Image of mathematical instruments

We all know that mathematical activity goes on nowadays in a great variety of settings – not just in academia, but across the whole range of industry, education, and beyond.  This diversity in mathematics is by no means new, and yet the study of the history of mathematics has often failed to capture it.  

All too often, the focus has been placed on the big mathematical names of the past – such as Newton, Euler, and Cauchy – and by extension has concentrated on the mathematics coming out of universities and learned academies.  As such, the history of mathematics has appeared to be biased towards ‘research mathematics’ (usually skewed further towards pure mathematics), with practical day-to-day uses of mathematics often being neglected, and the less famous users of mathematics overlooked.

At the same time, however, it has never been denied that mathematics has always had a more practical – and sometimes more prosaic – role to play in the world around us.  Thus, the historical scholarship of recent years has also turned increasingly to the instrument makers, the navigators, the book-keepers, and other ‘mathematical practitioners’ who have used mathematics in a natural way in their daily occupations, but who would rarely, if ever, have described themselves as mathematical researchers.  Indeed, alongside the professions just named, we also find the largely unsung textbook authors, engravers, editors, and translators without whom none of this practical mathematics could have been passed on.

The various articles contained in the recently-published volume Beyond the Learned Academy: The Practice of Mathematics 1600–1850, co-edited by Philip Beeley (History Faculty) and Christopher Hollings (Mathematical Institute), explore this rich variety of mathematical activity that has been going on outside universities over several centuries: navigation, actuarial science, recreational problem-solving, military education, fortification, mining, and many others.  Indeed, looking back through history, we find ample evidence for the claim that is so often made nowadays in promoting mathematics: that it is everywhere.

Image: some of the plates on the use of instruments by engineers from O Engenheiro Portuguez by Manoel de Azevedo Fortes (1728–29).

Philip Beeley and Christopher D. Hollings (eds.), Beyond the Learned Academy: The Practice of Mathematics 1600–1850, Oxford University Press, 2024

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