John Collins (1625–1683), the son of a nonconformist minister whose income was small and irregular, was born at Water Eaton near Oxford. His education did go beyond grammar school.
A short period spent as an apprentice to an Oxford bookseller started his lifelong interest in the book trade. Collins then entered the service of Charles, Prince of Wales as junior clerk of the kitchen where he received instruction in aspects of practical mathematics and accounting.
At the outbreak of the Civil Wars, Collins found work on an English merchantman which for 7 years was engaged by the Republic of Venice in its naval war against the Turks. Again, he spent his free time learning mathematics and Latin.
Following John Collins’ return to London in 1649, he earned his living teaching mathematics and handwriting, while also serving as accountant to the alum farmers of London. In his spare time he produced some practical books, including An Introduction to Merchants’ Accounts (1652), The Sector on a Quadrant (1658), and The Mariners’ Plain Scale (1659).
At the Restoration, John Collins move into government employment as accountant to the Excise Office.
In 1668, through the efforts of William Brereton, he was made accountant to the Brooke House Committee.
Around 1670 John Collins married Bellona Austen, and he was made secretary to the Council of Plantations.
Later, Collins was manager of the Farthing Office for5 years, but as a government clerk, his pay came either late or not at all due to an over-stretched Treasury.
In his final years, John Collins held a minor post as accountant to the Royal Fishery Company and produced two books on the use of arithmetic in questions of economics: A Plea for the Bringing in of Irish Cattel (1680) and Salt and Fishery (1682).
Always Collins found meaning by promoting mathematics. Besides the books he wrote, he used his contacts to see many mathematical works through the press, including Thomas Salusbury’s Mathematical Collections and Translations (1661–5), Isaac Barrow’s Lectiones geometricae (1670), and John Wallis’ Mechanica (1669–70).
Collins built an extensive network of correspondents throughout the British Isles and Europe, with whom he exchanged mathematical news and receivred the latest publications. Members included John Pell, James Gregory, Wallis, Isaac Newton, G. W. Leibniz, and R. F. de Sluse. Such was his role that they called him ‘Mersennus Anglus’.
Collins’ extensive letter collection was used by the Royal Society as evidence in establishing Newton’s claim to the priority over Leibniz in the discovery of calculus.
John Collins also drafted responses for Secretary Henry Oldenburg to mathematical correspondence received by the Royal Society.
Collins was modest because of his birth, but was elected a Fellow in 1667, and for many years oversaw the Society’s accounts.
Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.