Norwood, Richard

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(b. Stevenage, Hertfordshire, England, 1590; d. Bermuda, 1665)

mathematics, surveying, navigation,

Norwood’s family were gentlefolk who apparently had fallen upon hard times; he attended grammar school, but at the age of fifteen was apprenticed to a London fishmonger. The many seamen he met in London aroused his interest in learning navigation and seeing the world. Eventually he was able to switch his apprenticeship to a coaster plying between London and Newcastle. He tells in his Journal how, while forced to lay over for three weeks at Yarmouth, he went through Robert Record’s treatise on arithmetic, The Ground of Arts. So involved was he in studying mathematics that he almost forgot to eat and caught “a spice of the scurvy.” During the following years Norwood made several voyages to the Mediterranean and on his first trip was fortunate to find a fellow passenger with an extensive mathematical library, among which was Leonard Digges’s Pantometria. On following trips Norwood himself took along mathematical books, including Euclid’s Elements and Clavius’ Algebra.

To retrieve a piece of ordnance that had fallen into the harbor at Lymington, Norwood devised a kind of diving bell, descended in it to the bottom, and was able to attach a rope to the lost piece. This exploit brought him to the attention of the Bermuda Adventurers, a company that planned to finance its colonization of Bermuda by exploiting the oyster beds that supposedly surrounded the islands. In 1616 Norwood joined them and sailed for Bermuda. It soon became evident that very few pearls were to he found, and Norwood was then offered the task of surveying the islands. He made several surveys between 1614 and 1617, and upon their completion he returned to London. In 1622 be married Rachel Boughton, and in the same year his map of Bermuda was published by Nathaniel Newbery. No copy of this map is now known to exist, but in 1624–1625 Samuel Purchas reprinted the Newbery version.

Upon his return to London, Norwood taught mathematics and wrote a number of books on mathematics and navigation, which went through many editions. His Trigonometrie, or, The Doctrine of Triangles (1631), based on the logarithms of Napier and Briggs as well as on works by Wright and Gunter, was intended essentially as a navigational aid to seamen. In it Norwood explained the common logarithms, the trigonometrical functions, the spherical triangles, and their applications to the problems confronting the navigator. He posed practical problems of increasing complexity; his explanations were clear; and he enabled the navigator to determine his course with the aid of a plane or Mercator chart and the logarithmic and trigonometric formulas. He emphasized great circle navigation by giving the formulas involved and thus facilitated the, calculations. In his The Seasman’s Practice (1637), he set out a great circle course between the Lizard (the southernmost point in Great Britain) and Bermuda.

Norwood was the first to use consistently the trigonometric abbreviations s for sine, t for tangent, sc for sine complement, tc for tangent complement, and sec for secant.

The Seaman’s Practice was especially concerned with the length of a degree and improvements in the log line. In 1635 Norwood measured the length of a degree along the meridian between London and York. His degree was 367,167 English feet, a surprisingly good measurement in view of the crude tools he used. Based on this volume, he reknotted the log line, putting a knot every fifty feet. Running this with a half-minute glass gave sixty sea miles to a degree.

Norwood was a convinced nonconformist, and because of Archbishop Laud’s oppressive actions he decided to leave England. He returned to Bermuda in 1638 and established himself as a schoolmaster; planted olive trees and shipped olive oil to London; and made a new survey in 1663. He also corresponded with the newly founded Royal Society.


I. Original Works. The British Museum has a copy of Norwood”s chart of Bermuda, which, together with his Description of the Sommer Islands, was repr. in John Speed, A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World (London, 1631). His other works include Trigonometrie, or, The Doctrine of Triangles (London, 1631); The Seaman’s Practice; Containing a Fundamental Problem in Navigation, Experimentally Verified (London, 1637); Fortification, or Architecture Military (London, 1639); Table of the Sun’s True Place, Right Ascension,, Declination, etc. (London, 1657); and A Triangular Canon Logarithmicall (London, 1665[?]). The Journal of Richard Norwood, Surveyor of Bermuda; With Introductions by Wesley F. Craven andWalter B. Hayward (New York, 1945). Norwood wrote this account of his early life when he was 49 years old, but it ends with the year 1620. It is concerned with his religious conversion. The intros, are excellent and the book also contains a biblio, of Norwood’s writings (pp. lix-lxiv).

II. Secondary Literature. Norwood’s contributions to mathematics and navigation are extensively discussed in E. G. R. Taylor, The Mathematical Practitioners of Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge, 1954); and David W. Waters, The Art of Navigation in England in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Times (London, 1958).

Lettie S. Multhauf