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The History of the History of Mathematics

Case Studies for the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Edited By 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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Thomas Harriot (1560–1621): history and historiography 145


Jacqueline Stedall The Queen’s College, Oxford Thomas Harriot (1560–1621): history and historiography The bare facts The first entry for Thomas Harriot in the historical record is his registra- tion at St Mary’s Hall, Oxford, on 20 December 1577. His age was given as 17, which makes his year of birth 1560. He was also described as ‘plebeian’, and from Oxfordshire, but his background is otherwise unknown. During his time in Oxford or soon afterwards Harriot became acquainted with Walter Raleigh, for whom he worked during the early 1580s. In 1585 Harriot sailed to America on a voyage funded by Raleigh, and lived for a year on Roanoke Island inside the outer banks of what is now North Carolina. The book he wrote on his return, A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588), a public relations exercise to encourage further expeditions to the region, is all that he published in his lifetime. Sometime in the early 1590s Harriot came under a second patron, Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland. After the gunpowder plot in 1605, Percy was arrested and kept in the Tower of London for 16 years but Harriot continued to reside at the earl’s London home, Syon House, on the Thames in Middlesex. There he worked on a range of mathemati- cal and scientific subjects: optics, ballistics, alchemy, algebra, geometry, navigation, astronomy. Harriot was in regular contact with a small but close-knit group of friends and colleagues: Walter Warner (a contemporary of...

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