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A Short Account of the History of Mathematics

A Short Account of the History of Mathematics

by W. W. Rouse Ball

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This text remains one of the clearest, most authoritative and most accurate works in the field. The standard history treats hundreds of figures and schools instrumental in the development of mathematics, from the Phoenicians to such 19th-century giants as Grassman, Galois, and Riemann.


This text remains one of the clearest, most authoritative and most accurate works in the field. The standard history treats hundreds of figures and schools instrumental in the development of mathematics, from the Phoenicians to such 19th-century giants as Grassman, Galois, and Riemann.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Books on Mathematics Series
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5.46(w) x 7.94(h) x 1.03(d)

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Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1960 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15784-9



THE history of mathematics cannot with certainty be traced back to any school or period before that of the Ionian Greeks. The subsequent history may be divided into three periods, the distinctions between which are tolerably well marked. The first period is that of the history of mathematics under Greek influence, this is discussed in chapters II to VII; the second is that of the mathematics of the middle ages and the renaissance, this is discussed in chapters VIII to XIII ; the third is that of modern mathematics, and this is discussed in chapters XIV to XIX.

Although the history of mathematics commences with that of the Ionian schools, there is no doubt that those Greeks who first paid attention to the subject were largely indebted to the previous investigations of the Egyptians and Phoenicians. Our knowledge of the mathematical attainments of those races is imperfect and partly conjectural, but, such as it is, it is here briefly summarised. The definite history begins with the next chapter.

On the subject of prehistoric mathematics, we may observe in the first place that, though all early races which have left records behind them knew something of numeration and mechanics, and though the majority were also acquainted with the elements of land - surveying, yet the rules which they possessed were in general founded only on the results of observation and experiment, and were neither deduced from nor did they form part of any science. The fact then that various nations in the vicinity of Greece had reached a high state of civilisation does not justify us in assuming that they had studied mathematics.

The only races with whom the Greeks of Asia Minor (amongst whom our history begins) were likely to have come into frequent contact were those inhabiting the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean; and Greek tradition uniformly assigned the special development of geometry to the Egyptians, and that of the science of numbers either to the Egyptians or to the Phoenicians. I discuss these subjects separately.

First, as to the science of numbers. So far as the acquirements of the Phoenicians on this subject are concerned it is impossible to speak with certainty. The magnitude of the commercial transactions of Tyre and Sidon necessitated a considerable development of arithmetic, to which it is probable the name of science might be properly applied. A Babylonian table of the numerical value of the squares of a series of consecutive integers has been found, and this would seem to indicate that properties of numbers were studied. According to Strabo the Tyrians paid particular attention to the sciences of numbers, navigation, and astronomy; they had, we know, considerable commerce with their neighbours and kinsmen the Chaldaeans ; and Böckh says that they regularly supplied the weights and measures used in Babylon. Now the Chaldaeans had certainly paid some attention to arithmetic and geometry, as is shown by their astronomical calculations ; and, whatever was the extent of their attainments in arithmetic, it is almost certain that the Phoenicians were equally proficient, while it is likely that the knowledge of the latter, such as it was, was communicated to the Greeks. On the whole it seems probable that the early Greeks were largely indebted to the Phoenicians for their knowledge of practical arithmetic or the art of calculation, and perhaps also learnt from them a few properties of numbers. It may be worthy of note that Pythagoras was a Phoenician ; and according to Herodotus, but this is more doubtful, Thales was also of that race.

I may mention that the almost universal use of the abacus or swan-pan rendered it easy for the ancients to add and subtract without any knowledge of theoretical arithmetic. These instruments will be described later in chapter VII; it will be sufficient here to say that they afford a concrete way of representing a number in the decimal scale, and enable the results of addition and subtraction to be obtained by a merely mechanical process. This, coupled with a means of representing the result in writing, was all that was required for practical purposes.

We are able to speak with more certainty on the arithmetic of the Egyptians. About forty years ago a hieratic papyrus, forming part of the Rhind collection in the British Museum, was deciphered, which has thrown considerable light on their mathematical attainments. The manuscript was written by a scribe named Ahmes at a date, according to Egyptologists, considerably more than a thousand years before Christ, and it is believed to be itself a copy, with emendations, of a treatise more than a thousand years older. The work is called "directions for knowing all dark things," and consists of a collection of problems in arithmetic and geometry ; the answers are given, but in general not the processes by which they are obtained. It appears to be a summary of rules and questions familiar to the priests.

The first part deals with the reduction of fractions of the form 2/(2n + 1) to a sum of fractions each of whose numerators is unity: for example, Ahmes states that 2/29 is the sum of 1/24, 1/58, 1/174, and 1/232; and 2/97 is the sum of 1/56, 1,679, and 1/776. In all the examples n is less than 50. Probably he had no rule for forming the component fractions, and the answers given represent the accumulated experiences of previous writers: in one solitary case, however, he has indicated his method, for, after having asserted that 2/3 is the sum of ½ and 1/6, he adds that therefore two-thirds of one-fifth is equal to the sum of a half of a fifth and a sixth of a fifth, that is, to 1/10 + 1/30.

