William Oughter Lonie


Born: 22 September 1822 in Kinghorn, Fife, Scotland
Died: 4 January 1894 in Edinburgh, Scotland


William Oughter Lonie's name is sometimes given as William Ochter Lonie, William Oughterlonie or William O'Lonie. His father, also named William Oughter Lonie, was an engineer and his mother was Agnes Morrison. He attended school in his home town of Kinghorn, taught there by the Rev John Davidson. Lonie said, many years later [5]:-

Drinking at such a fountain, I would have been a very dull boy indeed if I had not drawn some little inspiration.

On the same occasion, in 1881, he recalled the first school prize he won at the school in Kinghorn [5]:-

I had a desire for sympathy - it upset me. Still as the first excitement went away and I began to enjoy my holidays amid tree and bud and leaf and flower, I thought of the joy in my mother's face and the intense pleasure in my father's. By gaining this prize I had brought into the home I held so dear a new atmosphere, an atmosphere of happiness and goodwill, and I resolved to preserve it by working more earnestly in the future than I had done in the past.

He attended the University of St Andrews, matriculating in 1836 when he was barely fourteen years old. In 1837 he was a Kinghorn bursar. The courses he took were the following:

1836-37 Junior Latin, Junior Greek
1837-38 Greek Provectior, Mathematics 1, Logic
1838-39 Greek Provectior, Latin Provectior, Ethics, Mathematics 2
1839-40 Latin Provectior, Greek Provectior, Mathematics 3, Physics, Philosophy of the Senses
1843-44 Chemistry

He graduated M.A. on 27 April 1844. This record of the courses took looks strange - particularly the gap from 1840 to 1843 and the fact that he seemed to have essentially completed his degree four years before graduating. However, this is explained by the fact that Lonie was training to be a teacher and began working in schools in 1838 in parallel with his university studies. This was standard practice at the time. Notice that when he started as an assistant at the Burgh School in 1838 he was only sixteen years old. Following this he was an usher (an old term for an assistant schoolmaster) at an English boarding school. He was, for three months, an interim teacher at a burgh school. Following his graduation he was an assistant to Thomas Duncan, the Regius Professor of Mathematics at the University of St Andrews, for a year. He then spent a year as a resident private tutor before being appointed Head Master of Mathematics at Madras College in 1846. He lived at 5 North Bell Street, St Andrews, close to the school.

In August 1846, when the annual examinations took place at Madras College, Lonie came in for considerable praise despite the short time he had been in post [6]:-

At the close of the mathematical examination, Professor Kelland [Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh] congratulated Mr Lonie on the appearance which his classes had made; and expressed a confident expectation that the evident talent and energy of the new master will speedily enable him to make the appearances of his classes all that is either possible or desirable in such a school. Mr Lees expressed his cordial concurrence in Professor Kelland's remarks. ... At the close of the examination in the English department on Friday, which completed the inspection, Professor Pillans rose and addressed the trustees and the audience, which crowded the large West Room. ... He declared the satisfaction it had given him to observe the activity and promise of Mr Lonie.

Similar praise was given to Lonie following the examinations held in August 1847 [7]:-

The Mathematical and Arithmetical classes were examined on Thursday. Mr Lonie's mathematical classes occupied the earlier hours of the forenoon. Their programme exhibited an extensive course of teaching in geometry, practical mathematics, algebra, and geography; and in all these branches they sustained an active examination. Dr Haldane addressed Mr Lonie with unqualified commendation.

Lonie married Eliza Craig in Kinghorn on 12 December 1849. On 22 November 1850 their twin sons were born: Alexander Charles Oughterlonie and William Robert Oughterlonie. Tragedy struck the family soon after this and within a couple of years Eliza had died and William Robert had died in infancy. Alexander Charles Oughterlonie had a poetic temperament inherited from his mother and finished his college course with distinction. However, he suffered from heart disease and struggled for years spending his days painting, writing poetry and contemplating questions of existence. Tragically, he died in 1877 aged 26.

