The eldest son of Henry Gascoigne by his first wife, Margaret Cartwright, Gascoigne appears to have spent most of his short life at the family home in Middleton, between Wakefield and Leeds. By his own testimony his formal education was slight, and there is no hint whatever as to the origin of his interest or competence in scientific matters.2 One can only say that both were fully developed by 1640, when he entered into scholarly correspondence, and that his work was cut off not long thereafter by his participation in the English Civil War. He died in the royalist disaster at Marston Moor.
From the time of the appearance of the telescope on the scientific scene in 1610, its utility for purely descriptive purposes was taken for granted. Nearly two generations were to pass, however, before its use was extended into the traditional business of positional astronomy. This great advance depended on three quite distinct developments: the conversion of Galileo’s terrestrial (concave, eyepiece) telescope to obtain a real image the introduction of cross hairs into the image, (focal) plane to enable accurate pointing of the telescope (and the instrument to which it was attached), and the invention of a micrometer to measure small angular distances within the field of view. The first of these was suggested by Johannes Kepler in 1611 and implemented by Christoph Scheiner shortly thereafter. For practical purposes, the remaining two steps had to await the work of Adrien Auzout and Jean Picard in the late 1660’s: in fact, however, they were both taken by Gascoigne in the late 1630’s. By the beginning of 1641 he had not only a fully developed account of the optical ideas involved but also a working model of the instrument and a limited number of satisfactory observational results.3 Unfortunately, Gascoigne’s work essentially died with him. His micrometer survived in the hands of Richard Towneley but was used by him primarily to dispute the priority claims of the French.4 A manuscript treatise on optics that Gascoigne is supposed to have left ready for the press had already become untraceable by 1667.5
1. Until the mid-nineteenth century Gascoigne was believed to have been born sometime around 1620. In 1863 W. Wheater (Gentlemen’s Magazine, 215 , 760-762) provided evidence suggesting that he was born no later than 1612. John Aubrey, who appears to have been responsible for the original tradition, also indirectly corroborates the newer one with his assertion (Briefr Lives) that Gascoigne “gave [Sir Jonas Moore, b. 1617] good information in mathematical knowledge.”
2. Aubrey credits the Jesuits with Gascoigne’s education. Gascoigne himself says only that he “entered upon these studies accidentally” after leaving “both Oxford and London [without knowing] what any proposition in geometry meant.”
3. The primary information on Gascoigne’s results is found in his letter of February 1641 to William Oughtred, printed by Stephen P. Rigaud in Correspondence of Scientific Men of the 17th Century,I (Oxford, 1841), 33-59. Extracts from other letters of Gascoigne (to William Crabtree) in, the Macclesfield Collection were given by William Derham (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 30 , 603-610), but the letters have never been printed in full.
5. See Towneley’s report in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 2 , 457-458. Various papers including Gascoigne’s passed from the Towneley family to William Derham at the beginning of the eighteenth century. See Philosophical Transactions, 27 (1711), 270-290, A. Shapiro has kindly called my attention to (1) a statement by John Flamsteed (Francis Baily, An Account of the Revd. John Flamsteed [London, 1835], p.31) attributing to Gascoigne some advanced ideas on geometrical optics and (2) an acknowledgment by William Molyneux (“Admonition to the Reader,” Dioptrica nova ) of his indebtedness to Gascoigne through Flamsteed. Flamsteed obtained his information from letters written by Gascoigne to Crabtree, which were in the possession of Derham (op. cit) in 1717 but may already have been lost by 1753; at any rate, John Bevis, writing in that year (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 48 , 190-192), cited only the letter to Oughtred contained in the Macclesfield Collection.
Victor E. Thoren.
"Gascoigne, William." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gascoigne-william
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