William Stanley Jevons was an economist and logician who made a major contribution to the development of economics as a statistically based science in the middle of the 19th century.
He was born in Liverpool on 1st September 1835 the son of Thomas Jevons, an iron merchant, and his wife Mary Ann. Jevons’ mother was the daughter of the eminent Liverpool figure William Roscoe and was in her time a noted poetess. His father also wrote on a variety of economic and legal themes and his early home life must have been a comfortable and intellectually nurturing environment. At the time of his birth the family home was a 14 Alfred Street L1 (now demolished the road ran off Great George Street towards the present day site of the Anglican Cathedral) later moving to 125 Chatham Street L7 (demolished and now part of the Liverpool University campus). William Jevons was the ninth of eleven children, of whom only six survived infancy. He was educated at the Liverpool Mechanics Institute and then University College School in London. It was around the time that he moved to London that ill-fortune befell his family when his father’s business became bankrupt, the weight on Thomas Jevons being all the heavier as his wife had died in 1845.
At University he studied chemistry and intended to seek employment in some manufacturing business in Liverpool. However, in 1853, despite being only 17, he was appointed as assayer at the branch of the Royal Mint opening in Sydney, Australia. He spent five years in Australia, finding his duties not onerous and his remuneration ample, and had time to devote himself o a variety of studies. His initial interests were in meteorology and geology but increasingly he turned his mind to philosophy and political economy. He returned to England in 1858, determined to further his academic studies.
His father had died in 1855 leaving him primarily responsible for supporting his siblings. He re-registered at University College in London, living in Paddington with his brother and two sisters. Completing his BA he continued to study and was duly awarded his MA and Gold Medal in mental philosophy and political economy. Anxious to continue his researches but needing an income in 1863 he took up an academic post at Owens College, Manchester. Whilst there he published a book entitled The Coal Question which posed questions about the country’s future dependence on coal and its consequences. The book sold poorly until it came to the attention of John Stuart Mill who referred to it in parliament. Astonishingly this led to an invitation to Jevons to visit 10 Downing Street to discuss his ideas with Prime Minister (and fellow-Liverpudlian) William Gladstone. The publicity led to a dramatic increase in sales and Jevons found himself suddenly a successful author. His good fortune was further enhanced when he secured a newly-established professorship at Owens College.
The new stability of his position saw him marry in 1867 Harriet Ann Taylor, the daughter of John Edward Taylor, founder of the Manchester Guardian. They had three children and settled in Withington, Manchester. In 1868 he published his most substantial work to date, The Principles of Science. For its time The Principles of Science was a remarkable achievement, anticipating the approach of more recent works on the philosophy of science and showing Jevons's ability not only to think through the principles of reasoning, but to illustrate their application in a wide range of natural sciences, with which he displayed impressive familiarity.
In 1876 Jevons returned to University College, London and the chair of political economy. Although providing a smaller salary than he was receiving in Manchester, the teaching duties were less onerous and offered the opportunity for him to write and publish. He eventually resigned his professorship in 1880 and continued to research and publish.
On 13th August 1882 , whilst holidaying near Hastings, he went for a swim in the sea and drowned after suffering a heart attack. He was aged just 46 years. He is buried in Hampstead Cemetery.
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