Reuben Burrow

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For the outlaw see Rube Burrow
For the Reverend of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church see Reuben Burrow (reverend)

Reuben Burrow (30 December 1747 – 7 June 1792) was an English mathematician and orientalist. Initially a teacher, he was appointed assistant to Maskelyne, then astronomer-royal, at the Royal Greenwich Observatory and was involved in the Schiehallion experiment. He later conducted research in India, becoming one of the first members of the Asiatic Society.


Burrow was born at Hoberley, near Shadwell, Leeds. His father, a small farmer, gave him some schooling, occasionally interrupted by labour on the farm. He showed an ability and keenness for mathematics early on, and after some instruction from a schoolmaster named Crooks at Leeds, he obtained a clerkship in the office of a London merchant and reached London in 1765. A year later he became usher in a school of B. Webb, the ‘celebrated writing-master.’ He next set up as schoolmaster on his own account at Portsmouth, and, after giving up this place in 1770 to become engineer to a projected expedition to Borneo, was appointed assistant to Maskelyne, then astronomer-royal, at Greenwich. Two years afterwards he married Anne Purvis, daughter of a poulterer in Leadenhall Street, and started a school at Greenwich.

In 1774, Burrow aided Maskelyne in his observations in the Schiehallion experiment, for the determination of the Earth's attraction. He complained that his services were insufficiently recognised. Soon afterwards, however, he was appointed ‘mathematical teacher in the drawing-room at the Tower,’ where there was then a training school for artillery officers, afterwards merged into the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. His salary was £100 a year. Here he became editor of the Ladies and Gentlemen's Diary, or Royal Almanack. It was started by Thomas Carnan, in opposition to the Ladies' Diary, published by the Stationers' Company and edited by Charles Hutton. The company claimed a monopoly of almanacs, but their claim was disallowed by the court of common pleas, on their bringing an action against Carnan, who published the first number of his diary in December 1775. It continued till 1786, the word 'Gentlemen' being dropped after 1780. Part of it was devoted to mathematical problems by Burrow and various contributors.

Burrow quarrelled with his rival, Hutton. He eked out his living by taking private pupils, and did a little work for publishers; but his family was increasing, and in 1782 he accepted an appointment in India, procured by his patron, Colonel Henry Watson, for many years chief engineer in Bengal. He claimed indignantly but fruitlessly to be paid for extra work in a survey of the coast from Essex to Sussex with a party of pupils in 1777, and sailed in October 1782 in a fleet commanded by Admiral Howe. Soon after reaching India he wrote to the Governor-General Warren Hastings stating his desire to generate more money in order to conduct further research. He was also interested in ancient geometry, as shown by his book on Apollonius: A Restitution of the Geometrical Treatise of Apollonius Pergæus on Inclinations (1779), and was curious to investigate the mathematical treatises in ancient Hindu and other Oriental literature. He later published Hindoo Knowledge of the Binomial Theorem. He asked for Hastings's encouragement; and other letters and papers show that he pursued these inquiries, having learnt Sanskrit for the purpose, and collected many Sanskrit and Persian manuscripts. He was appointed mathematical teacher of the engineers' corps, and afterwards had some employment in connection with a proposed trigonometrical survey of Bengal.

Burrow was one of the first members of The Asiatic Society founded by fellow orientalist William Jones and contributed to their research. He died at Buxor on 7 June 1792. His wife, with his son and his three daughters, joined him in India in 1790, and returned after his death. His son died as an officer in the service of the East India Company. A Short Account of the late Mr. Burrow's Measurement of a Degree of Longitude and another of Latitude near the tropic in Bengal was published posthumously by his friend Dalby in 1796.


  • R. Burrow, A proof that the Hindus had the Binomial Theorem, Asiatick Researches; Or, Transactions of the Society Instituted in Bengal for inquiring into the history and antiquities of the arts, sciences and literature of Asia, Vol. 2 (Printed for Booksellers, London), pp. 487–497. The volume contains other pieces by Burrow (pp. 473, 477, 483)
  • R. Burrow, A proof that the Hindus had the Binomial Theorem (abstract), in Memoirs of Science and the Arts, Or, An Abridgement of the Transactions Published by the Principal Learned and Oeconomical Societies Established in Europe, Asia and America, Vol. 1, Pt 1 (Printed by Delahoy for Robert Faulder, J. Edgerton and J. Sewell, London,1793), pp. 260–261.

For Colonel Henry Watson (1737?-1786)

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainStephen, Leslie (1886). "Burrow, Reuben". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography. 07. London: Smith, Elder & Co.