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Archives Spotlight: The George Bruce Halsted Papers

The George Bruce Halsted Papers

By Kristy Sorensen

The following article, featured as part of the Archives of American Mathematics Spotlight, was published in the February 2005 issue of MAA FOCUS. The full issue is available here (pdf).

George Bruce Halsted with grandson

George Bruce Halsted holding his grandson, Bruce Cushman Halsted, Greeley, Colorado, 1920. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The George Bruce Halsted Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

The George Bruce Halsted Papers, an important collection at the Archives of American Mathematics (AAM), have recently been reorganized to make them easier for researchers to access.

George Bruce Halsted (1853-1922) was a mathematician internationally known for his scholarship and teaching. His research focused on the foundations of geometry, and he introduced non-Euclidean geometry to the United States through his own work and his many important translations. While still in college, Halsted had earned a reputation as having a gift for "imparting mathematics to the most obtuse," as L.E. Dickson wrote in an 1894 biography. Halsted maintained this reputation throughout his career.

Halsted was a fourth-generation Princeton graduate, earning his bachelor's degree in 1875 and his master's in 1878. He was among J.J. Sylvester's first students at the Johns Hopkins University. During this time, he also published his influential Bibliography of Hyper-Space and Non-Euclidean Geometry (1878) and studied with Carl Borchardt in Berlin. After his graduation in 1879, Halsted served as an instructor in mathematics at Princeton. He began his post at the University of Texas at Austin in 1884.

There, Halsted taught noted mathematicians R.L. Moore and L.E. Dickson, among other students. He strove to challenge his students' common assumptions about geometry. Class discussions guided students in exploring mathematics for themselves and inspired some, such as Moore, to pursue mathematical research. Halsted's teaching methods may have influenced Moore's, now known as the Moore Method.

Halsted's students recount several anecdotesâ??likely exaggeratedâ??of his eccentricities. In one such anecdote, recorded in an article by H.Y. Benedict, Halsted, who drove a Shetland pony hitched to a rudimentary wagon, was about to be arrested for speeding. He reportedly thanked the police officer for stopping his runaway horse.

This boldness proved more problematic for Halsted when he criticized the board of regents overseeing the University of Texas. Perhaps as a result, in 1903, he moved to St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland (1903) and Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio (1903-1906). After similar incidents of outspokenness, he left Kenyon as well as his later position at the Colorado State College of Education, Greeley (1906-1914, now the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley). He continued his mathematical writing while working as an electrician in his later years.

This collection consists of four feet of correspondence, ephemera, printed material, photographs, and publications documenting Halsted's life and work. It focuses on his family and genealogy and is particularly strong in correspondence and photographs. Also present are volumes from Halsted's personal library, as well as books by or about Halsted. Many of the items in the collection were donated by Halsted's grandchildren, particularly Bruce C. Halsted, who have done much to enhance the scholarly understanding of their grandfather.

George Bruce Halsted scrapbook page

A page [ca. 1920] from George Bruce Halsted's scrapbook, begun 1871, includes news clippings and documents of interest to Halsted, 1871-1922. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The George Bruce Halsted Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

Clipping in the upper left corner:

CORTEZ TO MALINCHE.
From the Aztec
(At the Winter Palace, Cuernavaca.)
Why [s]ay thou art not poet, while dark eyes,
While perfect curves of sweet unconscious lips,
While pure flesh, strong[er] with life's melodies
Than any flower at which the small bee sips,
Can over-arch our hearts with summer skies,
Can raise our trailing steps to joyous skips,
Make life a meadow where love's rare bird flies,
A golden pathway, where love's light heart trips,
Great Mother-Nature, in her holiest bloom,
With strong magnetic radiance works through you,
Makes higher harmony, so soft, so true,
That all my soul is lifted, all my gloom
Dies, and I follow as the tides the moon.
The cadence of day pulses all in tune.
-George Bruce Halsted

Clipping below the poem:

EXPENSIVE STIRRUPS.

A pair of iron stirrups were sold for $13,500 at the Forman sale in London. They were made for Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, and are partly plated with silver, parcel gilt and chased, each of the outer sides having an exquisite border of translucent cloisonne enamel on gold, 6½ inches high and 6 inches wide. The work is Italian, of the end of the fifteenth or the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Handwritten line: "Can lull to sleep ambition's scorpion whips,"

Clipping at the lower right:

April 13, 1920
HALSTEAD [sic] SELLS FAMOUS SCIENCE SOURCE VOLUME

One of the most remarkable books which was ever owned in Greeley was shipped to the Armour Institute of Technology Thursday by Dr. George Bruce Halstead. The book is the life work of one Geronimo Saccheri, an Italian Jesuit, who lived 200 years ago, and first propounded the theory that light has gravitation and is attracted to physical objects. This theory has recently been definitely established by scientific expeditions financed by the British government.

Dr. Halstead obtained the original after months of planning for the purpose of making an English translation and interpretation of the remarkable work. He has accomplished this, hence his willingness to part with the original. The only duplicate of the book which was in existence is known to have been destroyed in the sack of the Louvain in the world war. Halstead was prepared to sell his original for $100 to Armour Institute, but the institute voluntarily doubled the amount of the check.

By Dr. Halstead's accomplishment, a remarkable scientific source book, which heretofore has been beyond the reach of millionaires is made universally attainable.

In addition to the George Bruce Halsted Papers, researchers should note the extensive correspondence between Halsted and R.L. Moore in the R.L. Moore Papers at the AAM.

Kristy Sorensen served as the archivist at the Archives of American Mathematics until November 2006.

The Archives of American Mathematics (AAM) is a unit of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Individuals interested in conducting research or donating materials or who have general questions about the AAM should contact Carol Mead, Archivist: carolmead@austin.utexas.edu, (512) 495-4539.

Revised on July 12, 2010.

 

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