Famous People: Biographies

Here are the short biographies of the famous people mentioned in the book. We hope you find these interesting.

Note: Click on the menu to view the individual biography.

André-Marie Ampère 1775–1836

André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836) is generally regarded as one of the founders of classical electromagnetism. The SI unit of measurement of electric c Pierre urrent, the ampere, is named after him.

Ampère developed a mathematical and physical theory to understand the relationship between electricity and magnetism, discovering that two parallel wires carrying electric currents attract or repel each other, depending on whether the currents flow in the same or opposite directions. This discovery laid the foundation to what later became known as electrodynamics. The most important of his results came to be called Ampère’s law, which states that the mutual action of two lengths of current-carrying wire is proportional to their lengths and to the intensities of their currents.

Ampère also theorized upon the existence of an ‘electrodynamic molecule’ that served as the component element of both electricity and magnetism. This was later discovered and is known today as the electron.

Jean-Robert Argand 18 Jul 1768 – 13 Aug 1822

Jean-Robert Argand (July 18, 1768 – August 13, 1822) was a highly influential mathematician. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, Argand and his family moved to Paris in 1806, where he privately published a landmark essay on the representation on imaginary quantities. It described a method of graphing complex numbers via analytical geometry, which became called the Argand diagram, and was the first essay to propose the idea of modulus to indicate the magnitude of vectors and complex numbers, and the notation for vectors .

In 1814 Argand published Réflexions sur la nouvelle théorie d'analyse (Reflections on the new theory of analysis), which proved the fundamental theorem of algebra. This was the first complete proof of the theorem. He died on 13th August 1822 in Paris.

Alexander Graham Bell 3 Mar 1847 – 2 Aug 1922

Alexander Graham Bell (3 March 1847 – 2 August 1922) is credited with inventing the first practical telephone. Bell's many years of research into hearing and speech led him to experiment with hearing devices which eventually culminated in Bell being awarded the first US patent for the telephone in 1876.

Bell is also credited with the invention of the metal detector, putting the device together in an attempt to find the bullet in the body of US President James Garfield. In 1888 he was one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society and became its second president.

Charles-Augustin de Coulomb 14 Jun 1736 – 23 Aug 1806

Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (14 June 1736 – 23 August 1806) was best known for developing Coulomb's law, the definition of the electrostatic force of attraction and repulsion.

He discovered an inverse relationship of the force between electric charges and the square of its distance, later named after him as Coulomb's law. Coulomb also stated that the attractive force between two oppositely charged spheres is proportional to the quantities of charge on the spheres and is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the spheres. The SI unit of electric charge, the coulomb, was named after Coulomb.

Pierre Curie 15 May 1859 – 19 Apr 1906

Pierre Curie (15 May 1859 – 19 April 1906) was a French polymath who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. in 1881, Curie and his brother demonstrated that crystals could be made to deform when subject to an electric field. Almost all digital electronic circuits now rely on this in the form of crystal oscillators. Pierre Curie also discovered the effect of temperature on paramagnetism, which is now known as Curie's law. With one of his students Pierre also made the first discovery of nuclear energy.

Abraham de Moivre 26 May 1667 – 27 Nov 1754

Abraham de Moivre (26 May 1667 – 27 November 1754) was a French mathematician famous for de Moivre's formula, which links complex numbers and trigonometry, and for his work on the normal distribution and probability theory.

De Moivre wrote a book on probability theory, The Doctrine of Chances, said to have been prized by gamblers at the time. He also first discovered Binet's formula, the closed-form expression for Fibonacci numbers linking the n’th power of φ to the n’th Fibonacci number.

Throughout his life de Moivre remained poor. He continued studying the fields of probability and mathematics until his death in 1754, and several additional papers were published after his death. He pioneered the development of analytic geometry and the theory of probability by expanding upon the work of his predecessors, particularly Christiaan Huygens and several members of the Bernoulli family.

