Hurworth's most famous son was a bad-tempered, beer-drinking eccentric. He was also a genius. Chris Lloyd explains how everything adds up

Beware of the man who will not engage in idle conversation; he is planning to steal your walking stick or water your stock
William Emerson (1701-82) of Hurworth

I'VE had a knee operation. It's either four in four years or the fifth in five. I'm not very good at maths.

Either way, my son is seven.

He believes that Christmas comes but once a year. We have a summer holiday.

Then he has his birthday.

And then his father hangs out on crutches for a fortnight. It is usual. It is annual. It is routine.

My physiotherapist's torture chamber is opposite Hurworth church to the south of Darlington. As I stand at his door, leaning on my stick, waiting for my lift, I can just about see the large chest tomb in the churchyard over the road which belongs to the village's most famous son: William Emerson.

Emerson was famous for his prodigious consumption of beer, hence his concerns in the quote above that the landlord's stock was about to be watered down. And, like me, he was also worried about the whereabouts of his walking stick.

But he made his name as a mathematician. His textbooks taught generations of Georgian scholars how to do arithmetic, calculus, algebra and astronomy.

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the us, said: "When I was young, mathematics was the passion of my life."

And that was because when he was at college he studied Emerson's first big success, The Doctrine of Fluxions.

Emerson was born in Hurworth where his father, Dudley, was the schoolmaster. At first, the boy was "cloddish", and was sent away to schools in Newcastle and York.

He returned in 1730 and tried to run his late father's school. However, Emerson was an impatient teacher with a terrible temper. His pupils left and the school closed in 1733.

Emerson resolved to live on the £60-or-so a year that his father's estate at Castle Gate, near Eastgate, in Weardale, brought in.

In 1735, he married Elizabeth, the daughter of the Reverend Dr John Johnson, the rector of Hurworth. The rector had offered a £500 dowry with his daughter's hand, but he disapproved of her choice.

He treated his scruffy sonin-law with contempt and refused to pay, so Emerson loaded all his wife's clothes in a barrow and wheeled it round to the parsonage, saying he refused "to be beholden to such a fellow for a single rag".

He also vowed to prove the rector wrong.

Each summer, he retreated to Castle Gate to work on his books. As a mathematician, Emerson didn't break new ground, but his brilliantlyordered mind saw the complex processes far clearer than anyone else.

Similarly, he was regarded as a poor musician - he invented a violin with two first strings - but he was in great demand locally to tune harpsichords because his ear could hear more clearly than anyone else's.

AGED 42, he published his first book, The Doctrine of Fluxions (fluxions being what today we call calculus). It immediately became a bestseller.

Said Emerson immodestly: "I stepped forth, like a giant in all his might."

Hefollowed it up with The Projection of the Sphere, Orthographic, Stereographic and Gnomical, although the work that really sealed his reputation was The Principles of Mechanics of 1754. This was still being reprinted for students in the 1830s, long after his death.

Before committing to print, Emerson tested every one of the theories in his books. In Mechanics, for example, there is a drawing of an elaborate sewing machine which Emerson made for his wife.

When researching A Treatise of Navigation, he had his young helpers splashing about in the Tees, building boats. The "whole crew got swampt frequently", he reported.

The Mathematical Principles of Geography was published in 1770 and was accompanied by a work entitled Dialling, or the Art of Drawing Dials.

This was based on the 30 sundials Emerson had erected on house walls all over Hurworth.

Unfortunately, only one authenticated Emerson dial remains: on the Bay Horse pub, shaped like a pair of protractors.

As well as his books, Emerson wrote strident scientific articles for magazines. These often appeared under pen names: Merones, which is in the stained glass of the Emerson Arms pub in Hurworth, was a scramble of his surname; Philofluentimechanalgegeo mastrolongo, though, is a little more difficult to explain.

In many of his experiments he was assisted by his friend John Hunter.

One day, a carriageload of mathematical professors from Cambridge University arrived at his door on Hurworth Green with a problem they were unable to solve. Emerson cast an eye over it and called Hunter down from the roof, where he was fixing tiles, and told him to answer it. After a few moments, Hunter handed over his hat with the solution chalked on the crown. "Quite correct, " said Emerson, handing the hat to the professors.

