The history of a history

In 1988 the mathematicians at St Andrews acquired a teaching laboratory of 30 Apple Macintosh Plus computers. It was our intention to use these to show students how to experiment with mathematics without necessarily having to know how to program a computer. We found that there was no suitable software available, so we were forced to write our own.

Fortunately we had access to a very innovative application called HyperCard which made it possible to produce some clever teaching material very quickly. As well as producing the usual facilities for plotting functions, sitting quizzes, etc. we were able to implement some ingenious ideas for exploring different areas of mathematics.

One of the things we added quite early on was a certain amount of material on the history of mathematics. HyperCard allowed us to attach buttons to move around inside our system and so we could arrange that if a student was experimenting with, say the Euclidean algorithm, then they could click a button and be taken to a biography of Euclid, or if they were looking at Platonic solids they could go to Plato's biography. Our early system had links to a few hundred of the most well-known mathematicians as well as a collection of essays on the history of various mathematical areas. (These eventually became the History Topics section in our history archive.)

The MacTutor system, as we called it, enjoyed considerable success and we sold it to a number of other universities as well as using it extensively in our own teaching. We won several prizes with it and demonstrated it at a number of conferences.

Unfortunately, Apple no longer support the HyperCard application, and so it is no longer possible to play with our software in the way it was intended. However, if you have a Macintosh computer you can go back to the past and experiment by following THIS LINK.

In 1994 we entered MacTutor for the European Academic Software Award and reached the finals, which were held in Heidelberg in November of that year. As part of our preparation for our presentation there we experimented with making the historical part of our system available on the World Wide Web. This was still in its infancy (it had started in 1991) and there was essentially no material on the history of mathematics available on it.

Fortunately, the HyperCard program we had used to develop our system contained many of the features now familiar on the Web. One could highlight text in a field and arrange for the system to do something if one clicked on it. Also the text-handling capabilities of HyperCard meant that generating html code from our existing material could be done relatively easily.

We won the award in Heidelberg and one of the things which most impressed the judges -- as well as the other mathematicians competing for the prize -- was this adaptation of the historical material to the Web. We soon found that even the small amount of material we put up in our initial attempt attracted a lot of attention from the mathematical community all round the world. In the next few years we won a large number of awards and in those days before Wikipedia the MacTutor archive became most mathematicians' favourite source on the history of their subject.

Of course, over the years we have developed and expanded the archive. We now have biographies of 2680 different mathematicians and continue to add to this at the rate of about 100 a year. At the moment the biographies amount to more than 4 million words: the equivalent of about 10000 pages! We have pictures of about 2300 of these mathematicians and more than 6000 pictures in all. The collection of History Topics has grown to 130 and amounts to about 300 000 words.

We have added extra material on a variety of topics linked to various mathematicians and including such things as lists of publications, reviews, transcripts of lectures and other topics which are often hard find otherwise. We have nearly 900 items in this material. We have added more than 400 obituaries culled from various sources -- some quite hard to track down in other places.

Some of the features we have added have turned out to be very popular. Our Mathematicians of the Day page is used as a home page by many of our colleagues and the posters which are linked to it are printed off in many mathematics buildings around the world.

Our archive has been widely referenced. You can see a list of some of the works which quote us at THIS LINK.

We have taken over responsibility for several other areas. We have put up a complete archive of the British Mathematical Colloquium (the main annual pure mathematics conference in the British Isles which has been running since 1948) and have committed ourselves to keeping it up-dated. We have extensive archives on the Edinburgh Mathematical Society including a full list of the speakers from its founding in 1883.

Some parts of our system remain quite similar to the original HyperCard version. The section on Famous Curves is taken almost directly from our original version with the Pascal routines which allowed students to interact with the material converted to Java by one of our graduate students. The section on Mathematicians' Birthplaces (which now contains about 1150 places) is similar to the original (though it was much easier to program in HyperCard than in html).

Usage of our system expanded as the Web has become more popular. At the moment we serve about 250 000 distinct users per week who download about 2 million files. Our record is about 2 million files downloaded on a single day -- though we suspect this is due to various search engines that constantly crawl over us! The runaway increase in our usage which we once experienced has slowed -- probably due to the preponderance of Wikipedia as the top reference on many of the search engines.

We are happy to carry on developing our system. We are no longer the only source on the Web for the history of mathematics, but we can still feel that we cover the subject in greater depth than any of the others. When we want to extend one of our existing biographies and we search for information on a particular mathematician we constantly find various versions of our material spread around all over the world -- some of it even acknowledging us as the original source!

Finally we would like to say that we have had a lot of fun as well as satisfaction in constructing and maintaining what we still regard as a very worthwhile resource.

- John O'Connor and Edmund Robertson