De Moivre also published an article called ‘Annuities upon Lives’, in which he revealed the normal distribution of the mortality rate over a person’s age. From this he produced a simple formula for approximating the revenue produced by annual payments based on a person’s age. This is similar to the types of formulas used by insurance companies today.

René Descartes 31 March 1596 – 11 Feb 1650

René Descartes (31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650) was a French philosopher, mathematician, and writer. He has been dubbed the 'Father of Modern Philosophy', and much subsequent Western philosophy is a result of his writings, which are studied closely to this day, in particular, his Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes' influence in mathematics is also apparent; the Cartesian coordinate system — allowing algebraic equations to be expressed as geometric shapes in a two-dimensional coordinate system — was named after him.

Descartes is perhaps best known for the philosophical statement ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am), found in part IV of Discourse on the Method.

One of Descartes' most enduring legacies was his development of Cartesian or analytic geometry, which uses algebra to describe geometry. He ‘invented the convention of representing unknowns in equations by x, y, and z, and knowns by a, b, and c’. He also ‘pioneered the standard notation’ that uses superscripts to show the powers or exponents, for example the 4 used in x4 to indicate squaring of squaring. He was also the first person to assign a place for algebra in our system of knowledge, and believed that algebra was a method to automate or mechanize reasoning, particularly about abstract, unknown quantities. René Descartes died on 11 February 1650 in Stockholm, Sweden, of suspected pneumonia.

Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac 8 Aug 1902 – 20 Oct 1984

Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac (8 August 1902 – 20 October 1984) was an English theoretical physicist who made fundamental contributions to the early development of both quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics.

Among other discoveries, he formulated the Dirac equation, which describes the behaviour of fermions, and predicted the existence of antimatter. Dirac shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1933 with Erwin Schrödinger, for the discovery of productive forms of atomic theory.

Dirac established the most general theory of quantum mechanics and discovered the relativistic equation for the electron, which now bears his name. He was the first to develop quantum field theory, which underlies all theoretical work on sub-atomic or "elementary" particles today.

Dirac's Principles of Quantum Mechanics, published in 1930, is a landmark in the history of science. It quickly became one of the standard textbooks on the subject and is still used today. The book introduced the delta function and included the bracket notation, contributing to its universal appeal.

Thomas Alva Edison 11 Feb 1847 – 18 Oct 1931

Thomas Alva Edison (11 February 1847 – 18 October 1931) was an American inventor and businessman.

Edison is the fourth most prolific inventor in history, holding well over 1,000 US patents in his name, as well as many patents elsewhere. He also developed a system of electric-power generation and distribution – a crucial development in the industrialised world.

Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark, New Jersey, with the automatic repeater and his other improved telegraphic devices, but is remembered most for inventing the phonograph in 1877.

Edison created the first industrial research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It was built with the funds from the sale of the quadruplex telegraph, his first big financial success, and became the first institution set up with the specific purpose of achieving technological innovation. In just over a decade it expanded to occupy two city blocks.

He did not invent the first electric light bulb, but instead invented the first commercially practical incandescent light. These early bulbs had an extremely short lifespan, cost a lot to produce and run, making them difficult to apply on a large scale commercially. The first successful test was on October 22, 1879, in which it lasted 13.5 hours, but he later improved this with a filament that could last over 1,200 hours.

The key to Edison's fortunes was telegraphy though. He patented the sound recording and reproducing phonograph in 1878, and was also granted a patent for the motion picture camera or ‘Kinetograph".

Thomas Edison died of complications relating to diabetes on October 18, 1931, in his home in New Jersey.

Michael Faraday 22 Sept 1791 – 25 Aug 1867

Michael Faraday, FRS (22 September 1791 – 25 August 1867) was an English scientist whose main discoveries include electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism and electrolysis.

Faraday discovered two new compounds of chlorine and carbon, and also conducted the first rough experiments on the diffusion of gases. He invented an early form of what was to become the Bunsen burner, discovered chemical substances such as benzene and established that gases are the vapours of liquids possessing a very low boiling point. Faraday is also known for discovering the laws of electrolysis, and for terminology such as anode, cathode, electrode, and ion.

