Robert Smith (mathematician)

For other people named Robert Smith, see Robert Smith (disambiguation).
Robert Smith

Portrait by John Vanderbank, 1730
Born c. (1689-10-16)16 October 1689
Lea, Lincolnshire, England
Died 2 February 1768(1768-02-02) (aged 78)
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England
Residence England
Nationality British
Fields Mathematician
Institutions Trinity College, Cambridge
Alma mater Trinity College, Cambridge
Academic advisors Roger Cotes
Notable students Walter Taylor
Israel Lyons
Richard Watson
Known for Smith–Helmholtz equation

Robert Smith (1689 – 2 February 1768) was an English mathematician and music theorist.


Smith was probably born at Lea near Gainsborough, the son of the rector of Gate Burton, Lincolnshire. After attending Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Gainsborough (now Queen Elizabeth's High School) he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1708, and becoming minor fellow in 1714, major fellow in 1715 and senior fellow in 1739, was chosen Master in 1742, in succession to Richard Bentley.[1] From 1716 to 1760 he was Plumian Professor of Astronomy, and he died in the Master's Lodge at Trinity.

In February 1719 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society [2]

Besides editing two works by his cousin, Roger Cotes, who was his predecessor in the Plumian chair, he published A Compleat System of Opticks in 1738, which gained him the sobriquet of Old Focus, and Harmonics, or the Philosophy of Musical Sounds in 1749.

Smith never married but lived with his unmarried sister Elzimar (1683–1758) in the lodge at Trinity College. Although he is often portrayed as a rather reclusive character, John Byrom's journal shows that in the 1720s and 1730s Smith could be quite sociable. Yet ill health, particularly gout, took its toll and severely inhibited his academic work and social activities. He died at the lodge on 2 February 1768, and on 8 February he was buried in Trinity College Chapel, the funeral oration being delivered by Thomas Zouch.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Smith helped to spread Isaac Newton's ideas in Europe and "Newton's successes in optics and mechanics dominated Smith's scientific career". Bishop was a Christian that although did not publish theological works, wrote a Zachary Grey's response to the Examination of the Fourteenth Chapter of Newton's Observations on Daniel.[3]

The Smith Fund

In his will Smith left £3500 South Sea stock to the University of Cambridge. The net income on the fund is annually divided equally between the Smith's Prize and the stipend of the Plumian Professor.

Books by Robert Smith


  1. "Smith, Robert (SMT708R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  2. "Library and Archive Catalogue". The Royal Society. Retrieved 19 October 2010.
  3. Smith, Robert (bap. 1689, d. 1768), mathematician and benefactor by Geoffrey Cantor (2012-13). Oxford University Press
Academic offices
Preceded by
Richard Bentley
Master of Trinity College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
John Hinchcliffe
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