That so much attention was paid to fractions is explained by the fact that in early times their treatment was found difficult. The Egyptians and Greeks simplified the problem by reducing a fraction to the sum of several fractions, in each of which the numerator was unity, the sole exceptions to this rule being the fraction 2/3. This remained the Greek practice until the sixth century of our era. The Romans, on the other hand, generally kept the denominator constant and equal to twelve, expressing the fraction (approximately) as so many twelfths. The Babylonians did the same in astronomy, except that they used sixty as the constant denominator; and from them through the Greeks the modern division of a degree into sixty equal parts is derived. Thus in one way or the other the difficulty of having to consider changes in both numerator and denominator was evaded. To-day when using decimals we often keep a fixed denominator, thus reverting to the Roman practice.

After considering fractions Ahmes proceeds to some examples of the fundamental processes of arithmetic. In multiplication he seems to have relied on repeated additions. Thus in one numerical example, where he requires to multiply a certain number, say a, by 13, he first multiplies by 2 and gets 2a, then he doubles the results and gets 4a, then he again doubles the result and gets 8a, and lastly he adds together a, 4a, and 8a. Probably division was also performed by repeated subtractions, but, as he rarely explains the process by which he arrived at a result, this is not certain. After these examples Ahmes goes on to the solution of some simple numerical equations. For example, he says "heap, its seventh, its whole, it makes nineteen," by which he means that the object is to find a number such that the sum of it and one-seventh of it shall be together equal to 19 ; and he gives as the answer 16 + ½ +1/8, which is correct.

The arithmetical part of the papyrus indicates that he had some idea of algebraic symbols. The unknown quantity is always represented by the symbol which means a heap; addition is sometimes represented by a pair of legs walking forwards, subtraction by a pair of legs walking backwards or by a flight of arrows; and equality by the sign [??].

The latter part of the book contains various geometrical problems to which I allude later. He concludes the work with some arithmetico-algebraical questions, two of which deal with arithmetical progressions and seem to indicate that he knew how to sum such series.

Second, as to the science of geometry. Geometry is supposed to have had its origin in land-surveying ; but while it is difficult to say when the study of numbers and calculation — some knowledge of which is essential in any civilised state — became a science, it is comparatively easy to distinguish between the abstract reasonings of geometry and the practical rules of the land-surveyor. Some methods of land-surveying must have been practised from very early times, but the universal tradition of antiquity asserted that the origin of geometry was to be sought in Egypt. That it was not indigenous to Greece; and that it arose from the necessity of surveying, is rendered the more probable by the derivation of the word from [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] the earth, and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] I measure. Now the Greek geometricians, as far as we can judge by their extant works, always dealt with the science as an abstract one: they sought for theorems which should be absolutely true, and, at any rate in historical times, would have argued that to measure quantities in terms of a unit which might have been incommensurable with some of the magnitudes considered would have made their results mere approximations to the truth. The name does not therefore refer to their practice. It is not, however, unlikely that it indicates the use which was made of geometry among the Egyptians from whom the Greeks learned it. This also agrees with the Greek traditions, which in themselves appear probable; for Herodotus states that the periodical inundations of the Nile (which swept away the landmarks in the valley of the river, and by altering its course increased or decreased the taxable value of the adjoining lands) rendered a tolerably accurate system of surveying indispensable, and thus led to a systematic study of the subject by the priests.

We have no reason to think that any special attention was paid to geometry by the Phoenicians, or other neighbours of the Egyptians. A small piece of evidence which tends to show that the Jews had not paid much attention to it is to be found in the mistake made in their sacred books, where it is stated that the circumference of a circle is three times its diameter: the Babylonians also reckoned that π was equal to 3.

Assuming, then, that a knowledge of geometry was first derived by the Greeks from Egypt, we must next discuss the range and nature of Egyptian geometry. That some geometrical results were known at a date anterior to Ahmes's work seems clear if we admit, as we have reason to do, that, centuries before it was written, the following method of obtaining a right angle was used in laying out the ground-plan of certain buildings. The Egyptians were very particular about the exact orientation of their temples ; and they had therefore to obtain with accuracy a north and south line, as also an east and west line. By observing the points on the horizon where a star rose and set, and taking a plane midway between them, they could obtain a north and south line. To get an east and west line, which had to be drawn at right angles to this, certain professional "rope-fasteners" were employed. These men used a rope ABCD divided by knots or marks at B and C, so that the lengths AB, BC, CD were in the ratio 3: 4: 5. The length BC was placed along the north and south line, and pegs P and Q inserted at the knots B and C. The piece BA (keeping it stretched all the time) was then rotated round the peg P, and similarly the piece CD was rotated round the peg Q, until the ends A and D coincided; the point thus indicated was marked by a peg R. The result was to form a triangle PQR whose sides RP, PQ, QR were in the ratio 3: 4: 5. The angle of the triangle at P would then be a right angle, and the line PR would give an east and west line. A similar method is constantly used at the present time by practical engineers for measuring a right angle. The property employed can be deduced as a particular case of Euc. I, 48; and there is reason to think that the Egyptians were acquainted with the results of this proposition and of Euc. I, 47, for triangles whose sides are in the ratio mentioned above. They must also, there is little doubt, have known that the latter proposition was true for an isosceles right-angled triangle, as this is obvious if a floor be paved with tiles of that shape. But though these are interesting facts in the history of the Egyptian arts we must not press them too far as showing that geometry was then studied as a science. Our real knowledge of the nature of Egyptian geometry depends mainly on the Rhind papyrus.


Excerpted from A SHORT ACCOUNT OF THE HISTORY OF MATHEMATICS by W.W. ROUSE BALL. Copyright © 1960 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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