Farrar, John

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Farrar, John

(b. Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1 July 1779; d. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 8 May 1853)

mathematics, physics, education.

Farrar was responsible for conceiving and carrying through a sweeping modernization of the science and mathematics curriculum at Harvard College, his alma mater. He brought in the best French and other European writings on introductory mathematics, most of them unknown and unused in the United States. Much of the responsibility for shifting from the Newtonian fluxional notations to Leibniz’s algorithm for the calculus was his. In natural philosophy Farrar also relied heavily upon French authors. He introduced current concepts in mechanics, electricity and magnetism, optics, and astronomy.

As the foundation of his curricular reform, Farrar carried through the translation of many French works between 1818 and 1829. Published in separate, topical volumes, they became elements of two series: Cambridge Mathematics and Cambridge Natural Philosophy. He selected and combined the writings most suitable to the needs of his students. The burden of Farrar’s presentation in mathematics was carried by Lacroix, Euler, Legendre, and Bézout, but he also drew from John Bonnycastle and Bowditch. In natural philosophy he relied most heavily upon Biot, but used Bézout, Poisson, Louis-Benjamin Francoeur, Gay-Lussac, Ernst Gottfried Fischer, Whewell, and Hare as well.

Farrar’s translations provided an excellent introductory program that was used not only at Harvard but also at West Point and other colleges; they went through several editions. Farrar was a fine teacher and, as Hollis professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, played an important role throughout Harvard College. One of his major aspirations, the establishment of an astronomical observatory at Harvard, was not attained until after his death.

In the larger community Farrar made similar contributions. He was active in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and occasionally translated such topical works as Arago’s 1832 Tract on Comets, written in preparation for the comet of that year. He published essay reviews in the North American Review and occasional observations and a few scientific papers on astronomy, meteorology, and instruments in the Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Boston Journal of Philosophy and the Arts.


I. Original Works. Farrar wrote few scientific papers. In the Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he published “An Account of the Violent and Destructive Storm of the 23d of September 1815,” 4 (1821), 92–97, and “An Account of a Singular Electrical Phenomenon,” ibid., 98–102. His “Account of an Apparatus for Determining the Mean Temperature and the Mean Atmospherical Pressure for Any Period” appeared in Boston Journal of Philosophy and the Arts, 1 (1823–1824), 491–494. In the North American Review he published several review essays, all of them unsigned: 6 (1817–1818), 205–224; 8 (1818–1819), 157–168; 12 (1821), 150–174; 14 (1822), 190–230; and a few observations: 3 36–40, 285–287; 6 (1817–1818), 149, 292.

His primary publishing activity lay in translating and combining French writings with a few others in a manner that effectively produced good college textbooks which were abreast of recent advances. Some appeared without any indication of Farrar’s role; others did not name the authors on the title page but always scrupulously noted them at some point. The first editions (often of many) are a translation of S. F. Lacroix, An Elementary Treatise on Arithmetic (Boston, 1818); a translation of S. F. Lacroix, Elements of Algebra (Cambridge, Mass., 1818); a translation of L. Euler, An Introduction to the Elements of Algebra (Cambridge, Mass., 1818); a translation of A. M. Legendre, Elements of Geometry (Boston, 1819); translations of S. F. Lacroix and E. Bézout, An Elementary Treatise on Plane and Spherical Trigonometry (Cambridge, Mass., 1820); An Elementary Application of Trigonometry (Cambridge, Mass., 1822); translations of E. Bézout, First Principles of the Differential and Integral Calculus (Cambridge, Mass., 1824); An Elementary Treatise on Mechanics (Cambridge, Mass., 1825); An Experimental Treatise on Optics (Cambridge, Mass., 1826); Elements of Electricity, Magnetism, and Electro-Magnetism (Cambridge, Mass., 1826); An Elementary Treatise on Astronomy (Cambridge, Mass., 1827); a translation of E. G. Fischer, Elements of Natural Philosophy (Boston, 1827); and a translation of F. Arago, Tract on Comets (Boston, 1832).

Letters and other MS records are held by the Harvard University Archives and the Massachusetts Historical Society, and a few by the Boston Public Library.

II. Secondary Literature. On Farrar or his work, see Mrs. John Farrar, Recollections of Seventy Years (Boston, 1866); Dirk J. Struik, Yankee Science in the Making (New York, 1962), pp. 227–229, passim; and [John Gorham Palfrey], Notice of Professor Farrar (Boxton, 1853).

Brooke Hindle

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