Simon Stevin, a Belgian man of many talents
The Bruges native Simon Stevin was a man of many talents. While he is typically referred to as a mathematician, his influence extended far wider. Exactly who is this famous Belgian?
Born in 1548 in what was then known as the Burgundian Netherlands, very little is known about the mathematician’s childhood. He worked as a bookkeeper and teller in Antwerp for a while at a young age, after which he returned to Bruges to serve the so-called Brugse Vrije administration, but he left the city again in March 1571. Stevin travelled to Poland, Prussia, Sweden and Norway and found inspiration there on how to improve waterways and ports, only to return to his previous employer in 1577.
Stevin left Bruges again in 1581, moving North to Leiden. He enrolled in the city’s university two years later at the ripe age of 35, though it is not clear what he studied there. It is also shortly after Simon Stevin’s arrival in Leiden that his work started getting published.
The first book, published in 1582, concerned commercial arithmetic and was followed by a book on geometry the following year. Subsequent works discussed topics such as decimal fractions (while he did not invent it and the system used today is not his, Stevin is credited with introducing decimals in Europe), algebra, hydrostatics, position finding, Copernican theory, music theory and…singing.
His most notable works included De Beginselen der Weeghconst and De Beghinselen des Waterwichts, both published in 1586, on weighing and on hydrostatics respectively. He had become interested in mechanics after discovering the work of Archimedes. In this domain, too, he proved his knowledge, discovering that objects of different mass fall at the same rate, six years before Galileo did.
Even the Dutch language was music to Stevin’s ears: he translated numerous mathematical terms into Dutch. Many of these terms, like those for mathematics (wiskunde), subtract (aftrekken), and diameter (middellijn) are still used today, though some of his neologisms have evolved or changed since his day.
In other words, Simon Stevin proliferated in terms of publications, but it should also be noted that Stevin made quite a high-profile friend while studying at Leiden; he became associated with none other than Prince Maurice, the Count of Nassau, and became his principal advisor and tutor when he took office.
Stevin showed great military genius, inventing a way to hold back intruders by opening sluices to flood the land. He became general intendant of the armies in 1593 and, at the turn of the century, founded a military engineering school linked to Leiden University.
While Simon Stevin certainly left his mark on many areas of life, his own is shrouded in mystery, to the point where no one knows his exact age or even whether he passed away in The Hague or in Leiden, the Netherlands.
This illustrious Belgian elucidated many facets of life, but the details of his own remain unknown, often forgotten compared to his contemporaries like Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler.
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