Jevons, William Stanley

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William Stanley JEVONS

b. 1 September 1835 - d. 13 August 1882

Summary. Jevons pioneered the use of mathematics in economics, taking a greater interest in statistics than any of the other great economists.

W.S. Jevons was one of the most influential economists of his age. Although he was not the first scholar to apply sophisticated mathematical and statistical techniques to the study of economic problems and theories, he was by far the most effective early advocate and practitioner of the `mathematical theory of political economy'.

His Notice of a General Mathematical Theory of Political Economy attracted no notice whatever when read before the British Association Meeting at Cambridge in 1862, and was barely noticed when published in the Statistical Journal in 1866. But the developed version of this short paper, published as The Theory of Political Economy in 1871, was to be identified by J.M. Keynes (q.v.) as `the first modern book on economics'. And in his Business Cycles (1927), Wesley C. Mitchell wrote that `It was left for W. Stanley Jevons to give the first powerful impetus to statistical work in economic theory'.

Jevons was born in Liverpool, England. In 1853, at the age of 18, he had interrupted his studies in mathematics and chemistry at University College, London in order to accept a lucrative position as an assayer at a new branch of the (British) Royal Mint at Sydney. His official duties during the succeeding five years (1854-59) left him time to pursue a wide range of scientific interests, many of which involved the use of statistics. The most important publication of Jevons' Australian years was in the field of meteorology (`Some Data concerning the Climate of Australia and New Zealand'), in which he provided some remarkably accurate descriptions of climate fluctuations in Australia, based on very limited data.

In a paper on clouds published in 1858, Jevons appears to have been the first researcher to entirely discard electricity as having a role in the explanation of meteorological phenomena, and also the first to observe the phenomenon now called `salt fingers'.

In the same year Jevons produced his `Social Statistics or the Science of Towns especially as regards London and Sydney'. Though it remained unpublished, this work is of great significance as a pioneering exercise in urban sociology which anticipated his subsequent achievement as statistician and economist.

Soon after his return to England, Jevons was at work on a `Statistical Atlas': a collection of charts or diagrams of economic and social variables - in effect, the representation of time series in graphical form, which Jevons believed was as essential to the economist as were maps to the geographer.

He then embarked upon a remarkable series of studies of commercial fluctuations and prices. In 1936, J.M. Keynes was to identify the first of these (`On the Study of Periodic Commercial Fluctuations'), read before the British Association in 1862, as marking `the beginning of a new stage in economic science'. Jevons `was not the first to plot economic statistics in diagrams', said Keynes, but `he compiled and arranged economic statistics for a new purpose and pondered them in a new way'.

In the succeeding year Jevons published, at his own expense, the pamplet `A Serious Fall in the Price of Gold ascertained, and its Social Effects set forth'. This was an investigation of the effect of the gold discoveries in Australia and California upon the prices of commodities. In this pamphlet, Jevons was able to combine the historical and practical knowledge of gold and currency matters which he had acquired in his Australian post with a rare capacity to confront and resolve conceptual problems. It was of this work that Keynes was to write:

Jevons had to solve the problem of price index-numbers practically from the beginning; and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that he made as much progress in this brief pamphlet as has been made by all succeeding authors put together. He examines the logical and dialectical problem, the question of weighting, the choice between an arithmetic and geometric mean, whether articles which have moved abnormally should be excluded, and, generally speaking, what classes of commodities can best be taken as representative. $\ldots$ For unceasing fertility and originalitry of mind applied, with a sure touch and unfailing control of the material, to a mass of statistics, involving immense labours for an unaided individual ploughing his way through with no precedents and labour-saving devices to relieve his task, this pamphlet stands unrivalled in the history of our subject.

Many have assumed that `our subject', to Keynes, was economics. In fact, his audience was the Royal Statistical Society, not the Economic Society. In his paper Keynes recalled Jevons' decision, at the age of 28, to have himself `proposed and perhaps elected a Fellow of the Statistical Society as $\ldots$ possible acquaintance with other statisticians will be of high advantage to me'; and to the fact that, during his years in London, Jevons `frequently attended our [i.e., the Statistical Society's] meetings'. He was duly elected to the Fellowship of the London [now Royal] Statistical Society, and read further pathbreaking econometric studies before the Society in each of the two succeeding years.

In 1869, at the age of 34, Jevons produced the earliest model of his `Logic Machine'. This device consisted of keys, levers and pulleys, and was something of a cross between a logical abacus and a piano. It was the first machine that could solve a logical problem faster than that problem could be solved without using the machine. In the same year, Jevons was elected President of the Manchester Statistical Society, and President of the Economic Science and Statistics Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Significantly, his Presidential Address focussed upon the meaning and importance of `Statistics'. It was published in the Journal of the Statistical Society (September 1870), a testament to the fact that its author took a greater interest in statistics, and gave stronger and more continuous support to statistical institutions, than any of the other great economists.

Jevons' statistical investigations were related mainly, but by no means entirely, to the contributions to economics for which he has achieved lasting fame. Among papers which were not specifically related to economic issues were `Statistics of Shakespearean Literature' (Athenaeum, 12 March 1864), which Stigler has identified as an early `social indicator'; `On a General System of Numerically Definite Reasoning' (Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, January 1870); and various papers on the so-called Brownian movement of microscopic particles which have their place in the history of the investigation of random processes.

Jevons was accidentally drowned in 1882, in Hastings, England at the age of 46. His biography in Britain's Dictionary of National Biography pointed to his reputation `as a statistician of vast industry and rare gifts of combination, and an economist of high original power'; and by 1936 Lionel Robbins was to write that `Since his death, (Jevons) has been recognised universally as one of the most outstanding figures in the history of economic thought'.


[1] Fitzpatrick, P.J. (1860). Leading British statisticians of the nineteenth century. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 38-70.
[2] Jevons, W.S. (1858). On Clouds: their various forms and producing causes. Sydney Magazine of Science and Art, 1, pp. 163-76; (1859). Some Data concerning the climate of Australia and New Zealand. In Waugh's Australian Almanac for the Year 1859; (1870). Opening Address as President of Section F of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Journal of the Statistical Society (September); (1871). The Theory of Political Economy; (1878). On the molecular movement of particles. (Quarterly Journal of Science, April); (1884). Investigations in Currency and Finance.
[3] Keynes, J.M. (1951). William Stanley Jevons 1835-1882: A centenary allocution on his life and work as economist and statistician. Essays in Biography, 2nd ed., pp. 255-309.
[4] Maxwell, Clive and Brown, Alvin (1996). Bebop BYTES back (An unconventional guide to computers).
[5] Robbins, L. (1936). The Place of Jevons in the History of Economic Thought. Manchester School of Economics and Social Studies, 7.
[6] Schabas, M. (1990). A World Ruled by Number: William Stanley Jevons and the Rise of Mathematical Economics. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton.
[7] Schmitt, R.W. (1995). The ocean's salt fingers. Scientific American, May, pp. 50-55.
[8] Stigler, S.M. (1982). Jevons as statistician. The Manchester School, 50, 354-65.

Reprinted with permission from Christopher Charles Heyde and Eugene William Seneta (Editors), Statisticians of the Centuries, Springer-Verlag Inc., New York, USA.

How to Cite This Entry:
Jevons, William Stanley. Encyclopedia of Mathematics. URL:,_William_Stanley&oldid=39217