Wright, Edward

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(b. Garveston, Norfolk, England, October 1561; d. London, England, November 1615)

mathematics, cartography.

Details of Wright’s life are unusually scanty and must be supplemented from facts about his relatives and friends. His father, Henry, was described as “mediocrisfortunae, deceased” when an elder brother, Thomas, entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, as a pensioner in 1574. Probably both boys were taught by John Hayward at a neighboring school in Hardingham. Edward joined his brother at Caius College, Cambridge, in December 1576 ; but Thomas’ support for him was short–lived, since he died early in 1579. Wright’s academic career closely paralleled that of John Fletcher: both graduated B.A. in 1581 and M.A. in 1584, and obtained their fellowships on Lady Day 1587. Fletcher had returned for his fellowship after teaching for a few years at Dronfield Grammar School, Derbyshire, so it is possible that Wright was also away from Cambridge in 1581– 1584. Fletcher had a reputation as a medical writer, collaborator with Sir Christopher Heydon on his Defence of Judiciall Astrologie (1603), and as mathematics teacher to Henry Briggs. Contemporary with Briggs at St. John’s College was Thomas Bernhere, later Wright’s brother–in–law ; both graduated M.A. in 1585, became fellows of their college, and were closely associated with Henry Alvey, one of the leaders of Cambridge Puritanism.’1

In 1589 Wright received royal permission to absent himself from Cambridge in order to accompany George, earl of Cumberland, on an expedition to the Azores that was intended to acquire booty from Spanish ships. In 1599 Wright wrote that “the time of my first employment at sea” was “more than tenne yeares since.” This suggests that he may have been to sea previously, possibly in 1581– 1584. There seems little doubt that he had already acquired a reputation in mathematical navigation, and none at all that his 1589 voyage contributed greatly to his main achievements (described below). Wright returned to Cambridge at the end of 1589 and prepared a draft of his most important book, Certaine Errors in Navigation, in the next year or so. The 1599 printed version in–corporates results obtained from observations made at London in the period May 1594–November 1597. It would seem that Wright had moved from Cambridge before the expiration of his fellowship in 1596, and that he had married the sister of Thomas Bernhere in 1595. Their only son, Samuel, entered his father’s college after schooling in London but died before graduation, “a youth of much promise.”

The succession of London mathematical lecturers is confused, but it is probable that Wright had some such employment after leaving Cambridge. These lecturers had been supported by Sir Thomas Smith and Sir John Wolstenholme, two rich city merchants closely connected with several trading companies. Thomas Hood was an early lecturer, and it has been suggested that Wright succeeded him. The position was complicated by the starting of Gresham College, where Henry Briggs was first professor of geometry.

There was, however, still a need for lecturers in navigation; Wright was serving in this capacity in 1614 when the East India Company took over the patronage and paid him an annual salary of£50. He may have held this post from 1612, the year of the death of Prince Henry, whom he had tutored in mathematics and whose librarianship he had been expecting. About the same time Wright was surveyor for the New River project, under Sir Hugh Myddleton, for bringing water to London2. During this London period he also wrote and published a number of mathematical tracts.

The publishing history of Wright’s main work, Certaine Errors in Navigation, is complex. Wright himself outlined the impetus for the chief feature of this work, the justification of the so–called Mercator map projection, described as “the greatest advance ever made in marine cartography”3. He criticized the usual sea charts as “like an inextricable labyrinth of error,” offering as an instance his own experience in 1589 : land was sighted “when by account of the ordinary chart we should have beene 50 leagues short of it.” He admitted that his development had been prompted by Mercator’s 1569 map of the world, but stated that neither Mercator nor anybody else had shown him how to do it. Wright’s principle was very simple : to increase the distance apart of the parallels of latitude to match the exaggeration arising from the assumption that they were equally long. Since the lengths of the parallels varied according to a factor cos λ, the correction factor was sec λ at any point. In order to plot the parallels on the new charts, Wright had effectively to perform the integration’ sec λdλ. This was done numerically—in his own words, “by perpetual addition of the Secantes answerable to the latitudes of each point or parallel into the summe compounded of all the former secantes. . . .,”

Wright’s development of the Mercator projection was first published by others. Thomas Blun devile His Exercises Containing Sixe Treatises (1594) was an important navigation compilatioin, the first to describe the use of the since, tangent, and secant trigonometric functions. The author was at a loss to explain the new (Mercator) arrangement, which had been constructed “by what rule I knowe not, unless it be by such a table, as my friende M.Wright of Caius College in Cambridge at my request sent me (I thanke him) not long since for that purpopse which table with his consent. I have here plainlie set down together with the use of thereof as followeth” . THe table of meridiional parts was given at degree intervals.4

Two years later, following his publication of a Dutch version of Emery Moluyneux’s globe,Jodocus Hondius published at Amsterdam the well known “Christian–Knight” maps of the world and of the four continents. These were based on Wright’s theory of Mercator’s projectioin. but were issued without acknowledgement. It seems that when he was in England. Hondius had been allowed to see the manuscript iof Wright’s Certaine Errors In 1598–1600 Richard Hakluyt published his Principle Navigations which contains two world charts on the new projection, that iof 1600 a revision of the first. Although there is no attribution, it is clear that Wright was a major collaborator; further revisions in Hakluyt’s work were made for versions in the 1610 and 1657 editions of his Certaine Errors.

