Cajori: A history of mathematics

Florian Cajori wrote A history of mathematics which was published by The Macmillan Company in London in 1893. More than 100 years later, Cajori's book is fascinating both as one on the history of mathematics, and also as now part of the history of mathematics itself. For both these reasons we quote from the Introduction to the book. Again we gain two insights, one into the history of mathematics, the other into Cajori's views:-

A History of Mathematics by Florian Cajori


The contemplation of the various steps by which mankind has come into possession of the vast stock of mathematical knowledge can hardly fail to interest the mathematician. He takes pride in the fact that his science, more than any other, is an exact science, and that hardly anything ever done in mathematics has proved to be useless. The chemist smiles at the childish efforts of alchemists, but the mathematician finds the geometry of the Greeks and the arithmetic of the Hindus as useful and admirable as any research of today. He is pleased to notice that though, in course of its development, mathematics has had periods of slow growth, yet in the main it has been pre-eminently a progressive science.

The history of mathematics may be instructive as well as agreeable; it may not only remind us of what we have, but may also teach us how to increase our store. Says A De Morgan, "The early history of the mind of men with regard to mathematics leads us to point out our own errors; and in this respect it is well to pay attention to the history of mathematics." It warns us against hasty conclusions; it points out the importance of a good notation upon the progress of the science; it discourages excessive specialisation on the part of investigators, by showing how apparently distinct branches have been found to possess unexpected connecting links; it saves the student from wasting time and energy upon problems which were, perhaps, solved long since; it discourages him from attacking an unsolved problem by the same method which has led other mathematicians to failure; it teaches that fortifications can be taken in other ways than by direct attack, that when repulsed from a direct assault it is well to reconnoitre and occupy the surrounding ground and to discover the secret paths by which the apparently unconquerable position can be taken. The importance of this strategic rule may be emphasised by citing a case in which it has been violated. An untold amount of intellectual energy has been expended on the quadrature of the circle, yet no conquest has been made by direct assault. The circle-squarers have existed in crowds ever since the period of Archimedes. After innumerable failures to solve the problem at a time, even, when investigators possessed that most powerful tool, the differential calculus, persons versed in mathematics dropped the subject, while those who still persisted were completely ignorant of its history and generally misunderstood the conditions of the problem. "Our problem," says A De Morgan, "is to square the circle with the old allowance of means: Euclid's postulates and nothing more. We cannot remember an instance in which a question to be solved by a definite method was tried by the best heads, and answered at last, by that method, after thousands of complete failures." But progress was made on this problem by approaching it from a different direction and by newly discovered paths. J H Lambert proved in 1761 that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is irrational. Some years ago, F Lindemann demonstrated that this ratio is also transcendental and that the quadrature of the circle, by means of the ruler and compasses only, is impossible. He thus showed by actual proof that which keen-minded mathematicians had long suspected; namely, that the great army of circle-squarers have, for two thousand years, been assaulting a fortification which is as indestructible as the firmament of heaven.

Another reason for the desirability of historical study is the value of historical knowledge to the teacher of mathematics. The interest which pupils take in their studies may be greatly increased if the solution of problems and the cold logic of geometrical demonstrations are interspersed with historical remarks and anecdotes. A class in arithmetic will be pleased to hear about the Babylonians and Hindus and their invention of the "Arabic notation"; they will marvel at the thousands of years which elapsed before people had even thought of introducing into the numeral notation that Columbus-egg -- the zero; they will find it astounding that it should have taken so long to invent a notation which they themselves can now learn in a month. After the pupils have learned how to bisect a given angle, surprise them by telling of the many futile attempts which have been made to solve, by elementary geometry, the apparently very simple problem of the trisection of an angle. When they know how to construct a square whose area is double the area of a given square, tell them about the duplication of the cube, of its mythical origin-how the wrath of Apollo could be appeased only by the construction of a cubical altar double the given altar, and how mathematicians long wrestled with this problem. After the class have exhausted their energies on, the theorem of the right triangle, tell them the legend about its discoverer - how Pythagoras, jubilant over his great accomplishment, sacrificed a hecatomb to the Muses who inspired him. Even the value of mathematical training is called in question, quote the inscription over the entrance into the academy of Plato, the philosopher: "Let no one who is unacquainted with geometry enter here." Students in analytical geometry should know something of Descartes, and, after taking up the differential and integral calculus, they should become familiar with the parts that Newton, Leibniz, and Lagrange played in creating that science. In his historical talk it is possible for the teacher to make it plain to the student that mathematics is not a dead science, but a living one in which steady progress is made. A similar point of view is taken by Henry S White: "The accepted truths of today, even the commonplace truths of any science, were the doubtful or the novel theories of yesterday. Some indeed of prime importance were long esteemed of slight importance and almost forgotten. The first effect of reading in the history of science is a naive astonishment at the darkness of past centuries, but the ultimate effect is a fervent admiration for the progress achieved by former generations, for the triumphs of persistence and of genius. The easy credulity with which a young student supposes that of course every algebraic equation must have a root gives place finally to a delight in the slow conquest of the realm of imaginary numbers, and in the youthful genius of a Gauss who could demonstrate this once obscure fundamental proposition." The history of mathematics is important also as a valuable contribution to the history of civilisation. Human progress is closely identified with scientific thought. Mathematical and physical researches are a reliable record of intellectual progress. The history of mathematics is one of the large windows through which the philosophic eye looks into past ages and traces the line of intellectual development.

Last Updated March 2006