Leonhard Euler, one of the greatest and most prolific mathematicians that the world has produced, was born at Basel, Switzerland, on the 15th day of April, 1707, and died at St. Petersburg, Russia, November the 18th, 1783.
Leonhard Euler received his preliminary instruction in mathematics from his father who had considerable attainments as a mathematician, and who was a Calvinistic pastor of the village of Riechen, which is not far from Basel. He was then sent to the University of Basel where he studied mathematics under the direction of John Bernoulli, with whose two sons, Daniel and Nicholas, he formed a life long friendship. Geometry soon became his favourite study.
His genius for analytical science soon gained for him a high place in the esteem of his instructor, John Bernoulli, who was at the time one of the first mathematicians of Europe. Having taken his degree as Master of Arts in 1723, Leonhard Euler afterwards applied himself; at his father’s desire, to the study of theology and the Oriental languages, with the view of entering the ministry but, with his father’s consent, he returned to his favourite pursuit, the study of mathematics. At the same time, by the advice of the younger Bernoullis, who had removed to St. Petersburg in 1725, he applied himself to the study of physiology, to which he made useful applications of his mathematical knowledge; he also attended the lectures of the most eminent professors of Basel. While he was eagerly engaged in physiological researches, he composed a dissertation on the nature and propagation of sound. In his nineteenth year he also composed a dissertation in answer to a prize-question concerning the masting of ships, for which he received the second prize from the French Academy of Sciences.
In 1741, at the request, or rather command, of Frederick the Great, he moved to Berlin, where he was made a member of the Academy of Sciences, and professor of Mathematics. He enriched the last volume of the Melanges or Miscellanies of Berlin, with five memoirs, and these were followed, with astonishing rapidity, by a great number of important researches, which were scattered throughout the annual memoirs of the Prussian Academy. At the same time, he continued his philosophical contributions to the Academy of St. Petersburg, which granted him a pension in 1742.
At the commencement of his astonishing career, he enriched the Academical collection with many memoirs, which excited a noble emulation between him and the Bemoullis, though this did not in any way affect their friendship. It was at this time that he carried the integral calculus to a higher degree of perfection, invented the calculation of sines, reduced analytical operations to greater simplicity, and threw new light on nearly all parts of pure or abstract mathematics. In 1735, an astronomical problem proposed by the Academy, for the solution of which several eminent mathematicians had demanded several months’ time, was solved by Leonhard Euler in three days with the aid of improved methods of his own, but the effort threw him into a fever which endangered his life and deprived him of his right eye, his eyesight having been impaired by the severity of the climate. With still superior methods, this same problem was solved later by the illustrious German mathematician, Gauss.
The respect in which he was held by the Russians was strikingly shown in 1760, when a farm he occupied near Charlottenburg happened to be pillaged by the invading Russian army. On its being ascertained that the farm belonged to Leonhard Euler, the general immediately ordered compensation to be paid, and the Empress Elizabeth sent an additional sum of four thousand crowns. The despotism of Anne I caused Euler, who was a very timid man, to shrink from public affairs, and to devote all his time to science. After his call to Berlin, the Queen of Prussia who received him kindly, wondered how so distinguished a scholar should be so timid and reticent. Euler replied, “Madam, it is because I come from a country where, when one speaks, one is hanged.”
In 1766, Leonhard Euler, with difficulty, obtained permission from the King of prussia to return to St. Petersburg, to which he had been originally called by Catherine II. Soon after returning to St. Petersburg a cataract formed in his left eye, which ultimately deprived him of sight, but this did not stop his wonderful literary productiveness, which continued for seventeen years until the day of his death. It was under these circumstances that he dictated to his amanuensis, a tailor’s apprentice who was absolutely devoid of mathematical knowledge, his Anleitung zur Algebra, or Elements of Algebra, 1770, a work which, though purely elementary displays the mathematical genius of its author, and is still considered one of the best works of its class. Leonhard Euler was one of the very few great mathematicians who did not deem it beneath the dignity of genius to give some attention to the recasting of elementary processes and the perfecting of elementary textbooks, and it is not improbable that modern mathematics is as greatly indebted to him for his work along this line as for his original creative work.
Another task to which he set himself soon after returning to St. Petersburg was the preparation of his Lettres a une Princesse d’Allemagne sur divers subjects de Physique et de Philosophie, (3 vols. 1768-72). These letters were written at the request of the princess of Anhalt-Dessau, and contain an admirably clear exposition of the principal facts of mechanics, optics, acoustics, and physical astronomy. Theory however, is frequently unsoundly applied in it, and it is to be observed generally that Euler’s strength lay rather in pure than in applied mathematics. In 1755, Leonhard Euler had been elected a foreign member of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and sometime afterwards the academical prize was adjudged to three of his memoirs Concerning the Inequalities in the Motions of the Planets. The two prize-problems proposed by the same Academy in 1770 and 1772 were designed to obtain a more perfect theory of the moon’s motion. Leonhard Euler, assisted by his eldest son, Johann Albert was a competitor for these prizes and obtained both.
In his second memoir, he reserved for further consideration the several inequalities of the moon’s motion, which he could not determine in his first theory on account of the complicated calculations in which the method he then employed had engaged him. He afterwards reviewed his whole theory with the assistance of his son and Krafft and Lexell, and pursued his researches until he had constructed the new tables, which appeared with the great work in 1772. Instead of confining himself, as before, to the fruitless integration of three differential equations of the second degree, which are furnished by mathematical principles, he reduced them to three ordinates which determine the place of the moon; and he divides into classes all the inequalities of that planet, as far as they depend either on the elongation of the sun and moon, or upon the eccentricity, or the parallax, or the inclination of the linear orbit. The inherent difficulties of this task were immensely enhanced by the fact that Euler was virtually blind, and had to carry all the elaborate computations involved in his memory. A further difficulty arose from the burning of his house and the destruction of a greater part of his property in 1771. His manuscripts were fortunately preserved. His own life only was saved by the courage of a native of Basel, Peter Grimmon, who carried him out of the burning house.
Some time after this, the celebrated Wenzell, by couching the cataract, restored his sight; but a too harsh use of the recovered faculty, together with some carelessness on the part of the surgeons, brought about a relapse. With the assistance of his sons, and of Krafft and Lexell, however, he continued his labours neither the loss of his sight nor the infirmities of an advanced age being sufficient to check his activity. Having engaged to furnish the Academy of St. Petersburg with as many memoirs as would be sufficient to complete its acts for twenty years after his death, he in seven years transmitted to the Academy above seventy memoirs, and left above two hundred more, which were revised and completed by another hand.
Euler’s knowledge was more general than might have been expected in one who had pursued with such unremitting ardor, mathematics and astronomy, as his favourite studies. He had made considerable progress in medicine, botany, and chemistry and he was an excellent classical scholar and extensively read in general literature. He could repeat the AEneid of Virgil from the beginning to the end without hesitation, and indicate the first and last line of every page of the edition which he used. But such lines from Virgil as, “The anchor drops, the rushing keel is staid,” always suggested to him a problem and he could not help enquiring what would be the ship’s motion in such a case.
Euler’s constitution was uncommonly vigorous and his general health was always good. He was enabled to continue his labours to the very close of his life so that it was said of him, that he ceased to calculate and to breath at nearly the same moment. His last subject of investigation was the motions of balloons, and the last subject on which he conversed was the newly discovered planet Herschel.
On the l8th of September 1783, while he was amusing himself at tea with one of his grandchildren, he was struck with apoplexy, which terminated the illustrious career of this wonderful genius, at the age of seventy-six.