He established the basis for the concept of the electromagnetic field in physics, and also established that magnetism could affect rays of light and that there was an underlying relationship between the two phenomena. He discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism, and the laws of electrolysis. His inventions of electromagnetic devices formed the foundation of electric motor technology, and it was largely due to his efforts that electricity became used in technology.

The SI unit of capacitance, the farad, is named in his honour.

Sir John Ambrose Fleming 29 Nov 1849 – 18 Apr 1945

Sir John Ambrose Fleming FRS (29 November 1849 – 18 April 1945) was the English electrical engineer and physicist best known for inventing the vacuum tube.

Fleming was born in Lancaster and became a Fellow of St John's, Cambridge, in 1883. He went on to Lecture at several universities and was also a consultant to the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, Swan Company, Edison Telephone, and later the Edison Electric Light Company. In 1899 he became Scientific Adviser to the Marconi Company and soon after began work on designing the power plant to enable the Marconi Company to transmit across the Atlantic.

In 1904 he invented the two-electrode vacuum-tube rectifier for which he is best known. This invention is often considered to have been the beginning of electronics, and Fleming's diode was used in radio receivers and radars for many decades afterwards, until it was eventually superseded by solid state electronic technology more than 50 years later. Valves remained dominant until the arrival of the transistor in the early 1970’s.

Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier 21 Mar 1768 –16 May 1830

Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier (21 March 1768 –16 May 1830) was a French mathematician and physicist best known for initiating the investigation of Fourier series and their applications to problems of heat transfer and vibrations. Fourier is also credited with the discovery of the greenhouse effect.

Fourier made important contributions to dimensional analysis. The other physical contribution was Fourier's proposal of his partial differential equation for conductive diffusion of heat. This equation is now taught to every student of mathematical physics. In the 1820s Fourier calculated that an object the size of the Earth, and at its distance from the Sun, should be considerably colder than the planet actually is if warmed only by the effects of incoming solar radiation. His consideration of the possibility that the Earth's atmosphere might act as an insulator of some kind is widely recognized as the first proposal of what is now known as the greenhouse effect. In 1830 he died in his bed on 16 May.

William Gilbert 24 May 1544 – 30 Nov 1603

William Gilbert, (24 May 1544 – 30 November 1603) was an English physician, physicist and natural philosopher who is credited as one of the originators of the term electricity. A unit of magnetomotive force was named the gilbert in his honour.

Gilbert concluded that the Earth was itself magnetic and that this was the reason compasses point north, and was also the first person to state that the centre of the Earth was iron. Twenty years before Galileo he pointed out the motion of the skies was due to earth's rotation. He also made the first attempt to map the surface markings on the Moon in the 1590s. Gilbert died on 30 November 1603; the cause of death is thought to have been the bubonic plague.

Joseph Henry 17 Dec 1797 – 13 May 1878

Joseph Henry (17 December 1797 – 13 May 1878) was an American scientist who discovered the electromagnetic phenomenon of self-inductance. He also discovered mutual inductance independently of Michael Faraday, although Faraday was the first to publish his results. The SI unit of inductance, the henry, is named in his honour.

Heinrich Rudolf Hertz 22 Feb 1857 – 1 Jan 1894

Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (22 February 1857 – 1 January 1894) was the first person to conclusively prove the existence of electromagnetic waves. The scientific unit of frequency was named the hertz in his honour.

In some of his more advanced experiments, Hertz measured the velocity of electromagnetic radiation and found it to be the same as the light’s velocity. He also established beyond any doubt that light is a form of electromagnetic radiation.

His experiments expanded the field of electromagnetic transmission, and he also found that radio waves could be transmitted through different types of materials but were reflected by others, leading in the distant future to radar.

His discoveries would later be more fully understood by others and be part of the new ‘wireless age’.

