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The History of the History of Mathematics

Case Studies for the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Benjamin Wardhaugh

The writing of mathematical histories has a long history, one which has seldom received scholarly attention. Mathematical history, and mathematical biography, raise distinctive issues of method and approach to which different periods have responded in different ways. At a time of increasing interest in the history of mathematics, this book attempts to show something of the trajectory that history has taken in the past. It presents seven case studies illustrating the different ways that mathematical histories have been written since the seventeenth century, ranging from the ‘historia’ of John Wallis to the recent re-presentation of Thomas Harriot’s manuscripts online. It considers both the ways that individual reputations and biographies have been shaped differently in different circumstances, and the ways that the discipline of mathematics has itself been variously presented through the writing of its history.


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The progress of Mathematick Learning: John Wallis as historian of mathematics 9


Philip Beeley Linacre College, University of Oxford The progress of Mathematick Learning: John Wallis as historian of mathematics Introduction Of all the relics the learned and great of former times have handed down to posterity pictorial images are sometimes the most revealing. When John Wallis (1616–1703) sat for the court and society painter Godfrey Kneller in 1701 (see Figure 1), he made sure that a small table in the background was decorated with two of the most powerful symbols of his intellectual prowess: the gold chain awarded to him in 1691 by Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg for his services in deciphering intercepted letters, and the second volume of his Opera mathematica, printed at the Sheldonian Theatre in 1693 with the title ‘Algebra’ emblazoned on its spine. This was after all a portrait of which he was to be especially proud. Commissioned by his friend Samuel Pepys, it was to be presented to the University of Oxford as a lasting memorial to one of its most renowned scholars who had served as Savilian professor of geometry for over fifty years. Of the two objects on the table one made perfect sense. As a decipherer, Wallis’s achievements stood unparallelled in the second half of the seven- teenth century and he was justly seen as Europe’s greatest exponent of the art.1 But it is perhaps less clear why of all his numerous mathematical works 1 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, ed. Prussian Academy of Sciences (and successors), Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe (Darmstadt:...

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