Oxford Figures, Chapter 1: 800 years of mathematical traditions

The publishing tradition

The earliest book with some slight mathematical content to be printed at Oxford seems to have been Compotus manualis ad usum Oxoniensum , printed by Charles Kyrforth in 1520. This 16-page booklet, intended explicitly for Oxford students, explained how to make calculations for the date of Easter and other movable Christian feasts by counting on the hand. It took a further century for another mathematical book to be published in Oxford, Sir Henry Savile's lectures on Euclid's Elements, printed by John Lichfield and James Short in 1621.

Mathematical works only really began to be published in Oxford some time after Archbishop Laud's statutes of the 1630s laid the framework for a University Press. The years following the Civil War, from 1647 to the Restoration in 1660, marked one of the most productive periods for the printing of mathematical texts in Oxford. In 1648 Canicularia, an edition of Arabic astronomical tables by the first Savilian Professor of Astronomy, John Bainbridge, and completed by his successor John Greaves, was printed using Arabic type purchased from Leyden at Laud's instigation. John Wallis, the newly appointed Savilian Professor of Geometry, was thereafter the leading figure in Oxford's mathematical publishing. Under his guidance an edition of William Oughtred's innovative algebra text Clavis mathematicae was published in 1652, as well as his own Arithmetica infinitorum and other research works in the late 1650s.

The latter half of the century saw the University Press develop its printing activities, making use initially of the newly built Sheldonian Theatre, designed by the Savilian Professor of Astronomy, Christopher Wren. In the 1690s Wallis's mathematical works were published in three massive volumes, including his editions of some classical mathematics texts. In the next decade the Press embarked on a series of major mathematical editions: David Gregory's edition of Euclid's Elements (1703), Edmund Scarburgh's English Euclide (1705), and Edmond Halley's edition of Apollonius's Conics (1710), as well as a number of smaller works. Little of this kind was published for much of the eighteenth century, but after a long gap an edition of the third important classical Greek mathematician was published in 1792-- Torelli's edition of the collected works of Archimedes.

The major nineteenth-century influence upon the Oxford University Press was a mathematician. Bartholomew Price, Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy, was Secretary to the Delegates--in effect, the chief executive of the Press--from 1868 to 1884. Described by one of OUP's historians as `the architect and founder of the modern Press', Price exemplified to a remarkable degree the Oxford `amateur' tradition whereby an academic of the right calibre with no special training successfully assumes a leading executive function. Under Price's guidance and inspiration, the Press blossomed into a major modern publishing house; one of the early titles in his newly created Clarendon Press series was the Treatise on electricity and magnetism by the Cambridge physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Price was not the only mathematician contributing to the management of the Press. Henry Gerrans, a Fellow and tutor of Worcester College, was a Delegate for a long period into the twentieth century, and took particular interest in supporting educational books.

In 1930 the University Press took on the publishing of a major mathematical journal, the Quarterly Journal of Mathematics . This had been published in Cambridge hitherto, under the increasingly eccentric editorship of James Glaisher, its editor for half a century from 1878 until his death in 1928. On Glaisher's death, G. H. Hardy--at this time Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford--successfully urged that both editorship and publication of the journal be transferred to Oxford. An editorial board was formed of three young Oxford mathematicians, Theodore Chaundy, William Ferrar, and Edgar Poole, and the journal went from strength to strength, bolstering along the way Oxford's research reputation within the international mathematics community.

At the same time, the University Press was seeking to develop its mathematics and science publishing side, and took the opportunity to make a thorough overhaul of its mathematical printing. The University Printer, John Johnson, went to considerable pains to study the work of foreign printers, buy new type, adapt and recut type faces, and set specimen pages for comment by a range of leading mathematicians. At that time few printers had experience of setting mathematics by machine, and the result was a major contribution to knowledge and expertise in the subject. The Quarterly Journal editor most closely involved with this activity was Theodore Chaundy, who was later to collaborate on a classic text, The printing of mathematics. In the words of Johnson's colleague Kenneth Sisam, the eventual result was to reach a standard of mathematical printing worthy of `the recent renascence of mathematical studies in Oxford'.


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