James Prescott Joule 22 Feb 1857 – 1 Jan 1894

James Prescott Joule FRS (24 December 1818 – 11 October 1889) was an English physicist and brewer. He studied the nature of heat, and discovered its relationship to mechanical work. This led to the theory of conservation of energy, which in turn led to the development of the first law of thermodynamics. The SI derived unit of energy, the joule, is named after him.

Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace 23 Mar 1749 – 5 Mar 1827

Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace (23 March 1749 – 5 March 1827) was a French mathematician and astronomer who formulated Laplace's equation, and pioneered the Laplace transform which appears in many branches of mathematical physics. The Laplacian differential operator is also named after him. He was also one of the first scientists to postulate the existence of black holes and the notion of gravitational collapse.

While he conducted much research in physics, another major theme of his life's endeavours was probability theory. Laplace set out a mathematical system of inductive reasoning based on probability. He died in Paris in 1827.

Georges Leclanché 1839 – Sept 14, 1882

Georges Leclanché (1839 – September 14, 1882) was the French electrical engineer who invented the Leclanché cell, the forerunner of the modern battery. The Leclanché cell comprised of a conducting solution of ammonium chloride with a negative terminal of zinc and a positive terminal of manganese dioxide.

Heinrich Friedrich Emil Lenz 1839 – Sept 14, 1882

Heinrich Friedrich Emil Lenz (12 February 1804 – 10 February 1865) was the Russian physicist remembered for formulating Lenz's law in electrodynamics. The symbol L, conventionally representing inductance, is chosen in his honour.

Gustav Robert Kirchhoff 12 Mar 1824 – 17 Oct 1887

Gustav Robert Kirchhoff (12 March 1824 – 17 October 1887) was a German physicist. Concepts in circuit theory and thermal emission are named ‘Kirchhoff's laws’ after him, as well as a law of thermochemistry.

Kirchhoff formulated his circuit laws in 1845, while still a student. In 1857 he calculated that an electric signal in a resistanceless wire travels along the wire at the speed of light. He proposed his law of thermal radiation in 1859, and gave a proof in 1861.

James Clerk Maxwell 13 Jun 1831 – 5 Nov 1879

James Clerk Maxwell FRS FRSE (13 June 1831 – 5 November 1879) was a Scottish theoretical physicist who formulated classical electromagnetic theory. His equations demonstrate that electricity, magnetism and light are all manifestations of the same thing – the electromagnetic field.

Maxwell demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space in wave form and at the constant speed of light. He also helped to develop the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution, a means of describing aspects of the kinetic theory of gases and presented the first durable colour photograph in 1861.

John Napier 1550 – 4 Apr 1617

John Napier of Merchiston (1550 – 4 April 1617) is best known as the discoverer of logarithms. The inventor of the so-called ‘Napier's bones’, Napier also made common the use of the decimal point in arithmetic and mathematics.

The computational advance available via logarithms made calculations by hand much quicker. The way was opened to later scientific advances, in astronomy, dynamics, physics; and also in astrology. Napier also improved Simon Stevin's decimal notation and Arab lattice multiplication, used by Fibonacci, was made more convenient by the introduction of Napier's bones, a multiplication tool he invented using a set of numbered rods.

Sir Isaac Newton 25 Dec 1642 – 20 Mar 1727

Sir Isaac Newton (25 December 1642 – 20 March 1727) was the English polymath who laid the foundations for much of classical mechanics used today. He showed that the motions of objects are governed by the same set of natural laws by demonstrating the consistency between Kepler's laws of planetary motion and his own theory of gravitation.

Newton developed a theory of colour based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colours that form the visible spectrum. He also formulated an empirical law of cooling and studied the speed of sound. In mathematics, Newton shares the credit with Leibniz for the development of differential and integral calculus.

Newton was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669. From 1670 to 1672, Newton lectured on optics. During this period he investigated refraction, demonstrating that a prism could decompose white light into a spectrum of colours, and that a lens and a second prism could recompose the multicoloured spectrum into white light. He also showed that the coloured light does not change its properties by separating out a coloured beam and shining it on various objects. Newton observed that colour is the result of objects interacting with already-coloured light rather than objects generating the colour themselves. This is known as Newton's theory of colour.

