two or three nights, and would not come down to meals till he had found out what he sought.

He was more famous abroad for his learning, and more esteemed, than at home. Several great mathematicians came over into England on purpose to converse with him. His country neighbours (though they understood not his worth) knew that there must be extraordinary worth in him, that he was so visited by foreigners.

When Mr Seth Ward, MA, and Mr Charles Scarborough, MD, came (as in pilgrimage, to see him and admire him) -- they lay at the inn at Shere (the next parish) -- Mr Oughtred had against their coming prepared a good dinner, and also he had dressed himself thus: an old red russet cloth cassock that had been black in days of yore, girt with an old leather girdle, an old fashioned russet hat, that had been a beaver [hat] in the days of Queen Elizabeth. When learned foreigners came and saw how privately he lived, they did admire and bless themselves, that a person of so much worth and learning should not be better provided for.

Seth Ward, MA, a fellow of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge (now Bishop of Salisbury) came to him and lived with him half a year (and he would not take a farthing for his board) and learned all his mathematics of him. Sir Jonas Moore was with him a good while, and learned; he was but an ordinary accountant before Sir Charles Scarborough was his scholar; so Dr John Wallis was his scholar; so was Christopher Wren his scholar; so was Mr Smethwick, FRS. One Mr Austin (a most ingenious man) was his scholar, and studied so much that he became mad, fell a-laughing, and so died, to the great grief of the old gentleman. Mr Stokes, another scholar, fell mad, and dreamed that the good old gentleman came to him and gave him good advice, and so he recovered, and is still well. Mr Thomas Henshawe, FRS, was his scholar, then a young gentleman. But he did not so much like any, as those that tugged and took pains to work out, questions He taught all free. He could not endure to see a scholar write an ill hand; he taught them all at once to mend their handwriting Amongst others Mr T. Henshawe who when he came to him wrote a lamentable hand, he taught to write very well. He wrote a very elegant'hand, and drew his schemes most neatly, as if they had been cut in copper. His father (no doubt) was an ingenious artist at the pen and taught him to write so well.

He was an astrologer, and very lucky in giving his judgements on nativities; he would say that he did not understand the reason why it should be so: but so it would,happen: he did believe some genius or spirit did. help. He has asserted the rational way of dividing the twelve houses according to the old way, which (the original) Elias Ashmole has of his own handwriting; which transcribe. Captain George Wharton has inserted it in his Almanac, 1658 or 1659 The country people did believe that he could conjure, and 'tis like enough that he might be well enough contented to have them think so. I have seen some notes of his own handwriting on Cattan's Geomancy.

He has told Bishop Ward, and Mr Elias Ashmole (who was his neighbour) 'on this spot of ground' or 'leaning against this oak' or 'that ash, the solution of such or such a problem came into my head, as if infused by a divine genius, after I had thought on it without success for a year, two or three'. Ben Oughtred told me that he had heard his father say to Mr Allen (the famous mathematical instrument maker) in his shop,,that he had found out the longitude; but I scarcely believe it.

Nicholas Mercator, of Holstein went to see him few years before he died. 'Twas about midsummer, and the weather was very hot, and the old gentleman had a good fire, and used Mr Mercator with much humanity (being exceedingly taken with his excellent mathematical wit) and one piece of his courtesy was to be mighty importunate with hi tn to sit on his upper hand next the fire; he being cold (with age) thought Mercator had been so too.

He was a great lover of chemistry, which he studied before his son Ben can remember, and continued it, and told John Evelyn of Deptford, FRS, not above a year before he died, that if he were but five years (or three years) younger, he doubted not to find out the philosopher's stone. He used to talk much of the maiden-earth for the philosopher's stone. It was made of the harshest clear water that he could get, which he let stand to putrify, and evaporated by simmering. Ben tended his furnaces. He has told me that his father would sometimes say that he could make the stone. Quicksilver refined and strained, and gold as it came natural over ...

The old gentleman was a great lover of heraldry, and was well known with the heralds, at their office, who proved his descent.

