87. Robert Recorde
Thinkers (57 votes)
1510 – 1558
Inventor of the equals sign and the “father of British mathematics”.
"Noe 2 thynges can be moare equalle”, wrote Robert Recorde as he introduced the idea of placing two hyphens in parallel to symbolise the balance of an equation.
His equals sign was an invention that, while slow in becoming universally adopted, is still perhaps the most fundamental thing ever invented by a person from Wales.
Little is known of Recorde’s early years in Tenby, the Pembrokeshire town where he was born to parents thought to be of local and Montgomeryshire stock. Clearly something of a prodigy, he entered Oxford University at the age of 15 and was elected a Fellow of All Souls six years later.
Under the Tudor monarchs, talented Welshman could attain positions of prominence previously denied to them. Recorde took his opportunities with both hands, becoming an ally of the Lord Protector Edward Seymour who made him controller of the mint at Bristol.
After Seymour’s fall from power Recorde was appointed to oversee the king’s mines in Ireland, a thankless position that would return to haunt him in later years. He also foolishly made an enemy of the powerful Earl of Pembroke in another move that stored up trouble for the future.
His academic works meanwhile were much more successful. In what appears to have a spirit of genuine inclusiveness, he was the first to write mathematical textbooks in English. Previous works had generally appeared in scholarly Latin.
He also introduced Algebra to English speakers, the word itself appearing for the first time in Recorde’s Pathway of Knowledge in 1551.
Political misjudgements were to prove his undoing. In the turmoil followed the death of the sickly boy-king Edward VI in 1553 Recorde’s old enemy the Earl of Pembroke became the powerful man in the kingdom. Unwisely, Recorde tried to have Pembroke arrested and put on trial.
Pembroke responded by suing Recorde for defamation. He was held liable to pay Pembroke the then astronomical sum of £1000. Recorde dies weeks later in a debtor’s prison.