John Keill, mathematician and astronomer, died on the 31st of August, 1721.
John Keill was an argumentative bloke and it seems his entire career was spent in either sarcastic comment on the works of other distinguished scientists and theorists or in ‘grab them by the throat’ attacks on anyone who dared criticise Sir Isaac Newton. Charles Darwin had his ‘Bulldog’ and John Keill was Newton’s ‘Rotweiller’. At Oxford, Keill was an enthusiastic student of Newton's ‘Principia’ and, whilst he was Lecturer in Experimental Philosophy at Hart Hall College, he was the first to offer a course on Newtonian Natural Philosophy at either of the English Universities – Oxford or Cambridge. He offered ‘proper experiments’, but many of his demonstrations were mathematical rather than experimental as confirmed by Desaguliers, who succeeded Keill in 1710. Desaguliers wrote that Keill was “[the] first who taught natural philosophy by experiments in a mathematical manner… instructing his auditors in the laws of motion, …and some of the chief propositions of Sir Isaac Newton.”
Keill’s first foray into argumentative territory was to pick holes in Dr. Burnet’s ‘Theory of the Earth’. He did that in his ‘Examination’, which increased his reputation and honed his sarcasm. Burnet had written up some pretty fanciful theories of the Earth’s creation, which owed more to mythology and prose than to science and astronomy and Keill set about disproving them and the similar hypothesis of a chap called Whiston, who wrote ‘A New Theory of the Earth’ and to whom Keill also took a dislike. At the same time, he attacked Rene Descartes for his notion of ‘vortices’ and, not satisfied with that affront, he had the temerity to attack Spinosa, Hobbes and Malebranche. Huyghens’ theorems of centrifugal force fared rather better as Keill used those to explain the figure of the Earth. A ‘Who’s Who’ of eminent scientific luminaries and the wee man from Edinburgh had torn into them with a vengeance. Burnet and Whiston replied in print, but Keill’s rejoinder was dismissive and he turned to his next victim.
That was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German mathematician and philosopher, who reputedly developed the infinitesimal calculus independently of Newton. Keill proceeded to fry poor Gottfried whom he accused of ‘Vorsprung durch Diebstal’ – theft or plagiarism at best. Leibniz had started the affray in 1705, when he accused Newton of plagiarism in claiming to be the inventor of the fluxional calculus. Keill, sponsored by the Royal Society, sought to show that Leibniz had derived his differential calculus from papers by Newton, which had been communicated to him many years before by Collins and Oldenburg. Keill wrote to Leibniz, who appealed to the Society for evidence, with the result that a committee of eleven reported on the 24th of April, 1712, in the ‘Commercium Epistolicum’, edited by Keill. That concluded, “We reckon Mr. Newton the first inventor, and are of [the] opinion that Mr. Keill, in asserting the same, has been noways injurious to Mr. Leibnitz.” Newton thoroughly believed in the truth of Keill's charge, but he eventually grew tired of his ‘avowed champion’ stirring up trouble. Leibniz wrote to Newton asking him to tell Keill to withdraw his accusations, but Keill never relented and Leibniz died unforgiven in 1716.
Keill also ‘had a go’ at the Swiss mathematician, Johann Bernoulli, who was a champion of Leibniz. Keill also sought to prove Bernouilli's own plagiarism in a solution of the inverse problem of centripetal forces (don’t ask me!). Things livened up when Bernoulli spotted an error in Newton’s work and wrote explanatory articles suggesting Newton could not have independently invented calculus. Crivvens, what sacrilege; no wonder Keill was incensed enough to write, “I never saw anything written with so much impudence, falsehood and slander.” Keill also had the honour of Britain in mind when he wrote a stinging reply, which was published in the ‘Journal Litéraire’. Newton made it up with Bernoulli, but true to form, Keill never did.
John Keill was born in Edinburgh on the 1st of December, 1671, and went to school there before studying at Edinburgh University. Young Johnnie attained a distinction in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy under Dr. David Gregory, and graduated M. A. in 1692. After that, Gregory went to Oxford and John Keill went with him, having obtained a scholarship – a ‘Scotch exhibition’ – to finance his studies at Balliol College. He was ‘incorporated M. A.’ on the 2nd of February, 1694, although it was apparently customary to incorporate Scottish Masters of Arts as Bachelors only. His other achievements were quite distinguished, giving him his due place in the history of mathematics and astronomy. He turned down the post of Mathematician to the Venetian Republic in favour of a job as ‘decypherer’ to Queen Anne. Apparently, his skill in deciphering manuscripts was quite remarkable, but he only received 100l. a year, half his predecessor's income. However, he lasted only a year in that position, before being unanimously elected to the Savilian Professorship of Astronomy in Oxford, in 1712. On the 9th of July a year later, Oxford conferred upon him the degree of D. M.
Keill did great things for the study of geometry, trigonometry and logarithms and, in 1715, he published ‘Euclidis elementorum libri priores sex item undecimus & duodecimus’, in which he urged the revival of the study of Euclid. He also published ‘Trigonometriæ Elementa’ and ‘Introductio ad Veram Astronomiam’; the latter included a ‘sketch’ of the history of astronomy. Keill also published ‘On the Newtonian Solution of Kepler's Problem’, which helped to advance the science of astronomy. He also wrote about the forces at work between particles in ‘On the Laws of Attraction’ and provided his own theories on the origin of the universe. He published many of his lectures in ‘Introductio ad Veram Physicam’, in which he asserted in his usual forthright manner, “The only true philosophers are those who would account for all effects and phenomena by the known established laws of motion and mechanics.” That publication was considered to be Keill’s best work and was viewed as an excellent introduction to Newton’s ‘Principia’.
John Keill died of a severe fever on the 31st of August, 1721, at his home and was buried at St Mary's Church, Oxford. Oddly enough, considering he was left a fortune by his brother James, he never made a will.