Memorandum: he struck out above half of the grammar and wrote new instead. He taught a gentleman in half a year to understand Latin, at Mr Duncombe's, his parishioner. Ask his daughter Mrs Brookes at Oxford for it.

His wife was a penurious woman, and would not allow him to burn candle after supper, by which means many a good notion is lost. and many a problem solved; so that Mr Henshawe, when he was there, bought candle, which was a great comfort to the old man.

The right honourable Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel and Surrey, Lord High Marshal of England. was his great patron. and loved him entirely. One time they were likely to have been killed together by the fall at Albury of a grotto, which fell down but just as they were come out. My lord had many grottos about his house, cut in the sandy sides of hills. wherein he delighted to sit and discourse.

In the time of the Civil Wars the Duk e of Florence invited him over, and offered him pounds500 per annum; but he would not accept of it, because of his religion. For notwithstanding all that has been said of this excellent man, he was in danger to have been ejected from his living, and Onslow, that was a great stickler against the royalists and living not far from him -- he translated his Clavis into English and dedicated it to him to gain favour with him, and it did so his business and saved him from sequestration. Now this Onslow was no scholar and hated by the county, for bringing his countrymen of Surrey into the trap of slaughter when so many petitioners were killed at Westminster and on the roads in pursuit.

I have heard his neighbour ministers say that he was a pitiful preacher; the reason was because he never studied it, but bent all his thoughts on the mathematics; but when he was in danger of being sequestered for a royalist, he fell to the study of divinity. and preached (they said) admirably well, even in his old age.

He was a good Latinist and Grecian, as appears in a little treatise of his against one Delamain, a joiner, who was so saucy as to write against him (I think about his circles of proportion): upon which occasion I remember I have seen. many years since, twenty or more good verses made, which begin to this purpose:

Thus may some mason or rude carpenter
Put into the balance his rule and compasses
'Gainst learned Euclid's pen etc.

Enquire for them and insert them.

Before he died he burned a world of papers, and said that the world was not worthy of them; he was so proud. He burned also several printed books, and would not stir, till they were consumed. His son Ben was confident he understood magic. Mr Oughtred, at the Custom House (his grandson), has some of his papers; I myself have his Pitiscus, embellished with his excellent marginal notes, which I esteem as a great rarity. I wish I could also have got his Billingsley's Euclid, which John Collins says was full of his annotations.

He died 13 June 1660 in the year of his age eighty-eight and odd days. Ralph Greatorex his great friend, the mathematical instrument maker, said he conceived he died with joy for the coming in of the king which was the twenty-ninth of May before. 'And are you sure he is restored? Then give me a glass of sack to drink his sacred majesty's health': his spirits were then quite upon the wing to fly away. The fifteenth of June he was buried in the chancel at Albury, on the north side near the screen between the chancel and the body of the church. I had much ado to find the very place where the bones of this learned and good man lay (and 'twas but sixteen years after his death). When I first asked his son Ben, he told me that truly the great grief for his father's death was so great, that he did not remember the place: now I should have thought it would have made him remember it the better: but when he had put on his considering cap (which was never like his father's), he told as aforesaid, with which others did agree: there is not to this day any manner of memorial for him, which is a great pity. I have desired for Mr John Evelyn etc, to speak to our patron, the Duke of Norfolk, to bestow a decent inscription of marble on him, which will also perpetuate his grace's fame. I asked Ben concerning the report of his father's dying a Roman Catholic: he told me that 'twas true indeed that when he was sick some priests came from my lord duke's (then Mr Henry Howard, of Norfolk) to him to have discourse with him, in order to his conversion to their church, but his father was then past understanding. Ben was then by, he told me.

He wrote a little treatise of watchmaking for the use of his son Benjamin, who told me that Mr Horton of Whitehall, of the Woodyard, has the true copy of it.

I have heard Mr Hobbes say (and very truly) that with all his great skill in algebra, he did never add one proposition to geometry; he could bind up a bundle well.

From John Aubrey's Brief Lives circa 1650. (Edited by R Barber, Boydell Press, 1982)

Copyright © 2003-2012 International Slide Rule Museum