José Monteiro da Rocha and the 250th anniversary of the Faculty of Mathematics of the University of Coimbra

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the creation of the Faculty of Mathematics of the University of Coimbra. It was created as part of the teaching reforms undertaken by King Joseph I and his powerful minister Marquis of Pombal, in the 1760s and 1770s, and it was the first university faculty created in the world specifically for the teaching of this science. 

The Pombaline reform of the University of Coimbra in 1772 aimed to endow the university with a series of scientific courses capable of training technical staff for the various public administration sectors, in support of the political and economic interests of Portugal and its colonies, particularly Brazil. Mathematics was seen as one of the fundamental disciplines, at the basis of the “understanding and study of all other disciplines” such as «the measurement of time; the geographical location of places; the demarcations, and measurements of lands; manoeuvres, and pilotage routes; the tactical operations of military campaigns; (…); and an infinity of other subsidies, which benefit, promote and improve a great number of arts useful and necessary to the State» (Statutes of the Faculty of Mathematics, 1772).

The new faculty was structured over four years. In the first two years, Geometry (1st year) and Algebra (2nd year) were studied subjects of pure mathematics (geometry, trigonometry, algebra, and differential and integral calculus and their applications). In the last two years, in the chair of Physics-Mathematics (3rd year) were studied mixed mathematics (mechanics, optics hydraulics, acoustics and “Civil, Naval and Military Architecture”), and in the chair of Astronomy (4th year), spherical astronomy, celestial mechanics and “Practice and Astronomical Observations”.

One of the main architects of this project to reform university scientific studies was the mathematician and astronomer José Monteiro da Rocha (1734-1819), who was responsible for writing its statutes. However, his action was not only limited to this founding moment. Monteiro da Rocha taught several courses, was director of the Astronomical Observatory and held important academic positions, such as Vice-Rector from 1786 to 1804, when he retired. 

His scientific work is relatively vast, including translations of French textbooks (Bézout, Bossut and Marie), works on applied mathematics (mainly numerical calculus) and astronomy. In mathematics, it is perhaps worth mentioning the work “Solução geral do problema de Kepler sobre a medição das pipas e toneis” (General solution to Kepler’s problem on the measurement of barrels and jars), where he aims to solve a real problem in the daily trade of liquid substances that were transported in barrels and containers. 

His contribution to astronomy is much broader than his mathematical contribution. Monteiro da Rocha published several works on theoretical astronomy (e.g., determining the orbit of comets and astronomical tables) and practical astronomy (calibration and precision of instruments), most written while he was professor and director of the Observatory. These works were fundamental to establish the mathematical methods and astronomical practices that allowed the calculation and preparation of the emblematic astronomical ephemerides that the Observatory began to publish in 1803.

The Astronomical Observatory of the University of Coimbra, which Monteiro da Rocha was mainly responsible for creating, was not only a university observatory exclusively dedicated to the practical teaching of astronomy and scientific research. It was also a national observatory, involved in the preparation of astronomical ephemerides “for the use of Portuguese Navigation”.

The Royal House recognised his administrative and scientific work and appointed him royal counsellor in 1800 and, four years later, teacher to the crown prince, who would become the future emperor of Brazil (Pedro I) and king of Portugal (Pedro IV).

José Monteiro da Rocha died in Lisbon on the 11th of December 1819. 

Fernando B. Figueiredo (CITEUC, DM-FCTUC)

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