Monday, November 8, 2010

Antique Math

A really neat thing happened a couple of weeks ago. I arrived at my office to find an old cardboard box waiting for me. I opened it and was immediately aware of an old musty smell. Then, to my delight, I realized the box was stuffed full of old math text books; 1783 being the oldest. Yes, I know I probably need to get a life but for several years I've been collecting old math books from the 18th and 19th century. I find them at flea markets usually for a nickel or a dime; they are never larger than 7in x 5in and usually about an inch thick. The box was a generous gift from Jody Willis, my predecessor at SMC who knew I collected such books and who is now retired and no longer needs them.
Whenever I have a quiet moment or just need to relax for a minute or two I pick one up and read a page or two. Here's a math word problem from French's Common School Arithmetic published in 1873; the one pictured above; A peddler traveled 6.75 miles one day, 4.6 miles the next, 7.384 the third, and 2.14 miles the fourth. How far did he travel in the four days? Here's another; A boatman carried 8,532 barrels of flour from Oswego to New York in 9 down trips. How many barrels did he take each down trip? I guess one has to assume he carefully loaded exactly 948 barrels on each trip!! Here's one from Primary Arithmetic (1904) At 10c a peck, how much will 1 bu. of potatoes cost? This is from a time when liquid measures came in gills, pints, quarts, gallons, hogsheads, butts, and tuns.
In addition to the dramatic changes in measurement units over the years the topics of the word problems provide a wonderful commentary on the changing nature of the American culture let alone the state of math education. The word 'mathematics' was really only applied to the elementary school curriculum within the last fifty or so years. Up until then one really only learned arithmetic up to the age of 11.

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