The Correspondence of John Collins

Primary Contributors:

Philip Beeley

Detail of John Collins’s signature. (Cambridge University Library, MS Add. 9597/2/18, fol. 57r; source of image: Philip Beeley)

John Collins (1625–1683)

The son of a nonconformist minister, whose income was small and at best irregular, John Collins was born at Water Eaton near Oxford. Because of the family’s impoverishment, his education did not proceed beyond grammar school. A short period spent as apprentice to the Oxford bookseller Thomas Allam marked the beginning of a lifelong interest in the book trade. Following the failure of Allam’s business, Collins entered the service of the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II, as junior clerk of the kitchen. From his superior, John Marr, he received instruction in aspects of practical mathematics such as dialling — the theory of the construction of sundials —  and accounting. Following the outbreak of the Civil Wars and the reduction of the royal household, Collins found work on board an English merchantman which for most of the seven years he served was engaged by the Republic of Venice in its naval war against the Turks. As before at court, he devoted his free time to furthering his knowledge of mathematics as well as of Latin.

Following his return to London, in 1649, Collins earned his living as a teacher of mathematics and handwriting, while also serving as accountant to the alum farmers, a group of London merchants involved in the alum trade. During this time he also produced a string of practical books, including An Introduction to Merchants’ Accounts (1652), The Sector on a Quadrant (1658), and The Mariners’ Plain Scale (1659). The Restoration saw him move into government employment as accountant to the Excise Office. When through the efforts of William Brereton he was made accountant to the Brooke House Committee, in 1668, a deputy was employed in his place. Around 1670, when he married Bellona Austen, he was made secretary to the Council of Plantations. Later, he served for five years as manager of the Farthing Office, but his experience in all these employments was that remuneration came either late or not at all due to an over-stretched Treasury. As a way out, and to have more time for his scientific interests, he sought to set up a stationer’s business, but gave up for lack of capital. In the final years of his life he held a minor post as accountant to the Royal Fishery Company and during this time produced two tracts pioneering the use of arithmetical methods in questions of economics, A Plea for the Bringing in of Irish Cattel (1680) and Salt and Fishery (1682).

Against the backdrop of these professional disappointments and failures, Collins found intellectual succour in the private goal he set himself in the early 1650s: the promotion of mathematical learning. Books constituted an important part of pursuing this goal. Alongside those he penned himself, a number of which went through multiple editions, he used his excellent contacts to the London book trade in order to see numerous contemporary mathematical works through the press, including Thomas Salusbury’s Mathematical Collections and Translations (1661–5), Isaac Barrow’s Lectiones geometricae (1670), and John Wallis’s Mechanica (1669–70). Crucially, Collins built up an extensive network of correspondents spanning the British Isles and continental Europe, through which he disseminated and exchanged mathematical news and procured the latest publications. Among the members of his epistolary circle were to be found John Pell, James Gregory, Wallis, Isaac Newton, G. W. Leibniz, and R. F. de Sluse. Such was the pivotal role he came to play in the scientific life of Restoration England, that contemporaries called him ‘Mersennus Anglus’. His extensive collection of letters was seen by the Royal Society as an important source of evidence for establishing Newton’s claim in the priority dispute with Leibniz over discovery of the calculus. Collins also wrote many draft responses for Henry Oldenburg to mathematical correspondence the secretary of the Royal Society received from abroad. Self-deprecatingly modest because of his lowly origins, he was elected fellow in 1667, and for many years oversaw the Society’s financial accounts.

Partners and Additional Contributors

Philip Beeley’s work on the correspondence of John Collins has been made possible thanks to a grant awarded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council [AHRC] for the project ‘Mathematical Culture in Restoration England: The Life and Letters of John Collins’. The AHRC award was made jointly to Dr Beeley and the late Dr Jacqueline Stedall, whose untimely death from cancer in October 2014 cruelly prevented her keenly anticipated work on this project. Dr Beeley would like to acknowledge Jackie’s crucially important contributions both at the planning stage and during the project’s early months.

Thanks are due to EMLO’s former Assistant Editor Mark Thakkar and to Digital Fellows Alex Hitchman, Katherine Steiner, and Tim Wade for their work to help prepare the metadata for upload to the union catalogue.

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This batch of metadata for 273 letters will be followed by a final upload, to be added later in the summer, which will complete the inventory.

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