What Is The Origin Of (297)?…

According to Gunter

I like these rather obscure phrases that I come across from time to time, all of which mean correctly or reliably and cite an authority for such an assertion. This is one such, but who was Gunter?

Well, Edmund Gunter (1581 – 1626), a clergyman, mathematician, geometer and astronomer, who was a Professor of Astronomy at London’s Gresham College, a position he held from 1619 until his death. To him we owe the terms cosine and cotangent. He published a collection of his mathematical writings in 1624, entitled “The description and use of sector, the cross-staffe, and other instruments for such as are studious of mathematical practise”. What was remarkable about the book was that it was published in English rather than in scholastic Latin, its principle purpose was to be a practical manual to be used by seamen, surveyors and the unlike, unschooled in the delights of the language of the Romans.         

Gunter was interested in improving man’s ability to measure and survey and invented a number of instruments which bore his name. Gunter’s chain, 66 feet long, was used to take linear measurements between topographical features, such as corners of a field and then, by the process of triangulation, used to calculate the area of the whole field. As ten square chains made an acre, calculations were simplified. To determine the hour and the direction of the sun from the traveller, essential information for sailors, Gunther developed a quadrant, made principally of brass and wood.

To assist in the solving of navigational and other mathematical problems, the enterprising Gunter developed what was known as Gunter’s scale or rule. A flat rule two feet long and about 1.5 inches broad, it had scales of natural lines and on the reverse, scales with the natural logarithms of those lines, what was known as Gunter’s line. Accuracy and precision were clearly his bywords.

It was almost a century after his death, though, before his name was used figuratively to signify accuracy in the calculation of fiendish mathematical problems. The Commentator in its edition of June 25, 1720 noted that, “there is no squaring Things in Politicks according to Gunter; the Mathematicks will have no Share in our Measures”. A century later the Berwick Advertiser in its edition of January 18, 1834 wrote rather admiringly of Thomas Campbell; “all his sentences are constructed according to Gunter. He writes with his case of mathematical instruments by his side”.       

Cocker was another mathematician whose methods and name was taken as gospel for accuracy and reliability and, at least in Britain, his reputation rather usurped that of Gunter. From the middle of the 19th century Gunter, who was a Puritan, seems to have been adopted by the Americans. John Bartlett, in his Dictionary of Americanisms published in 1859, gave this explanation of our phrase; “The Laws of Rhode Island, both colonial and recent, referring to measures, say, “All casks shall be gauged by the rule commonly called “gauging by Gunter””. Hence any thing correctly and properly done is said to be “according to Gunter””.     

That America had embraced Gunter over Cocker because of his Puritanism was confirmed by this entry in Americanisms – Old & New, compiled by an English lexicographer, John Farmer, in London in 1889. Defining according to Gunter as “a variant of the English “According to Cocker””, Farmer noted explaining that “both Gunter and Cocker were distinguished mathematicians; the former, however, being a Puritan, has naturally taken the lead in the United States in preference to the latter”.  

The phrase did, though, originate in England but fell into obscurity, at least this side of the pond. Still, I am glad to shine a light on it.

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