Quick Facts

Nationality: French, German, Swiss

Died At Age: 49

Sun Sign: Virgo

Born Country: France

Born in: Republic of Mulhouse, Independent city-state

Famous as: Mathematician, Physicist and Astronomer

father: Lukas Lambert

mother: Elizabeth Schmerber

Died on: September 25, 1777

place of death: Berlin, Prussia

discoveries/inventions: Hygrometer

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Johann Heinrich Lambert was a Swiss mathematician, astronomer, physicist, and philosopher. He is especially well-known for being the first person to provide evidence that ‘Pi’ (ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter), is irrational, which means it cannot be expressed as the quotient of two integers. He was also the one who introduced hyperbolic functions into trigonometry. Lambert is also said to be the first mathematician who addressed the general properties of map projection. His contribution to physics was also immense. The hygrometer, which is an instrument to measure the moisture content in the atmosphere, was invented by him. He also did research on the measurement of light, and published a book on it named ‘Photometria.’ He is also remembered for his contribution to philosophy. He corresponded with Immanuel Kent and though the latter decided to dedicate his work ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ to Lambert, he died before the work was complete. Lambert, as an astronomer, developed a theory about the generation of the universe. It was similar to the nebular hypothesis formed by Thomas Wright and Immanuel Kant.

Johann Heinrich Lambert was born on 26 August 1728 in the city of Mulhouse in Switzerland, (which is now in France). Though much is not known about his parents and his family, it is known that his family was of humble background.

Because of financial pressures, Lambert had to give up formal education at an early age. At the age of twelve, he started working as an assistant to his father, who was a tailor. However, he studied in his free time, especially Latin and French.

He then found a job as a clerk and later as a secretary to the editor of a magazine ‘Basier Zeitungh’ at the age of 20. During this time, he also focused on learning humanities and sciences.

Later, he became a private tutor the children of Count Salis in Chur, a job which he continued for nearly ten years. He taught subjects such as mathematics, geography and history. Not only he helped the children with achieving academic success, but could also satiate his own hunger for knowledge in their family library.

On 1756, he began an expedition to Europe with his students. This gave him the opportunity to meet established mathematicians in places like France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany.

He also developed friendship with astronomer Tobias Mayer, a friendship that lasted till his death. He also participated in the meetings of the Learned Society in Gottingen, and managed to earn a membership as a corresponding member when he left the city after the French occupation in July 1757.

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After his return to Chur, Johann Lambert published his first book on cosmology. After that, he hoped for a chair at the University of Gottingen. But since this hope wasn’t fulfilled, he went to Zurich where he worked with Gessner, and soon became a member of the city’s Physical Society. Soon, he published his next book ‘Die freye Perspektive.’

Later, he met the famous instrument maker Georg Friedrich Brander, with whom he corresponded for twelve years. This correspondence also helped him to publish his next books ‘Photometria’ and ‘Cosmologische Briefe’.

Though Lambert was later offered a position at the St. Petersburg Academy, he had actually hoped for a position at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin. He eventually managed to get the desired post though initially the Academy had delayed his appointment because of his strange appearance and behavior.

Later on, once his talents were recognized, his salary was raised, and he was made a member of the new economic commission of the Academy. He was also appointed into another committee, through which he contributed to land surveying and building administration, which led him to receiving the title of ‘Oberbaurat’ in 1770.

He remained a member of the Academy for many years until he died at the age of 49. During this time, not only he produced more than 150 works, but he was also the only member of the academy to exercise the right to read papers not just in his own class, but also in other classes as well.

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In the field of mathematics, Johann Lambert was the first to introduce hyperbolic functions into trigonometry. He also made conjectures regarding non-Euclidean space. He proved that “Pi” is irrational. He also solved goniometric equations by infinite series as well as worked out a tetragonometry, which is a doctrine of plane quadrangles, corresponding to the common trigonometry.

In the field of map projection, he became the first to discuss the properties of conformality and equal area preservation. He was also the one who pointed out that they were mutually exclusive. He published seven new map projections in 1772, though he didn’t give any names to any of them.

In the field of physics, Lambert is credited with creating the first hygrometer. In his book ‘Photometria’ which was published in 1760, he made three important assumptions: the illumination was proportional to the strength of the source, and inversely proportional to the source of the distance of the illuminated surface and the sine of the angle of inclination of the light’s direction to that of the surface. Later, experiments were made involving the visual comparison of illuminations which supported these assumptions. Lambert is credited with formulating the law of light absorption as well.

In the field of philosophy, he wrote and published his first work ‘New Organon’ in 1764, in which he wrote about distinguishing subjective from objective appearances.

In the field of astronomy, he developed a theory about the origin of the universe which was similar to the nebular hypothesis theory developed by Thomas Wright and Immanuel Kant. He published about it in his book ‘Cosmologische Briefe uber die Einrichtung des Weltbaues.’

According to the book, the stars near the sun are part of a group which travelled together through the Milky Way, and there are many such groups scattered throughout the galaxy. The efforts made by Lambert to improve communication and collaboration in astronomy were also noteworthy.

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Johann Heinrich Lambert never married and remained a bachelor throughout his life.

He passed away at the age of 49, on September 25, 1777. However, the exact cause of his departure is not known though some sources claim he died of tuberculosis.

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