From this work, he concluded that the lens of any refracting telescope would suffer from the dispersion of light into colours (chromatic aberration). As a proof of this he constructed the first known functional reflecting telescope, today known as a Newtonian telescope, which involved solving the problems of suitable mirror material and shaping.

The Principia was published on 5 July 1687. In this work, Newton stated the three universal laws of motion.

Newton’s three laws of motion (stated in modernised form): Newton's First Law (also known as the Law of Inertia) states that an object at rest tends to stay at rest and that an object in uniform motion tends to stay in uniform motion unless acted upon by a net external force. Newton's Second Law states that an applied force on an object equals the rate of change of its momentum with time. The SI unit of force is the newton, named in Newton's honour.

Newton's Third Law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This means that any force exerted onto an object has a counterpart force that is exerted in the opposite direction back onto the first object.

Edward Lawry Norton 28 Jul 1898 – 28 Jan 1983

Edward Lawry Norton (28 July 1898 – 28 January 1983) is best remembered for development of the dual of Thevenin's equivalent circuit, now referred to as Norton's equivalent circuit. He began his career with the Electric Company's Engineering Department, which later became Bell Laboratories. Norton’s research included network theory, acoustics, apparatus, and data transmission.

Harry Theodor Nyquist 7 Feb 1889 – 4 Apr 1976

Harry Theodor Nyquist (7 February 1889 – 4 April 1976) worked at AT&T/Bell Laboratories until his retirement in 1954. He received the IRE Medal of Honour in 1960 for contributions to thermal noise, data transmission and negative feedback and also contributed to the fields of telegraph transmission, electric conductors and feedback systems.

Hans Christian Ørsted 14 Aug 1777 - 9 Mar 1851

Hans Christian Ørsted (14 August 1777 - 9 March 1851) was the Danish physicist and chemist who discovered that electric currents create magnetic fields. The oersted (Oe) is named after him.

On 21 April 1820, during a lecture, he noticed that a compass needle deflected from magnetic north when an electric current from a battery was switched on and off, confirming a relationship between electricity and magnetism. His findings led to much more research into electrodynamics, influencing Ampere's development of a single mathematical formula to represent the magnetic forces between current-carrying conductors. In 1825 Ørsted produced aluminium for the first time.

Georg Simon Ohm 16 Mar 1789 – 6 July 1854

Bavarian physicist and mathematician. Ohm found that there is a direct proportionality between the potential difference (voltage) applied across a conductor and the resultant electric current. This relationship is known as Ohm's law. It first appeared alongside his complete theory of electricity, in which he stated his law for electromotive force. Ohm died in Munich in 1854, and is buried in the Alter Südfriedhof.

Pythagoras of Samos 570 BC and died 495 BC

Pythagoras of Samos (Born about 570 BC and died about 495 BC) was an Ionian Greek philosopher and mathematician.
Pythagoras made influential contributions to philosophy in the late 6th century BC. He is best known for the Pythagorean theorem, which states that in a right-angled triangle the area of the square on the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares of the other two sides - that is, a2 + b2 = c2

Walter Hermann Schottky 23 Jul 1886 – 4 Mar 1976

Walter Hermann Schottky (23 July 1886 – 4 March 1976) played a major role in developing the theory of electron and ion emission phenomena, invented the screen-grid vacuum tube and the pentode and co-invented the Ribbon microphone and loudspeaker with Dr. Gerwin Erlach.

Schottky's most important scientific achievement was to develop the classical formula for the interaction energy between a point charge q and a flat metal surface, when the charge is at a distance x from the surface.

Ernst Werner Siemens 13 Dec 1816 – 6 Dec 1892

Ernst Werner Siemens (13 December 1816 – 6 December 1892) was a German inventor and industrialist. Siemens' name has been adopted as the SI unit of electrical conductance, the Siemens.