Before the Hakluyt maps William Barlow had included in his The Navigator’s Supply (1597) a demonstration of Wright’s projectioin “obtained of a friend of mone of like professioin unto myself” This evidence of interest in his work was brought home to Wright when the earl of Cumberland showed him a manucript that had been found among the possessions iof Abraham Kendall and was being prepared for the press. Wright was surprised to find it was a copy of his own Certain Errors an experimence that convinced him it was time to publish the work himself.

Ultimately Wright included his “The Voyage of the Earl of Cumberland to the Azores,” which had been printed in Hakluyt’s second volume. With it was a chart of the Azores on the new projection, showing Cumberland’s route; this has been judged to be more significant than the world charts, since it was large enough to be used. Certaine Errors discussed other navigation problems, and was considerably extended in the second edition(1610), dedicated to Prince Henry. Wright also Contributed to two seminal works. In 1600 he helped particularly with a preface, to produce of John Napier’s Mirifici loogarithmorumn canonis description,A Descriptiuon of the Admirable Table of Logarithmesappeared posthumously. It was approved by Napier and brought out by his friend Henry Briggs after the death of Wrightss’s son Samuel,who contributed the dedicatioin to the East Indies Company. The book marks the lifelong collaboration between Briggs and Wright, and the latter’s efforts to spread a better understaning of navigation5 Nobody had done more to “set the seal on the supremacy of the English in the theory and practice of the art of navigation at this time.”


1. The baptism at Garveston took place on 8 October 1561;the father’s will dated 17 January 1573, left his house to his wife Margaret, and then to Edward.(This information was provided by the Norfolk and Norwich Record Office.) J.Venn.Biographical History of Gonrille and Caius College I.(Cambridge 1897)88–89; “From the Library” in Midland Medical ReviewI(1961),185–187; H.C.Porter Reformationand Reactioin in Tudor Cambridge (Cambridge 1958).

2. See J.E.C. Hill Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution 39–40;D.W.Waters The Art of Navigation. . .,239–278. It is possible that Wright lectured at Trinity House Deptford, since he dedicated his 1599translation to its mnaster. Richard Polter.

3. Waters, op cit. .121

4. R.C. Archibald, in Mathematical Tablesaned Other Aids to Computation3 (1948), 223–225. ignores these earlier eds. of the table,as well as the (independent)MS calculatioins by Thomas Harriot, discussed by Waters.

5. The final quotation is from Waters (p.219), who also mentions several mathematical instruments that Wright helped to develop.


I. Original Works. Wright’s main work Certaine Errors in Navigation Arising Either of the Ordinarie Erroneous Making or Using of the Sea Chart Compasse, Crosse Staffe, and Tablkes of Declimations iof the Sunne, and FixedStarres Detected and Corrected (London, 1599; 2nd ed.,1610; 3rd., Joseph Moxon,ed., 1657),includes at the end, “The Voyage of the . . .Earle of Cumberland to the Azores,” also printed by Hakluyt (1599) and at Lisbon (1911). Other writings are The Haven–Finding Art translated from the Dutch of Simon Stevin (London, 1599)repr.in the Certaine Errors(1657) and in part by H.D. Harradon in Territooiral Magazine50 (Mar. 1945)’ Description andUse of the Sphaere (London, 1614;1627); A short Treatise of Dialling Shewing the Making of All Sortos of Sun–Dials (London,1614); and A Description of the Admirable Tables of Logarithmes translated from the Latin of John Napier (London,1616; 1618).

The MSS at Dublin are briefly listed by T. K. Abbott, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College(Dublin 1900)

II. Secondary Literature.See W.W.R. Ball, A History of the Study of Mathematics at Cambridge (Cambridge, 1889), 25–27;F.Cajori, “On an Integration Ante–dating the Integral Calculus,” in Bibliothecamathematica 3rd ser., 14 (1914), 312–319amd “Algebra in Napier’s Day and Alleged Prior Inventions,” in c.G.Knotot ed., Napier Tercentenary Memorial Volume (Edinmburgh, 1915) 93–109; J.E.C.Hill Intellectural Origins of the English Revolution (Oxford, 1965); C.Hutton, A Philosophical and Mathematical Dictioinary new.ed., II(London, 1815),619–620;J.K.Laughton, Dictionary of Natioinal Biography LXIII; E.J.S.Parsons and W.F.Morris “Edward Wright and His work,” in Imago mundi3 (1939),61–71; Heklen M.Wallis, “The First English Globe:A Recent Discovery in Geographical Journal108 (1951), 275–290; “Further Light on the Molyneux Globes,: ibid121 (1955),304–311; and “World Map in Principal Navigations, 1599;Evidence to Suggest That Edward Wright was the Main Author,” an unpublished note (1972); and D.W.Waters The Art of Navigatioin in England in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Times (London,1958).

P. J. Wallis