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Mathematical Treasures - The George Arthur Plimpton Collection

Frank J. Swetz and Victor J. Katz

Index to the Collection of Mathematical Treasures from the David Eugene Smith and George Arthur Plimpton collections

The Plimpton library was formally presented to Columbia University in 1936 shortly before the donor's death. The collection of more than sixteen thousand volumes was assembled by George Arthur Plimpton (1855-1936), who served as a board member of the textbook publisher Ginn & Company, to show the development of "our tools of learning." He stated his notable purpose in the preface to his The Education of Shakespeare as "the privilege to get together the manuscripts and books which are more or less responsible for our present civilization, because they are the books from which the youth of many centuries have received their education." In general, the Plimpton Library may be described as an assemblage of notable treatises on the liberal arts, particularly grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, geography, astronomy and handwriting. Represented in the Library are the forms of knowledge from the most rudimentary, the hornbook, to the most sublime heights reached in the writings of Aristotle, Donatus, Cicero, Boethius, Euclid, Ptolemy, Pliny and Petrus Lombardus. It is hardly surprising that one of the earliest items in the collection may be the most remarkable, a cuneiform clay tablet on which is written in Old Babylonian (1900-1600 BCE) script a mathematical listing of Pythagorean triples.

The 317 medieval and renaissance manuscripts collected by George Plimpton form the largest such group in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Among these are manuscripts of texts by classical authors, antiphonals, early grammars, mathematical and philosophical treatises, and the writings of the church fathers. There is also a complete copy manuscript of Chaucer’s  A Treatise on the Astrolabe, written in England in the fifteenth century.

Association books are also found in the Plimpton library, for the collector was interested in why and how books were used, and who used them. Volumes once owned by notable humanists and scientists include: Sir Thomas More's copy of Euclid's Elements, 1516; Isaac Newton's copy of Vincent Wing's Harmonium coeleste, 1651.  Among the nearly six hundred copybooks and handwriting manuals is one of the two recorded copies of the first edition of A Boke Containing Divers Sortes of Hands, 1570, by John De Beauchesne and John Baildon, the first handwriting book published in England. Plimpton's library does, indeed, represent the labor of a collector and the experience of a career, the blending of a vocation as publisher and an avocation as bibliophile and author.

David Eugene Smith (1860-1944), noted mathematics educator at Columbia University’s Teachers College, befriended Plimpton and encouraged him to greatly enrich his collection with mathematical manuscripts and many early Renaissance texts on arithmetic. Today, the collections of both men exist as rich resources for understanding the development of mathematics and the lives and work of many of the persons responsible for its advance. These archives are available to researchers through the Rare Book and Manuscript Collection at Columbia University. The Mathematical Association of America, in cooperation with the Columbia University Libraries, is pleased to display a selection of items, Mathematical Treasures from the Plimpton and Smith Collections, from these two separate collections. The editors of Convergence would like to particularly thank Dr. Michael Ryan, Director of Rare Books and Manuscripts, and Jennifer Lee, Librarian for Public Service and Programs, for their assistance in making this display possible.

A list of images in Convergence from the Plimpton and Smith collections can be found in our Index to the Collection of Mathematical Treasures from the David Eugene Smith and George Arthur Plimpton collections (alphabetical by author). Each item from the Plimpton and Smith collections is posted here in Convergence at the standard web resolution of 72dpi. But if you right-click on the name of the item, found in the first sentence of the item description, you can download the item as a tif file at a resolution of approximately 150-200dpi (3-5mb) as well. That version should be suitable for most purposes in a classroom setting. If you want a version in even higher resolution, please contact the second author, Victor Katz. (Note that if you just click on the name of the item, you will get the tif file on your screen, but you may not be able to save it to your computer.)

These images may be used for instructional and educational purposes; for all other uses, please obtain permission from the Columbia University Libraries.

Index to the Collection of Mathematical Treasures from the David Eugene Smith and George Arthur Plimpton collections (alphabetical by author)

Index to the Convergence Collection of Mathematical Treasures


Frank J. Swetz and Victor J. Katz, "Mathematical Treasures - The George Arthur Plimpton Collection," Loci (January 2011)


Mathematical Treasures from the Smith and Plimpton Collections at Columbia University