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Mathematical Treasures - The George Arthur Plimpton Collection

Frank J. Swetz and Victor J. Katz


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, 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 (1900-1600BCE) 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.