Although devoting himself to teaching at Madras College, where he was seen as an educational reformer, Lonie also undertook research. He conducted experiments on the optic nerve, judging depth and distance in monocular vision, and the role of the retina. He corresponded with Professor Macdonald at the University of Glasgow about his experiments and the University holds one such letter from Lonie dated 29 January 1853. A related area of interest would lead to Lonie gaining an international reputation. The Stereoscope Company, 313 Oxford Street, London, offered a prize of 20 guineas for the best short popular treatise on the stereoscope. We note that a stereoscope is an instrument capable of recording three-dimensional visual information. Lonie's 'Prize Essay on the Stereoscope' won the prize of 20 guineas which was presented to him by Sir David Brewster.

Sir David Brewster was a famous physicist and mathematician. In 1838, Sir David Brewster was appointed principal of the United Colleges of St Salvator and St Leonard. He held this position for 10 years. He published a book "The Stereoscope: Its history, theory and construction with its application to the fine and useful arts and to education" in 1856. In it Brewster refers to Lonie's Prize Essay on the Stereoscope. In the same year of 1856 Lonie's Prize essay was published as the book Practical Stereoscopic Photography. A review of Lonie's book states:-

Sir David Brewster's testimony to its merits renders further praise unnecessary, if not impertinent.

We mentioned that this work led to international recognition and this is clear from reports in Australian newspapers (the Hobart Courier and others) and in the publications of the American Philosophical Society.

We have quite a lot of information concerning the content of Lonie's teaching since the Fair Book of James Walker written in 1853 while he was taking Lonie's classes, has survived.


An advertisement appearing in 1859 lists the topics taught in the Mathematics Department of Madras College: Theoretical mathematics - Geometry and algebra; Practical mathematics - Trigonometry, surveying, navigation, etc.; Natural philosophy; Private Class geography. Topics taught in Lonie's Mathematics Department in 1879 are: Mathematics - Euclid, Elementary Modern Geometry and Conic Sections, Plane and Spherical Trigonometry, with practice, Elementary Algebra with Higher Equations, Mensuration, and Mechanics; Physics - after Balfour Stewart and Modern Views of Natural Forces including Energy, Sound, Heat, Light; Geography - Modern Geography.

As to Lonie's ideas about teaching, we have details of his interview by the Assistant-Commissioners on the State of Education in the Burgh and Middle-Class Schools in Scotland, 1867-68. Asked about whether the burgh school system meets the needs of the whole community, Lonie answers [4]:-

The Madras College meets the wants of our whole burgh community and more; but the theory of a burgh school should, in my opinion, embrace ... the idea of a distinct demarcation between the department for reading, writing, and arithmetic, as the instruments of a further education, and such further training by classics and mathematics as the most fitting known means to prepare pupils for universities, service examinations, and all middle-class occupations.

Asked about which subjects should be compulsory and which optional, he replies [4]:-

My experience in the Madras College and otherwise has impressed me with a very decided conviction that in the stage above the three R's it were best that the burgh, or rather the middle-class department of the burgh schools, had an imperative curriculum of two branches, viz., classics and mathematics, and all other optional. One advantage in the present free choice should not be overlooked, that children, who are, perhaps more frequently than parents, the choosers, are gratified with less irksome work; while this, I believe, is mainly due to our modes of teaching classics and mathematics being, so to speak, too didactic and authoritative; the master being too forgetful of the necessity of inductive teaching towards rules of language and propositions of mathematics, and likewise too forgetful of the constant necessity of deductive applications to matters of universal interest and prospective advantage.

He also believes that parents do not necessarily have correct ideas about the best subjects for their children to study [4]:-

Parents are too much inclined, in matters of education, to prefer the more immediate results of knowledge in the shape of such so-called practical subjects as practical mathematics, book-keeping, etc., and accomplishments such as drawing, painting, music, etc. Few appear to believe in training at all, or believe that all knowledge, however disjoined, is, in the acquisition, good training.

Lonie received two notable honours: the University of St Andrews honoured Lonie when they awarded him an LL.D. on 12 February 1870; and a dinner was held in his honour in 1881. Following the dinner, held on Friday 22 April 1881 in the Royal Hotel, St Andrews, he was presented with a silver salver and casket containing a cheque for 500 guineas (£525). A subscription list had been set up in 1878 and quickly reached £400 [5]:-

After this there came a lull, caused mainly by the commercial depression both at home and abroad, during which little progress was made.

