Adrain, Robert (1775–1843), mathematician, was born 30 September 1775 in Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, eldest among five children of a schoolteacher; his parents' names are not known. He received a good education, though he was self-taught in the higher mathematics. He lost both parents when he was 15, and became a schoolmaster and later a private tutor. He married Ann Pollock, and led a company of United Irishmen in the 1798 rising; he was severely wounded, but escaped to the USA with his wife and daughter – probably not before 1799, as his eldest daughter was born in Ireland that year. He became a schoolmaster and then taught mathematics in Queen's College (later Rutgers University), New Jersey (1809–13); Columbia College, New York (1813–25); Queen's College again (1825–7); and the University of Pennsylvania (1827–34), where he was vice-provost in 1828. He had to resign because he became unable to control his classes, but from 1836 to 1840 he taught in a school linked to Columbia College. He published in journals such as the Mathematical Correspondent (1804), Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, new ser., i (1818), and Mathematical Diary (1825–33), and was founding editor of the latter as well as of a shortlived periodical, the Analyst. His attempts to provide a forum for mathematical discussion were ahead of their time in the scientifically unsophisticated US of the day. His most important work, written by 1808 but apparently not published until 1809, was a description of a method for reducing errors in observation. Known as ‘the method of least squares’, this was independently described by Karl Friedrich Gauss, who has generally been given the credit for this important theory of mathematical statistics, though Adrain's paper appears to predate Gauss's work, which was published in spring 1809. Adrain also calculated the mean diameter of the earth, inspired by the French mathematician Laplace, though Adrain's result was more accurate, and he studied the catenary curve. He was one of the first important mathematicians to work in America. In 1810 he was awarded an honorary MA by Queen's College, and in 1818 was granted an LLD by Columbia College. One of his seven children, Garnett Adrain (1815–78), was a congressman for New Jersey (1857–61). Robert Adrain died on his farm in New Brunswick, New Jersey, 10 August 1843. His papers are believed to have been destroyed after the historian studying them died in 1945. A portrait of Adrain is reproduced on the internet pages cited below.
Appleton; ODon; Crone; DNB; DAB; D.Sci.B.; Clarke A. Elliott, Biographical dictionary of American science (1979); Cleeve; ANB; J. J. O'Connor and E. F. Robertson, ‘Robert Adrain’ (online from July 2000, http://www.history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Mathematicians/Adrain.html); Brian Hayes, ‘Science on the farther shore’, American Scientist Online, cx, no. 6 (Nov./Dec. 2002), 499 (online at www.americanscientist.org/template/AssetDetail/assetid/14774/page2?); internet material and material from Steve Adrain (family historian)