Famous mathematicians throughout history
Mathematics is known as the language of the universe. A way to count, make sense of patterns and order the world. The very first examples of maths can be found in Africa. Indeed, one of the oldest known mathematical artefacts, the Lembombo bone, was found in southern Africa.
Over the centuries there have been men and women who have revolutionised our understanding of mathematics and have become famous both in and out of the classroom. From ancient Greece to modern America, different societies have produced brilliant minds who have shaped the world as we know it.
Most of the names in this list will be familiar to everyone, even those without an interest in Maths. However, some of their achievements are less well-known but no less fascinating.
Let’s take a look at some of the most famous mathematicians throughout history and the legacy that they have left to us.
Early famous mathematicians
Mathematics is an art form, passed down for thousands of years, deconstructing the mysteries of the universe. These centuries-old foundations, though being built upon further, are still used today.
Pythagoras (570 BCE -500/490 BCE)
Little is known of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras as we have none of his writings today. Much of his work is lost – enshrined in the confidentiality of the secret society he led.
However, his teachings remain influential and some have called him the first pure mathematician.
This ancient Greek mathematician contributed much to the field, but it is hard to differentiate myth from reality, as his followers made him into a godlike symbol. This reflected his position as a cult leader of his secret society. His most ardent followers the mathematikoi lived in the society, forsaking all personal possessions and becoming vegetarian. They also lived under the beliefs set by Pythagoras, such as:
- Reality is mathematical in nature at its deeper level
- Spiritual purification can be achieved through philosophy
- The soul can rise to union with the divine
- Some symbols contain mystical significance
- Strict loyalty and secrecy should be observed by brothers of the order
He is most famous for inventing the Pythagorean Theorem. The theorem states that, in a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. However many historians have now shown this theorem goes back to ancient Babylonia.
Euclid (300 BCE)
Described by some as the most prominent mathematician of antiquity, Euclid is known for his 13 book compilation known as the Elements (300 BCE). This is often regarded as the “most important and successful mathematical textbook in history.”
This comprehensive collection and explanation of all the known mathematics of that era – also included the first known documentation of geometry. This is why he is known as the father of geometry. The work contained all the known mathematical problems and mathematical formulas of the time.
Archimedes (287 BCE – 212/211 BCE)
Archimedes was a famous mathematician and inventor who largely resided in Syracuse the Greek state of Sicily. He even helped defend the city against Roman invasion in 213BCE, by building war machines, that greatly delayed the invading army. When they eventually sacked the city Archimedes was killed.
Among his most notable achievements are his work on spheres and cylinders. Namely, how the volume of a sphere, its circumscribing cylinder, and its surface relate.
He is also known for creating Archimedes’ principle – a hydrostatic principle. Furthermore, he invented a device for raising water named Archimedes Screw.
Hipparchus (190-120 BCE)
Hipparchus was born around 190 BC in the Ancient Greek city of Nicea – modern-day Turkey. He was one of the most influential mathematicians and astronomers to ever live. Such was his influence, he was later honoured nearly 250 years later when his image was used on coins in Nicea.
He is credited with founding trigonometry and measuring the distance between the Earth and the Moon. These were some of the greatest mathematical discoveries in history.
In his time he did his best to map the universe by documenting the magnitude and position of more than 850 stars.
Common Era famous mathematicians
The common era spawned a scientific revolution in technology with world-changing inventions such as electricity, space travel, and computers. But, this would not be possible without the work of common-era mathematicians such as Sir Isaac Newton.
Hero of Alexandria – (10-70 CE)
Hero or Heron of Alexandria was estimated to have been born in 10 CE. His most important work (Metrica) was re-found in 1896 after being lost for centuries. This contained mathematical problems, geometric rules, and formulas dating back to ancient Babylon.
Hero is most famed for devising a formula that calculated the area of a triangle. This is known as Heron’s formula. He developed methods to calculate both a square root and cubed roots.
Diophantus – (200-284 CE)
Though Diophantus’ date of birth has not accurately been discovered, he was said to live in the third century in Alexandria. Due to a series of books named Arithmetica which contained algebraic problems, he is known as the father of algebra.
He is responsible for developing number theory, especially in fractions. He was perhaps the first to recognise fractions as numbers.
Leonardo Fibonacci was a medieval mathematician born in 1170, Pisa.
The mathematician also known as Leonardo Pisano brought Hindu-Arabic numerals to Europe when he published the Book of the Abacus in 1202. He is best known for his Fibonacci sequence.
Isaac Newton (1643-1727 CE)
English mathematician Isaac Newton was born on Christmas day 1642. He would later study at Trinity College, Cambridge where he was mentored by Isaac Barrow – the first professor of mathematics at Cambridge.