The university types didn't understand how the solution had been arrived at, so Emerson said: "Take the hat with ye, and return it when you've discovered the explanation."

As the dispenser of such wisdom, Emerson was widely consulted. Edward Montagu, brother of the Duke of Manchester, came to walk the Hurworth fields with him, deep in mathematical discussion.

The Royal Society wished to make him a Fellow, but he refused, saying: "When a man becomes eminent, he has to pay quarterly for it.

This is the way ingenuity is rewarded in England. Damn them and their FRS too."

Villagers held such a man in awe, especially as he was able to predict - possibly even control - the patterns of the stars and the appearance of comets.

One Sunday, churchgoers were astonished to see a young boy transfixed in the top of Emerson's tree as if a spell had been cast on him. A villager asked Emerson if he could help with the return of the washing which had been stolen from her line, and Emerson let it be known that he would cast another spell trapping the culprit at the top of the church cherry tree unless the apparel was reunited with its rightful owner.

Over night it was, and Emerson had no need to cast the second spell. Which was just as well, as the first spell consisted of him standing, invisible to the churchgoers, at the foot of his apple tree, armed with an axe and threatening to "hag the legs off" the young scrumper if he dared to come down from the branches.

THIS vulgar language was typical of Emerson, as was the coarseness of his dress. His wife, Elizabeth, spun and bleached the linen (Hurworth, with its subterranean rooms tumbling down to the Tees, once had more than 150 residents who were weavers) which she then turned into his clothes on her elaborate sewing machine.

He always buttoned the top and bottom of his coat but left the middle open and billowing. To keep his chest warm, he wore his shirt back to front.

He was also renowned for inventing shin-covers: pieces of sacking tied above the knee with string. Shin-covers allowed him to sit in his favourite chair as close to the fire as possible without his protruding lower legs getting burnt.

The Victorian historian William Longstaffe wrote: "His wigs were made of brown or a dirty flaxen coloured hair, which at first appeared bushy and tortuous behind, but which grew pendulous through age, till at length it became quite straight, having probably never undergone the operation of the comb."

However, because Emerson habitually slid his hand beneath his wig at the rear of his head, it distinctively sagged at the back.

He walked everywhere - even down to London, carrying his manuscripts.

When Mr Montagu offered him the use of a carriage, he replied: "Damn your whimwham! I had rather walk."

Most weeks he walked into Darlington to buy his provisions on the Monday market, leading a horse which would carry them home. Only Monday turned into Tuesday which turned into Wednesday as Emerson fell into idle conversation in the pubs around the market place.

"It is remarkable that his ale didn't injure his appetite, and that he never felt a headache or any ill effects afterwards, " marvelled Longstaffe.

In later life, it caught up with him. He would stand for hours in the Tees, indulging in his hobby of fishing and hoping that the water would wash the gout out of him.

Towards the end of his life, he was greatly troubled by gallstones, shouting out his wish that "my soul might have shaken offits rags of mortality without such a clitter-my-clatter".

He died on May 21, 1782, aged 81, and left specific instructions for the wording on his headstone. This stone was damaged during rebuilding of the church in 1832, and in 1860 the villagers clubbed together to replace it with the impressive chest which is just about visible from the physio's door.

They copied the words from the old to the new - although the new is now so old that its weathered words are once more hard to make out.

The top line is in Hebrew, which Emerson chose because it used his favourite insult - to him, everybody was a "damned fule" - and because it spoke of the universality of death: "Then said I in my heart, as it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me."

The inscription beneath is in Latin which the ol' big head must have written himself: "Underneath are interred the mortal remains of William Emerson, whose merit and science remained long unnoticed, although in him were united the virtues of simplicity and perfect integrity, with uncommon genius. That he was a great mathematician, if you have read his works, this stone need not inform you; if not, read them and learn."

With many thanks to Katherine Williamson at the Darlington Centre for Local Studies, which has a large collection of Emerson's original books.