History of Mathematics

Please note that the list below only shows forthcoming events, which may not include regular events that have not yet been entered for the forthcoming term. Please see the past events page for a list of all seminar series that the department has on offer.

Past events in this series
12 November 2019
Tom Ritchie

This session will discuss how Douglas Hartree and Arthur Porter used Meccano — a child’s toy and an engineer’s tool — to build an analogue computer, the Hartree Differential Analyser in 1934. It will explore the wider historical and social context in which this model computer was rooted, before providing an opportunity to engage with the experiential aspects of the 'Kent Machine,' a historically reproduced version of Hartree and Porter's original model, which is also made from Meccano.

The 'Kent Machine' sits at a unique intersection of historical research and educational engagement, providing an alternative way of teaching STEM subjects, via a historic hands-on method. The session builds on the work and ideas expressed in Otto Sibum's reconstruction of James Joule's 'Paddle Wheel' apparatus, inviting attendees to physically re-enact the mathematical processes of mechanical integration to see how this type of analogue computer functioned in reality. The session will provide an alternative context of the history of computing by exploring the tacit knowledge that is required to reproduce and demonstrate the machine, and how it sits at the intersection between amateur and professional science.

  • History of Mathematics
25 November 2019
Karen Hunger Parshall

American mathematics was experiencing growing pains in the 1920s. It had looked to Europe at least since the 1890s when many Americans had gone abroad to pursue their advanced mathematical studies.  It was anxious to assert itself on the international—that is, at least at this moment in time, European—mathematical scene. How, though, could the Americans change the European perception from one of apprentice/master to one of mathematical equals? How could Europe, especially Germany but to a lesser extent France, Italy, England, and elsewhere, come fully to sense the development of the mathematical United States?  If such changes could be effected at all, they would likely involve American and European mathematicians in active dialogue, working shoulder to shoulder in Europe and in the United States, and publishing side by side in journals on both sides of the Atlantic. This talk will explore one side of this “equation”: European mathematicians and their experiences in the United States in the 1920s.

  • History of Mathematics
3 December 2019

Charles Babbage (1791–1871) was Lucasian Professor of mathematics in Cambridge from 1828–1839. He displayed a fertile curiosity that led him to study many contemporary processes and problems in a way which emphasised an analytic, data driven view of life.

In popular culture Babbage has been celebrated as an anachronistic Victorian engineer. In reality, Babbage is best understood as a figure rooted in the enlightenment, who had substantially completed his core investigations into 'mechanisation of thought' by the mid 1830s: he is thus an anachronistic Georgian: the construction of his first difference engine design is contemporary with the earliest public railways in Britain.

A fundamental question that must strike anybody who examines Babbage's precocious designs is: how could one individual working alone have synthesised a workable computer design, designing an object whose complexity of behaviour so far exceeded that of contemporary machines that it would not be matched for over a hundred years?

We shall explore the extent to which the answer lies in the techniques Babbage developed to reason about complex systems. His Notation which shows the geometry, timing, causal chains and the abstract components of his machines, has a direct parallel in the Hardware Description Languages developed since 1975 to aid the design of large scale electronics. In this presentation, we shall provide a basic tutorial on Babbage's notation showing how his concepts of 'pieces' and 'working points' effectively build a graph in which both parts and their interactions are represented by nodes, with edges between part-nodes and interaction-nodes denoting ownership, and edges between interaction-nodes denoting the transmission of forces between individual assemblies within a machine. We shall give examples from Babbage's Difference Engine 2 for which a complete set of notations was drawn in 1849, and compare them to a design of similar complexity specified in 1987 using the Inmos HDL.

  • History of Mathematics
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