He is known world-wide for his advances in various technologies, choosing to work on technologies that had already been established.

The Siemens company was internationalised soon after its founding. Amongst his many other achievements Siemens built the world's first electric elevator in 1880. He also claimed invention of the dynamo although others invented it earlier.

Charles Proteus Steinmetz 9 Apr 1865 – 26 Oct 1923

Charles Proteus Steinmetz (9 April 1865 – 26 October 1923) pushed forward the development of alternating current that made the expansion of the electrical power industry in the United States possible. He also made ground-breaking discoveries in the understanding of hysteresis that enabled engineers to design better electromagnetic apparatus equipment.

Steinmetz's work revolutionised a.c. circuit theory and analysis, simplifying the previously complicated methods into algebra. Steinmetz also carried out significant research into lightning phenomena, making him the first to create artificial lightning.

Nikola Tesla 13 Dec 1816 – 6 Dec 1892

Nikola Tesla (10 July 1856 – 7 January 1943) started working in the telephony and electrical fields before emigrating to the United States in 1884 to work for Thomas Edison. He soon struck out on his own though, setting up laboratories and companies to develop a range of electrical devices. In 1960, in honour of Tesla, the term ‘tesla’ was coined for the SI unit measure for magnetic field strength.

Tesla's inventions made him world-famous. In spite of making a great deal of money from his patents, Tesla ended up living as a recluse towards the end of his days and died penniless on 7 January 1943.

Léon Charles Thévenin 30 Mar 1857 – 21 Sept 1926

Léon Charles Thévenin (30 March 1857 – 21 September 1926) extended Ohm's law to the analysis of complex electrical circuits.

After studying Kirchhoff's circuit laws and Ohm's law, he developed Thévenin's theorem, which made it possible to calculate currents in more complex electrical circuits.

Alessandro Volta 18 Feb 1745 – 5 Mar 1827

Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (18 February 1745 – 5 March 1827) was the Italian physicist that invented the battery.

Volta studied the chemistry of gases, discovering methane. Volta also studied electrical capacitance, developing means to study both electrical potential (V) and charge (Q), and discovering that for a given object, they are proportional. This was named Volta's Law of capacitance, and as a result of this work the unit of electrical potential is called the volt.

Volta retired in 1819 to his estate in Camnago and died there on March 5, 1827.

James Watt 19 Jan 1736 – 25 Aug 1819

James Watt (19 January 1736 – 25 August 1819) was a Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer.

While working at the University of Glasgow, Watt realised that the engine designs of the time wasted energy by repeatedly cooling then re-heating the cylinder. He introduced a separate condenser, which radically improved both the power and efficiency of steam engines.

The watt is named after him – the unit of power incorporated in the International System of Units (or ‘SI’).

Wilhelm Eduard Weber 24 Oct 1804 – 23 Jun 1891

Wilhelm Eduard Weber (24 October 1804 – 23 June 1891) was a German physicist who, together with Gauss, invented the first electromagnetic telegraph.

He studied magnetism with Gauss, and during 1864 published his Electrodynamic Proportional Measures, which contained a system of absolute measurements for electric currents and forms the basis of those in use today. The SI unit of magnetic flux, the weber (Wb) is named after him.

Sir Charles Wheatstone 6 Feb 1802 – 19 Oct 1875

Sir Charles Wheatstone (6 February 1802 – 19 October 1875), was an English scientist and inventor of the concertina, the stereoscope, and the Playfair cipher. He is best known for his contributions in the development of the Wheatstone bridge, which is used to measure an unknown electrical resistance.

Clarence Melvin Zener 1 Dec 1905 – 15 Jul 1993

Clarence Melvin Zener (1 December 1905 – 15 July 1993) was the first person to describe the breakdown of electrical insulators. His findings were later used by Bell Labs in the development of the Zener diode.

Zener was a theoretical physicist with a background in mathematics who researched in a wide range of subject areas, including superconductivity, ferromagnetism, metallurgy, elasticity, diffusion, fracture mechanics and geometric programming.