Rowning, John

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(b. Ashby, Lincolnshire, England, 1701[?]; d. London, England, November 1771)

mathematics, natural philosophy.

Educated in local schools, Rowning may then have worked with his father, also John Rowning (probably a watchmaker, as another son entered that trade, and John was credited with mechanical abilities). He was admitted as sizar to Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1721. He gained the B.A. in 1724, a fellowship in 1725, and the M.A. in 1728. A college tutor for some years, he joined William Deane, an instrumentmaker in London, about 1733 in giving courses of lectures in experimental philosophy. In 1733 he wrote a paper describing a barometer with a changeable scale of variation.

In 1734 Rowning became rector of Westley Waterless, Cambridgeshire, and by 1738, rector of Anderby, Lincolnshire, one of six livings in gift of Magdalene College. He became a member of the Gentleman’s Society of Spalding, which was founded in 1710 and was the oldest provincial learned society in England. Under his urging, the Society temporarily forgot its antiquarian pursuits in the study of experimental philosophy. In 1756 he published the preliminaries to a projected text (never printed) in which he outlines his method of teaching fluxions and denies the “Analyst’s” (George Berkeley) objections to the subject. His second, and last, mathematical work was a paper describing an analogue machine for the graphical solution of equations.

His most significant work was the Compendious System of Natural Philosophy, one of the most popular texts throughout the eighteenth century. The work was used at Cambridge and Oxford, at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, at many dissenting academies, and by John Wesley as a text for his itinerant preachers, it was also mentioned in the correspondence of people as various as John Adams, William Beckford, and Joseph Priestley. Chiefly distinguished for its clarity, the work should also be noted for its explicit rejection of Newtonian ether, its explanation of forces as the continuing action of God upon matter, and its proposal of alternating spheres of attraction and repulsion some twenty years before Bošković’s Philosophiae.

Rowning died at his London lodgings late in November 1771; he left a daughter, Mrs. Thomas Brown of Spalding, his heiress and executrix.


I. Original Works. Rowning’s works are “A Description of a Barometer, Wherein the Scale of Variation May Be Increased at Pleasure,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 38 (1733–1734), 39–42; the barometer is also illustrated and described in “Barometer,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 3rd ed., III (1797), 25, with plate on facing page; A Compendious System of Natural Philosophy: With Notes Containing the Mathematical Demonstrations, and Some Occasional Remarks, pt. 1 (Cambridge, 1735); pt. 2 (London, 1736); pt. 3 (London, 1737); pt. 4 (London, 1742–1743). Each pt. was also revised and republished as successive pts. were issued, and any extant set may consist of varying eds. of pts. and secs. within pts. The 6th, 7th, and 8th eds. appear to be all of the same years: 1767, 1772, and 1779 respectively; A Preliminary Discourse to an Intended Treatise on the Fluxionary Method (London, 1756), reviewed by William Bewley, in Monthly Review, 14 (1756), 286–289; “Directions for Making a Machine for Finding the Roots of Equations Universally, With the Manner of Using It,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 60 (1770), 240–256; and a copy of the syllabus of Rowning’s course, A Compleat Course of Experimental Philosophy and Astronomy, is in the Science Museum, Oxford, MS Radcliffe 29.

II. Secondary Literature. On Rowning and his work, see John Nichols, Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, VI, pt. 1 (London, 1812), 109, 124; Robert E. Schofield, Mechanism and Materialism (Princeton, 1970), 34–39; and John Venn and J. A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses, III, pt. 1 (Cambridge, 1927).

Robert E. Schofield