|Ivars Peterson's MathTrek|
July 14, 1997
Updated column posted March 26, 2009 can be found here.
Odds bobs, ladies, what am I?This riddle, written entirely in verse, goes on for about 30 lines. Submitted by a reader, it starts off the riddle section of the 1808 edition of The Ladies' Diary: or, Woman's Almanack. The Ladies' Diary was published annually, starting in 1704. Printed in London, it featured the usual stuff of almanacs: calendar material, phases of the moon, sunrise and sunset times, important dates (eclipses, holidays, school terms, etc.), and a chronology of remarkable events.
I'm at a distance, yet am nigh;
I'm high and low, round, short, and long,
I'm very weak, and very strong.
Sometimes gentle, sometimes raging.
Now disgusting, now engaging.
I'm sometimes ugly, sometimes handsome. . . .
I'm very dirty, very clean,
I'm very fat, and very lean,
I'm very thick, and very thin,
Can lift a stone, tho' not a pin. . . .
The little book's subtitle provides a glimpse of its purpose: "Containing New Improvements in ARTS and SCIENCES, and many entertaining PARTICULARS: Designed for the USE AND DIVERSION OF THE FAIR SEX."
Among those diversions were sections devoted to riddles (called enigmas), rebuses, charades, scientific queries, and mathematical questions. A typical volume in the series included answers submitted by readers to problems posed the previous year and a set of new problems, nearly all proposed by readers. Both the puzzle and the answer (revealed the following year) were often in verse.
I came across the 1808 and 1809 editions of The Ladies' Diary among the volumes in a remarkable collection of books at the library of the University of Calgary in Alberta. The Strens/Guy Recreational Mathematics Collection now contains more than 6,000 items, including books, periodicals, newspaper clippings, and manuscripts devoted to recreational mathematics (in a very broad sense) and its history.
"The bulk of mathematics has really always been recreational," says mathematician Richard K. Guy, who was instrumental in bringing to the University of Calgary material collected by the late Eugene Strens, an engineer, amateur mathematician, and friend of the artist Maurits Escher. "Only a tiny fraction of all mathematics is actually applied or used."
Here's a riddle from the 1809 edition of The Ladies' Diary:
I'm a singular creature, pray tell me my name,A typical rebus provided clues for a starting word, which was then modified step by step to produce the final word:
I partake of an Englishman's freedom and fame;
I daily am old, and I daily am new,
I am praised, I am blam'd, I am false, I am true;
I'm the talk of the nation, while still in my prime,
But forgotten when once I've outlasted my time.
In the morning no Miss is more coveted than I,
In the evening no toy thrown more carelessly by.
Take warning, ye fair! I, like you, have my day,
And, alas! You, like me, must grow old and decay.
My whole's a small but luscious fruit;Or:
Take off my head and then you'll see
What sinful men sometimes commit,
That brings them to the fateful tree.
Two letters now you may transpose,
But place them both with care,
Another luscious fruit will then, Most plainly soon appear.
Take two-fifths of what, seen on Delia's fair face,Scientific queries covered a wide range of subjects:
Always adds to her charms an ineffable grace;
These selected with care, and with art combined,
Will produce a Diarian of genius refin'd.
Query: A drop of oil let fall on a wasp, kills it in less than a minute; quere: how is this effected?
Query: Thirteen years have elapsed since the Northern Lights have made their appearance. How is their absence accounted for?
The mathematical questions tended to focus on geometry, and they were reminiscent of the types of word problems found in math textbooks of a few generations ago.
1180. A circular vessel, whose top and bottom diameter are 70 and 92, and perpendicular depth 60 inches, is so elevated on side that the other becomes perpendicular to the horizon; required what quantity of liquor, ale measure, will just cover the bottom when in that position.
The book didn't provide a diagram.
The math questions featured in The Ladies Diary were of sufficient interest that collections of them were published in four volumes covering the years 1704 to 1817.
I wonder if Jane Austen (1775-1817) ever pondered the puzzles posed by The Ladies' Diary?
Answers to riddles, rebuses, and math question.
Copyright © 1997 by Ivars Peterson.
The Ladies' Diary: or, Woman's Almanack. London: Company of Stationers.
1751. The Gentleman's Diary, or, Mathematical Repository, from 1741 to 1750. London: Davis and Dickson.
Guy, Richard K., and Robert E. Woodrow, eds. 1994. The Lighter Side of Mathematics: Proceedings of the Eugene Strens Memorial Conference on Recreational Mathematics and Its History. Washington, D.C.: Mathematical Association of America.
Information about the Strens/Guy recreational mathematics collection is available at http://www.ucalgary.ca/library/SpecColl/strens.htm.
Comments are welcome. Please send messages to Ivars Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Riddles: water; newspaper.
Rebuses: grape, rape, pear; smile, smart.
Math question: Very nearly 189 gallons.