A revival set in and again subscribers registered until £581 was reached. John Birrell, the Professor of Hebrew and Oriental languages, presided at the dinner and Peter Scott Lang, the regius Professor of Mathematics and dean of the Faculty of Arts, was also present. About 40 other subscribers attended [5]:-

Many of them were the Doctor's older pupils, a few his former assistants, and all cordial friends, warmly appreciative of his wonderful power to awaken youthful enthusiasm in what is too often regarded as a "dry as dust" study. Dr Lonie may be regarded as a pioneer reformer in his own walk of life. He has no faith in the "tawse" as an educator, and, notwithstanding the lack of order and authority many would suppose this would entail, no one could take even a cursory glance through Dr Lonie's classroom without being struck with its joyous air of freedom, its remarkable absence of what he himself terms "boy-repression" and the manifold indications of vigorous hard work. Accepted notions of teaching by dint of rigid military discipline are unceremoniously discarded, and the Doctor fearlessly works out his own propositions that a boy should be as much at liberty to walk up and down in his classroom as the tradesman is in his workshop. Herein lies largely the secret of this teacher's success, and the explanation of the fact that his name is still fondly cherished by many old pupils scattered all over the globe.

Professor Birrell read many tributes to Lonie from former pupils not able to be present. For example, the Rev James Robertson, Whittingham, Northumberland, wrote [5]:-

He was and remains to my mind an example of an ideal teacher, one of the rare few by whom their pupils are both inspired with enthusiasm at the time, and of whose eminence in teaching they have an undiminished sense when they look back on it with the experience of years.

John Tulloch, the Principal of the University, wrote [5]:

I do not know any teacher more deserving of honour than Dr Lonie. His long career of unselfish devotion to duty has excited respect of all who know anything of him or his work.

Lonie spoke of his hopes for the future [5]:-

I would have you bear in mind that it is a hard thing for these little boys to sit 6 or 7 hours a day on a bench, and begin again to a task of 2 or 3 hours at night, while the great sun is calling on them all the while to enjoy themselves, and the birds are singing and all nature alive and inviting them to her great temple rather than to the small confined temple of the classroom. I hope that the day is not distant when every scholar will have free scope for his young powers, and the liberty to stand up and put questions inviting discussion.

Let us also record at this point two further comments about Lonie as a teacher [3]:-

When work in mathematics was slow moving Mr Lonie used to stop the class, sing 'Cheer, boys, cheer' loudly and carry on with the lesson.

It is also recorded in [3] that Lonie altered the timetable moving his Geometry class from 12 noon to 6 am.

The 1881 dinner marks the high point of Lonie's exceptional teaching career. It ended, however, in sadness as reported by the Scotsman [8]:-

Owing to a new-fangled reconstruction of the teaching machinery of the Madras College, Dr Oughterlonie was obliged to retire from his position of the mathematical master in the autumn of 1888.

The trustees gave him no retiring allowance and he seems to have been rather badly treated after all the years of loyal service he had given to the school [8]:-

Practically the expulsion of Dr Oughterlonie from his old familiar classroom was a sentence of death upon him. He loved his work and lived for it. Enforced idleness cut him off from his chief interest if life. When he left St Andrews, Dr Oughterlonie, after a few months residence in Trinity Crescent, bought Oakleigh Villa, Wardie, near Granton, hoping then to give his later years to science and books. But three years ago he was struck with a paralytic affliction, from which he did not completely recover. Under a second seizure he had been sinking for some time past, and the end came early yesterday morning at his residence at Wardie.

This obituary [8] paid tribute to his outstanding abilities as a teacher:-

He was energetic, zealous, capable and not unkind. ... He was really a capital teacher for boys, gifted with a faculty of lucid explanation, the still rarer faculty of making geometry and algebra nearly as interesting as a game of chance, and, rarest of all, the faculty of being able to secure attention and maintain complete order in large classes without the tawse, birch, twigs, or any other instrument of physical force. ... [He was] the best teacher of elementary mathematics in Scotland. ... Many of his friends and pupils were of the opinion that he ought to have had his academic success rewarded by promotion to a professor's chair.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

April 2010


MacTutor History of Mathematics
[http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Lonie.html]