Mathematics and the Royal Society
John Wallis (1616-1703) was a central player in the scientific revolution of the second half of the seventeenth century. After having made his mark as a cryptographer on the parliamentary side during the Civil Wars, he was elected Savilian professor of geometry in the University of Oxford in 1649. Through seminal publications such as De sectionibus conicis and Arithmetica infinitorum he made ground-breaking contributions to the development of modern mathematics, while at the same time he played an important part in the establishment of the Royal Society shortly after the Restoration in 1660. The fact that Wallis has been involved in the institution from its earliest beginnings in the 1640s gives his accounts of its origins in his Pro vita sua and Defence of the Royal Society unparalleled historical significance.
Wallis recognized from early on the importance of communication in the growth of scientific knowledge. His extensive correspondence, which reflects the diversity of his interests from mathematics to university affairs, from theology to natural history, will become one of the major resources on early modern studies once the multi-volume edition currently underway is completed.
As a trained theologian of strong Presbyterian persuasion, Wallis participated in many of the religious debates of his day. In the 1640s he was employed as scribe to the Westminster Assembly and served as minister of religion in London. In this capacity he signed petitions opposing the execution of Charles I and calling for the resolution of political and religious strife through dialogue. Following the Restoration, Wallis was one of a number of divines appointed to the post of chaplain-in-ordinary to Charles II in recognition of the important part played by leading Presbyterian churchmen in bringing about the return of the monarchy. He was also a key participant in negotiations aimed at overcoming constitutional and liturgical differences between Presbyterians and Anglican Episcopalians.
Wallis would later cite his moderation as being a principal reason for having survived the vicissitudes of seventeenth-century English politics better than most of his contemporaries. Not only did he retain his Savilian professorship without interruption until his death in 1703, but also the post of Custos archivorum, to which he had been elected in 1658. As Keeper of the Archives Wallis had considerable power and influence and over the years he used it astutely to defend the rights and privileges of the University of Oxford. Since much of the litigation with which he was involved took place in London, his post provided him with regular opportunities to participate in meetings of the Royal Society.
If Wallis's cryptographic skills enabled him to embark upon his scientific career their importance later on was two-sided. The uniqueness and importance of his ability to decipher encoded documents made him almost indispensable to everyone in power from Oliver Cromwell to Queen Anne. He was the first officially appointed and salaried government decipherer, acting together with his grandson William Blencowe. A portrait of Wallis commissioned by Pepys and now hanging in the Examination Schools in Oxford shows him with the gold medal he was awarded for his cryptographical work by the Elector of Brandenburg.