One of the most important scientists of his age, John Winthrop was born in Boston, into a family where relatives were already pursuing scientific careers. Winthrop graduated from Harvard College in 1735, and three years later he became a professor of mathematics and natural science at the school, a post he held to the end of his life.
During the next 41 years Winthrop not only taught, but he gave many public lectures and demonstrations. In effect, he laid the basis for serious scientific thought and investigations in America.Winthrop’s major work involved astronomy. He was the first person in the colonies to make observations of sunspots.
He made valuable contributions to the questions raised by the transits (movements) of Mercury and Venus across the sun, and in 1761 he was responsible for sending an expedition to Newfoundland to observe the transit of Venus. He was one of the first to predict the return of Halley’s Comet.
In addition, he made numerous valuable observations of eclipses and other astronomical phenomena.Winthrop took as active interest in, and made various contributions to, other areas of science. He was one of the first to support Benjamin Franklin’s theories about electricity when many people remained skeptical.
Winthrop also carried on observations of magnetism, and made meteorological observations, keeping a detailed record of the weather in Cambridge from 1742 to his final days.In 1746 he established the first laboratory of experimental physics in the colonies, and over the years conducted demonstrations of the laws of mechanics, light, and heat.
As a scientific thinker, Winthrop was a progressive in religion and politics. He attacked the traditional notions of the relation of God to creation, and maintained that physical phenomena were the result of natural causes.
Winthrop and his work did not go unrecognized in his day. He published in the most important scientific journals, and was elected to the most prestigious scientific society of the age, London’s Royal Society.
Despite his strong ties to England, Winthrop was a strong supporter of American independence, and even served in some administrative capacities during the early years of the Revolutionary War. In every way, John Winthrop was one of the bright lights of the colonies and a beacon of inspiration to America’s scientific and intellectual community.