In 1665 Cambridge was forced to close because of the plague. However, this only made Newton more productive. He began to theorise that observations and experimentation were better ways to learn about maths, and the universe, rather than simply reading past work.
As well as mathematics, Newton made great contributions to physics and astronomy. In 1671 he invented a new type of telescope using mirrors instead of lenses. This was 10 times lighter, yet more powerful than telescopes of that time.
Though ridiculed at the time for his theory, he discovered that white light was a combination of all the colours of the spectrum. He also found that light was made from particles, not waves.
He published notes which established the 3 laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation in 1687. In 1689 he represented the University of Cambridge in Parliament after he was elected. He then established the gold standard in currency when he was made Master of the Mint. In 1705 he was pronounced ‘Sir’ Isaac Newton by Queen Anne.
It can be argued that he also invented calculus, though fierce rival Gottfried Leibniz would disagree. Gottfried Leibniz published theories in 1684 which seemed to establish calculus, but Newton claimed to have invented this in the 1660’s.
After he died in 1727 he was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Famous modern mathematicians
“If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
This was modestly said by Isaac Newton who heralded the work of his predecessors. It is perhaps fitting that his work on the laws of motion and gravitation inspired future generations to travel to the moon and other inventions of the modern world.
Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)
As the daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace may have been forgiven for not equalling the legacy of her famous father. He remains one of the most influential and celebrated poets of all time.
However, not to be outdone by her father, Ada would become one of the world’s most famous mathematicians.
Ada Lovelace is known as the first computer programmer. This is because she wrote an algorithm for a computing machine (Babbage’s analytical engine) for her mentor Charles Babbage. Charles Babbage himself was known as the father of the computer.
Ada was asked to translate an article about the machine written by Luigi Federico Menbrea. She translated the article, adding her own notes which were three times that of the original article.
Most notably she invented the theory of ‘looping’ a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions. This is still used in computer programming today.
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
The mathematician and theoretical physicist is the embodiment of genius. The German mathematician is easily one of the most famous mathematicians. His iconic look and contribution to modern physics mean he will always have a place in history.
He developed the special and general theories of relativity and won a Nobel prize for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.
Einstein found himself targeted by the Nazi party while living in Germany, and as such, along with many other European scientists and intellectuals, had to flee the country. He moved to the US and worked at Princeton.
Albert Einstein played a part in the US victory in World War 2, as he helped develop US Navy weapons and the nuclear bomb using his scientific knowledge.
Alan Turing (1912-1954)
British mathematician Alan Turing is one of the most important mathematicians. He is known for his genius and the persecution he suffered, which has come to light since his death in 1984. Much like Einstein, his genius helped the allied forces defeat Nazi Germany. And, much like Einstein, he was persecuted for who he was as a person.
Alan Turing is often referred to as the progenitor of modern computing. He and a team of colleagues designed a code-breaking machine known as Bombe. This was incredibly effective, allowing cryptanalysis in Bletchley Park to gain decoded military intelligence from Germany. By 1942, Bletchley Park helped decode around 39,000 messages each month.
He also designed the first complete specification of an electronic stored-program all-purpose digital computer. He also wanted to be the first to invent digital computers but was pipped to the post. He is further known for creating the first computer programming manual and his hypothesis on artificial intelligence.
His life story was celebrated in the film – The Imitation Game. This showed his achievements in computer science, and also highlighted his barbaric treatment by the British government. Despite helping them win the war he was criminalised simply for being gay. The charge was then known as gross indecency, and he was forced to endure chemical castration.
At only 41 he was found dead under suspicious circumstances with a poisoned apple by his side.
Margaret Hamilton 1936
Born in 1936 Hamilton would become a famous mathematician – instrumental in the success of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. The computer programmer would coin the term software engineer to better describe the complexities of the career.
After a stint as a high-school maths teacher, she would accept a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicting weather patterns using programming software.
She was also a useful asset in the cold war, as she helped invent the first U.S air defense system. She engineered computer software to identify enemy aircraft.
She then led a team for NASA that developed guidance and control systems of the in-flight command and lunar modules of the Apollo missions. As well as leading a team, she specifically developed software to detect system errors and software that allowed information to recover in the event of a computer crash.
Her achievements were recognised when she received NASA’s Exceptional Space Act Award and, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was also memorialised by Lego when they made her an action figure in 2017.
Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018)
Hawking is best known for his work as a theoretical physicist and his semi-celebrity status in pop culture. He studied at both Oxford and Cambridge, before being diagnosed with an incurable muscular disease named amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Despite this, he continued to work hard in his field.
In 1979 he became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He wrote or co-wrote 15 books. Significant contributions include:
- A Brief History of Time
- The Universe in a Nutshell
- A Briefer History of Time
- The Grand Design
In these books, he explored topics such as; the creation of the universe, the big bang theory, string theory, black holes, and cosmology.