Landscape (UK)

A MAN OF LEARNING

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Robert Recorde was one of the most gifted academics of his generation: a mathematic­ian, teacher and doctor, who was the first to bring the principles of algebra and geometry, written in accessible English rather than Latin, to a ‘lay’ readership. Born in Tenby in 1512, he probably attended a school at St Mary’s before leaving Wales to study at Oxford and then Cambridge. He became Royal physician to both Edward VI and Mary I, and was a controller of the Royal Mint. His first book, The Grounde of Artes, written in 1543, was the most popular arithmetic book of the Elizabetha­n age; written, like most of his works, as a conversati­on between a teacher and his pupil. He also wrote successful books on astronomy and medicine. But it was for his last work, The Whetstone of Witte, of 1557, that he is probably best remembered. Discussing more advanced mathematic­s, “to avoide the tediouse repetition of these words: is equalle to” he invented the equals sign, choosing the two parallel lines because “noe 2 thynges can be moare equalle”. In 1556, Robert had accused the powerful privy councillor William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, probably truthfully, of misconduct. The Earl successful­ly sued for libel, and Robert could not pay the £1,000 damages. He died in a debtors’ prison a year later, aged just 46.

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