July 1, 2011

So much Leibniz, so little time

It’s Leibniz’s birthday today – he’d be 365  – and if you haven’t settled on a career goal, you might consider putting together The Collected Works of Gottfried Leibniz, because there isn’t one.

Shocking, no? Such a pivotal guy and still nobody has been able to assemble all his written work.  It’s because there are not only slews and slews of his papers – in seven languages – but lots of stuff he just wrote and never published or wrote in a letter to somebody or jotted down a note to self and put it in his pocket.

They’ve been working on a complete oeuvre in Germany and Poland since 1901, but they don’t expect to finish any time soon and no doubt new stuff is still turning up. They have, however, managed to churn out 25 volumes.

Leibniz was born in Leipzig to a university professor and his wife, but his father died when he was six.  Part of his inheritance consisted of his father’s library, which his mother allowed him complete access to and because it was all in Latin, he set himself to learn the language.  Which, by the age of 12 he’d mastered.  All his life he wrote and conversed in several languages, but mostly Latin, German and French.

Gottfried went to university at the age of 14 and by the age of 20, he’d published his first book, got a bachelor’s and master’s in philosophy and a bachelor’s in law.  He was working on his doctorate of laws, but students at his university protested his early graduation, so he dropped out.

That was in September of 1666.  He got accepted at another school and by November he’d submitted his thesis and got his degree.  He was that kind of guy.

He was offered a teaching job, but declined and took the only other career route available – he went to work for rich people who paid him a stipend.  He wound up working for the Elector of Mainz and, long story short, got sent to Paris and then England, where he met all the big mathematicians and philosophers – on the way home he stopped in The Hague, met Leeuwenhoek and spent several days conversing with Spinoza.

Leibniz's 'Stepped Reckoner' went further than Pascal's - it could perform all four math functions. This is a replica of the only one in existence. Photo by Knossos.

When the Elector died soon after his return, Leibniz was unemployed.  Luckily, the Duke of Brunswick (aka the Elector of Hanover) hired him and didn’t complain when Gottfried pursued his own peculiar interests. The one big job they gave him was to write a history of the House of Brunswick, but Leibniz was way more meticulous than they wanted – he traveled all over collecting archival sources, all while working on his calculus, philosophy and natural history.  An unfinished version – which took him 30 years – was published and that took up three volumes.

Sadly, Leibniz’s golden years (he died in 1716) were spent defending his claim to having invented the calculus independently of Newton, whose followers accused him of stealing it.  Nowadays, it’s accepted that the two arrived at their systems separately, but with knowledge of each other’s work.  Full discussion with all the boring details here.

Btw, Leibniz not only improved the system of binary notation, but envisioned something like a computer and Norbert Weiner swore he was the first to describe feedback. He also had the first purpose-built library designed for the Elector and designed a cataloguing system for it.  And for centuries, a lot of Leibniz’s ideas didn’t make any sense to people – like his theory that time, space and motion were all relative.



  1. What an amazing piece of history here and told in such an accessible way! What a man the Leibniz was…I can’t get over it. and all I had to do was go to my computer and read your blog!


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — July 1, 2011 @ 10:41 am | Reply

  2. I suppose he thinks he’s pretty smart! Probably stuck-up also!


    Comment by Carol — July 1, 2011 @ 4:47 pm | Reply

  3. loved it! thnx. xo u


    Comment by ursel — July 2, 2011 @ 5:51 am | Reply



    Comment by avery — July 2, 2011 @ 8:01 am | Reply

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