A Philosopher Who Keeled Over From Laughter
Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611 – 1660) was one of the oddest writers in the history of Scottish literature. So odd that he ended up with a prominent position in a book titled Scottish Eccentrics. To date, it is unclear if he was crazy, a conman, or the most gifted prankster ever produced by Scotland. He was an idiosyncratic polymath and author, best known for his original and vivid translation of the works of Francois Rabelais into English. His own writings included original work on a new system of trigonometry, which he revolutionized, mathematics, family histories, epigrams, and the invention of a universal language long before Esperanto. Urquhart was a royalist who fought for King Charles I against the Scottish Covenanters in 1639, and was knighted by the king for his support in 1641. A year later, Urquhart’s father died, and left him a heavily indebted estate.
Urquhart had to deal with and evade creditors for years, and even fled Scotland to the continent for a time. He returned in 1645 to publish a mathematical treatise, Trissotetras, Or A Most Exquisite Table For Resolving Triangles. He claimed could enable a student to learn a year’s worth of math in just seven weeks. However, it was written in such a cryptic way as to be nearly unintelligible. He joined a failed royalist revolt at Inverness in 1648, and was declared a traitor by Parliament. In 1651, he joined Charles II’s long shot attempt to regain the throne. However, he grew increasingly disgusted with the incompetence and mismanagement of the affair, which culminated in a decisive royalist defeat at the Battle of Worcester. Urquhart’s life finally came to an unexpectedly funny end: he died from laughter.